BIG CORN ISLAND – With the subtlety of an invading army, a 130-member Italian production crew has stormed the beaches of Big Corn Island to film the seventh season of L’Isola dei Famosi (Island of the Famous), an Italian version of celebrity survivor.
The popular Italian reality TV show is being shot on the nearby Pearl Cays, a small cluster of remote islands three miles off Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean coast, where the 16 contestants are living primitively for the next 10 weeks.
The show premiered Feb. 24 with a three-hour live event that was viewed by some 4.2 million households in Italy, according to the program’s producer.
The program airs a one-hour live special each Wednesday night, plus daily broadcasts recapping each day’s adventures and contest results. L’Isola dei Famosi is scheduled to wrap May 5.
The production and film crew, meanwhile, has set up base in a series of hotels and rented homes on BigCornIsland, to the delight of local cigarette vendors.
The show, modeled after the hit U.S. TV series “Survivor,” pits 10 celebrity contestants against six non-celebrity contestants in a series of physical challenges and team relay races. Two of the more famous Italian celebrities on this year’s program are actress Sandra Milo and writer Aldo Busi.
Each week, the weakest contestant is voted off the island. Celebrity chef Simone Rugiati was the first to be sent back to his day job last week.
The show is hosted by Italian TV actor and model Rossano Rubicondi, perhaps best known in the United States for being Ivana Trump’s muscular trophy husband during her short-lived fourth marriage. The 61- year-old Trump reportedly ended her marriage to he 33-year-old Rubicondi after the later was caught in a televised affair during last season’s Island of the Famous filmed in Honduras, according to U.S. tabloid reports.
“This is one of the most popular reality shows in Italy; there are 5-6 million viewers each season,” Rubicondi told The Nica Times this week, in between cigarettes.
Rubicondi said he thinks the production of the show on BigCornIsland will have a “positive impact on the local economy,” noting that the Italian crew will be staying in hotels, eating at local restaurants and employing local transportation for two months. Plus, he added, the show will help to raise the profiles of Nicaragua and the CornIslands back in Italy.
“People can see Nicaragua from their sofas,” he said, while admitting that he didn’t know anything about this country before arriving here last month.
Tourism Minister Mario Salinas told The Nica Times this week that L’Isola dei Famosi will “undoubtedly” give the CornIslands and Nicaragua an “extraordinary visibility in Italy – like never before.”
The minister said the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) is launching a simultaneous publicity campaign in Italy and working closely with Italian tour operators to develop special packages and offers to meet the anticipated increase in demand from tourists interested in visiting here after watching the show for the next two months.
INTUR has already programmed a special expo in Milan and Florence next May to showcase Nicaraguan culture, art and dance. Minister Salinas said INTUR is also working with the airlines in attempt to bring new direct flights from Italy.
He noted that there is now a direct flight from Rome to Roatán, Honduras, as a “direct result” of the reality show being filmed there last year. He hopes the same will happen in Nicaragua, which could host the show for the next three years, if all goes according to plan.
Some 8,000 Italian tourists visit Nicaragua each year, “so we have all the room in the world for growth in that market,” the minister said.
In addition to the Italian program, Salinas said the famous U.S. TV show “Survivor” and the Spanish version “Superviviente” are also in the process of confirming Nicaragua as the site for their next shows.
The U.S. Survivor, currently in its 17th season, has had as many as 35 million viewers watching the final episode in past years. “These shows will have a very important [promotional] effect for the country in the U.S. and European markets,” Salinas said.
Island of the Famous or Infamous?
While INTUR hopes Nicaragua’s reality-TV boom will help raise the country’s profile as a tourism destination in other parts of the world, the show has already raised Italy’s profile on Big Corn, where the film crew can be seen tearing around the small island in pickup trucks and speaking loudly in restaurants.
Some islanders seem to think “The Italians” – as they’re collectively known here on Big Corn – are more of a bother than a benefit.
“They are so cheap, they want everything for free,” said Ena Kandler, of Corn Island Car Rental.
Kandler said the production crew tried to convince her to lend them golf carts for free. “I told them, ‘These are the prices. We are running a business here’.” She said the production crew refused to pay the rental company’s listed prices, so she asked them to leave.
“That’s not much help to the economy,” she said.
Even some of the businesses who have signed a contract with the Italian film crew don’t seem too thrilled about how it’s working out so far.
“They’re disrespectful and they want everything for free,” said one local hotel administrator, who spoke under the condition of confidentiality due to her hotel’s contract with the Italians.
She said the Italian production team was given a series of tax incentives to come to the island and now seem to expect similar treatment from other local businesses.
The Italians, however, appear to be having a good time.
So much so, in fact, that host Rubicondi said after being on the island for a month he has already talked several of his friends into coming to visit – and is currently trying to negotiate a discounted hotel rate for them. Though his hosting gig wraps in May, the Italian heartthrob is already looking forward to his next celebrity projects.
“I might be a contestant on the next Dancing with the Stars,” he said. “And I recently recorded a love song that comes out in May. It’s very nice.”