SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua – Separate but equally ambitious plans to build an international coastal road and a multimillion-dollar cruise ship terminal in San Juan del Sur promise to open the tap on the town’s tourism flow entering by land and by sea.
The two tourism infrastructure projects are expected to draw thousands more visitors each year and create conditions for millions of dollars more in investment. Though many hail the plans as a harbinger of progress and a sign that better days are ahead, others warn that San Juan must take calculated measures now to preserve its small-town Nicaragua feel, and avoid becoming, in the words of one local, another nondescript “Costa Rican Pacific-coast beach town” in the changing hands of foreign investors.
Randall Luis Granja, owner of the popular El Timón beachfront restaurant and spokesman for the local chapter of the small- and medium-sized tourism business chamber, CANTUR, notes that San Juan’s boom over the past decade has already changed the economic profile of the town. The once sleepy port town has become one of the country’s leading tourist destinations, and the tourism industry, providing an estimated 80 percent of the town’s employment, is increasingly controlled by foreigners, he said.
“Seven years ago, 70 percent of the businesses in town were in the hands of locals and 30 percent were owned by foreigners. Now those percentages are inverted,” he said.
Granja, whose family is a major beneficiary of San Juan’s development boom, is by no means against tourism, which he says has brought far more positives than negatives to town. In addition to employing some 4,000 people in town, tourism also offers people a better chance at social and economic mobility than the shipping and fishing industries that defined San Juan del Sur’s past.
“Now everyone wants to learn English; people want to learn more and are changing their perspectives,” Granja said. “Now there is more opportunity to improve people’s quality of life.”
However, he warned, that doesn’t mean tourism growth should be uncontrolled. “We have to do more to support cultural events so we don’t lose our identity,” he said.
Granja also worries that plans for massive investment in projects such as the recently announced cruise ship terminal could also bring more change than the town can handle. He wonders what will happen to the local economy if a new cruise ship terminal brings in dozens of new restaurants and gift shop concessions.
He also wonders when and if the government plans to consult the town about its plans and what security measures would be taken to potentially prevent locals from accessing the new terminal.
The government, Granja said, “just wants to do something they have seen in other parts of the world,” even if the cruise ship terminal isn’t necessarily a good fit for San Juan del Sur.
Gov’t Sells Its Plans Abroad
Building on its recent success luring cruise ships into Nicaraguan waters, the Sandinista government, in conjunction with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, recently announced negotiations for the cruise ship port in San Juan.
“The plan includes designing a new dock where passengers can disembark directly onto the port instead of being transferred from the cruise ship to the port by a local boat,” said Tourism Minister Mario Salinas in a March 27 press release. Without offering details about the cost of investment, which is expected to be determined by June, Salinas said the master plan focuses on redesigning the port’s facilities by including restaurants, souvenir stores and other attractions.
“This project will represent a very significant investment. The decision has been made to initiate the design of this development plan as soon as possible, which will probably transform the port into one of Central America’s most attractive sites,” Salinas said. “Since we are expecting an increase in cruise ships entering the country, we need to improve the infrastructure of our ports and the services they provide. We will start by improving the Corinto and San Juan del Sur ports. We will offer visitors a better variety of tourism packages and activities, which will give them an opportunity to choose where they want to eat and which sites to visit.”
According to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR), Nicaragua currently attracts about 60 cruises each season, October through May. That represents a 62 percent increase from 2007.
INTUR hopes to bump that number up to 100 in the next two years.
Another important infrastructure project is theCoastal Highway
, a project that has been stuck in bureaucratic purgatory for decades but is about to finally get under way.
Under the proven leadership of Eduardo Hollmann, who has spearheaded the coastal road project since stepping down as San Juan’s mayor in 2009, construction of the first five kilometers of roadway will start in May, thanks to $260,000 in funding provided by the World Bank.
Though that first stretch will represent only about one-eighth the length of the final coastal road, the important thing is to get the project started so people start believing it will happen and more funding can be secured, Hollmann said.
“If I have funding to build five kilometers, I’m going to build five kilometers. If I have funding to build 20, I’ll build 20,” Hollmann told The Nica Times. He added that the plan for the 36 kilometers of road stretching to the Costa Rican border is complete, so more can be built as soon as more money is raised.
He hopes the new border crossing will be finalized by the time the road makes it to Costa Rica.
The roadway, which will be a two-lane “tourist highway,” calls for parallel bike paths and pedestrian bridges. Hollmann said the idea is to convert the whole road into a tourism destination and not just a way to get people from point A to B.
He said he expects the benefits will be immediate for the communities within five kilometers south of San Juan del Sur, as locals begin to establish small roadside businesses to take advantage of the new vehicle and bicycle traffic exploring the new road and the beaches to the south.
While Hollmann said he expects the road, like the cruise ship port, will increase tourism and have an impact on the area, he said change and progress is not something to be feared.
“Nostalgia for the past is not economic,” he said. “Remembering the past fondly is nice, but we need economic development to create jobs.”