To the south, Costa Rica is known for its ecotourism. Farther north, Guatemala beckons with Mayan treasures and indigenous cultures. Now, Nicaragua is making a name as a Central American travel destination, too, welcoming guests to its beaches, Spanish colonial cities and other attractions.
To the south, Costa Rica is known for its ecotourism. Farther north, Guatemala beckons with Mayan treasures and indigenous cultures.
Now, Nicaragua is making a name as a Central American travel destination, too, welcoming guests to its beaches, Spanish colonial cities and other attractions.
The number of international travelers to Nicaragua rose 17 percent last year to nearly 615,000, exceeding growth targets, as the New York state-sized nation boosted promotions, Tourism Minister Lucia Salazar said Tuesday at a media briefing in Miami.
The United States sent the most travelers: more than 137,000 last year, up nearly 13 percent from 2003, she said.
American Airlines is so upbeat on the burgeoning destination that it is switching to larger planes and will keep twice-a-day service from Miami year-round this year.
"We feel Nicaragua offers a tremendous opportunity to bring in tourists from all over the United States," said Keith Harrell, American's regional sales manager for Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands at the briefing.
Part of the lure for travelers is Nicaragua's relatively unspoiled character -- a byproduct of decades of civil conflict that ended in 1990.
"The fact that we didn't develop for about 25 years turns out to offer us an advantage, because we've conserved our environment and biodiversity," tourism chief Salazar said in an interview. "Some of the areas of our country with the most extreme poverty are the richest in terms of natural offerings."
Nicaragua as the poorest nation in Central America also is relatively inexpensive, enticing budget travelers as well as real estate investors and resort developers who see vast swaths of Caribbean oceanfront and offshore isles for the picking.
Veteran tour operator Hermine Taramona, vice president of Miami Springs-based Tara Tours Inc., said she saw the real estate fever when leading a recent familiarization trip for travel agents to Nicaragua.
"I've never seen so many go shopping for real estate in any country as they did on this trip. And they were looking for themselves," Taramona said at the briefing.
So far, hotel development remains limited, however. Nicaragua has roughly 4,600 hotel rooms today, with plans to double that number in five years.
But even doubling the count would mean less than half the rooms today in Costa Rica, Nicaragua's southern neighbor which has a far smaller land mass and shorter Caribbean coastline, executives said.
"Nicaragua remains still very misunderstood in financial circles, where memories of the 1970s and 1980s have not been eliminated. It's difficult for developers who need financing in Nicaragua to find traction," said Scott Berman, who runs the PricewaterhouseCoopers hospitality practice group in Miami.
Even so, Nicaragua is increasingly "on the radar, when it was absolutely not a player 10 years ago," Berman said.
Many travelers to the nation of 5.4 million people are attracted to Nicaragua's Spanish colonial cities: Granada, founded in 1524, and Leon, whose cathedral begun in 1746 is said to be the largest in Central America. Hikers and sightseers also enjoy the country's chain of volcanoes.
Helping lead the tourism push and economic development efforts are a cadre of Nicaraguans including Salazar, who lived, studied and worked in the United States during their country's civil strife. The 38-year-old executive studied at what is now Miami-Dade College and graduated from Florida International University before opting 11 years ago to return with her husband and three children to "rebuild our homeland."
Nicaragua's tourism growth underscores a boom in travel to Central America as a whole. The seven nations from Belize to Panama reported almost 6 million international visitors last year, up from 4.9 million in 2003.
The small, developing countries are pooling resources for joint promotions in Europe and elsewhere. Their tourism ministers also meet regularly to coordinate efforts, Salazar said.
"Each of us has limited budgets," she said. "Together, we can accomplish more."
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News