Central American Tour Operators
The world economy is on the skids. Visitor numbers are down all over. What’s a small country to do?
Think not just locally, but regionally, suggest a few experts in the tourism field.
In March, tourism ministers from the seven Central American countries approved a Strategic Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development for Central America. The four-year initiative will promote areas of regional cooperation, including volcanoes, nature,
colonial heritage and rural inns.
The plan will be effected under the auspices of the El Salvador-based Central American Tourism Council whose “Centroamérica, tan pequeña, tan grande” (Central America, So Small, So Grand) campaign has been used to market the region since 2003.
“Acting in this way, our countries can take advantage of economies of scale,” council marketing specialist Coralia Dreyfus told The Tico Times.
The council estimates tourism is a $5 billion annual industry in Central America. Dreyfus points out that, despite the worldwide tourism downturn, isthmus-wide visitor arrivals are up 18 percent in the past five years.
Costa Rica is nothing to sneeze at, but with two of Latin America’s foremost travel destinations just across either border – and several others in the neighborhood – a regional marketing strategy has proven successful for a few ahead-of-the-curve tour operators here.
A multicountry approach has historically been geared toward the European traveler, says María Elena Muñoz of Costa Rican Trails (www.costaricantrails.com).
“They travel long distances. They get longer vacations,” Muñoz suggests. “They probably won’t stay just in Costa Rica.”
Seventeen days is the average length of trip for clients of Ara Tours (www.aratours.com), says proprietor Daniel Küng, whose customer base is made up nearly entirely of Europeans. Three weeks is quite typical.
“We began getting requests to arrange excursions to neighboring countries years ago,” Muñoz explains. Her agency focused on Panama and Nicaragua – “Easy to get to from here,” she says – with informally arranged trips. Business expanded enough to be able to open a Panama Trails branch office in that country last year.
Ara Tours went a different route, forming in 1999 a consortium of tour operators called Latincoming (www.latincoming.com), all European-owned, with one each based in Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, as well as here.
Latincoming’s 18-day Central America Highlights Tour takes in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala and spotlights Maya culture and colonial cities – Costa Rica has neither – but also this country’s worldrenowned natural attractions.
Cuba and the Dominican Republic are popular beach destinations for European visitors to the Western Hemisphere, and a growing number are adding those island destinations onto a Costa Rican vacation, Küng says.
But not all is European in the multicountry tourism approach, emphasizes Lorena Vásquez of Swiss Travel (www.swisstravelcr.com). A growing number of North American visitors – they form the majority of Swiss Travel’s client base – are also combining neighboring countries with Costa Rica.
“These are people who may already know Costa Rica,” she says. “They’re looking for something new to add onto their trip here.”
Swiss Travel has partnered with longestablished Careli Tours, Nicaragua’s largest tour operator. As such, it is able to offer clients day trips to that country, mostly in southern Nicaragua.
Most of the Nicaragua interest comes from visitors to Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province, Vásquez says.
The Swiss-Careli partnership allows each operator to sell its own country, but to coordinate logistics of cross-border visits with each other.
The venture dates from 1992, long before anyone thought of Nicaragua as a true tourist destination. Tourism infrastructure in Nicaragua was nearly nonexistent then, but the Careli name worked for Swiss Travel.
“You want a good fit,” Vásquez advises anyone considering working with tour operators in other countries. “You should have similar standards and similar types of clients.”
Back to the traditional European focus of multicountry Central America, Ara Tours’ Küng agrees.
“The European traveler is looking for authentic, not just something created for show,” Küng says. “With one of us in each country, we can be in tune with those desires.”
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