In a land of poets and peasants, Nicaragua has its fair share of woolgatherers and workers. The same is true for its government.
Some officials are daydreamers who paint lofty castles in the air, but are hopeless when it comes to developing action plans or making ideas work. Others are pen-pushers who perform repetitive daily tasks without lifting their noses from their paperwork long enough to indulge in fancy or ask, “What if…?”
Then there is Tourism Minister Mario Salinas, a visionary who knows how to get stuff done.
As an architect educated in Italy, Salinas is in the business of visualizing grand things that don’t exist, and then figuring out a way to build them. His development company, Grupo Sooner, has built seven urban development projects in Nicaragua, totaling more than $150 million over the past 20 years. He even managed construction on the ambitious $30 million Montelimar tourism complex—the first Sandinista government’s main offering to wartime tourism in the 1980s.
“As an architect, I have been trained to imagine things in my head that later become a reality,” Salinas told me in February 2007, a month after being named executive director of the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR). “This is the training I bring to INTUR. This is my machete, as we say in Nicaragua.”
Five years later, Salinas—promoted from executive director to minister—is ready to continue at the helm of INTUR for another term under President Daniel Ortega. And after five years of leading Nicaragua’s tourism industry to record-setting levels of growth and investment, Salinas’ machete is as sharp as ever.
When Salinas took the tourism reins in 2007, Nicaragua’s tourism industry had just finished a record-setting year with 773,000 visitors and $239 million in revenue. Still, there was concern that the return of President Ortega would hurt Nicaragua’s nascent tourism sector and and scare away the gringo visitors.
Under Salinas’ watch, that backwards slide never happened. Tourism continues to grow and reaffirm its staying power as Nicaragua’s leading cash cow.
In fact, Nicaragua’s image as an up-and-coming tourism spot appears to be in its finest hour—and the numbers prove it. Nicaragua was visited by 1,040,000 tourists in 2011 and generated nearly $390 million in tourism revenue. Tourism growth is expected to grow another 6-8% this year, Salinas predicts.
Even more encouraging is the fact that the average length of stay in the country has nearly doubled since 2007, indicating that international travelers now view Nicaragua as a tourism destination rather than just part of a long and hot bus ride between Costa Rica and Guatemala.
In the past five years, Salinas has more than doubled INTUR’s promotional budget and negotiated $60 million in tourism-development aid from Sweden, Luxemburg, the EU and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
And that’s just the beginning. Nicaragua is working with the IDB on a new project that will make tourism—along with agriculture and energy—one of the official pillars for Nicaragua’s development strategy. That would provide even more financing for tourism-development in the years to come.
“In 2007, we didn’t have a single dollar for tourism development,” Salinas told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview. “Now we have $60 million and by the end of next five years we could have $120 million. That’s money that will be used to improve infrastructure, recover and restore historical buildings, such as the old Granada Hospital and the Cathedral in León, and promote our patrimony. This level of investment in tourism has never been seen before in Nicaragua.”
Salinas says that tourism is helping to stitch together the country by bringing infrastructure and integral development to rural corners of Nicaragua. New international airports are scheduled to open this year on Ometepe Island and in San Juan del Norte, and plans are in motion to improve the port in San Juan del Sur and continue forward on the long-promised Costanera highway, which will link Nicaragua’s southern Pacific beaches to the Costa Rican border.
“Tourism development has to do with infrastructure, agriculture, country promotion, social development, human development, and cultural and historical preservation,” Salinas said. “This is the way to save our country while at the same time bring economic development, because what we want at the end of the day is for people to live well in Nicaragua, with better conditions for housing, health and education.”
A country that has it all
The country’s tourism slogan—“Nicaragua: Unique, Original”—is not just tautology, it’s repetition for emphasis in a country that has everything (and lacks nothing).
Even Nicaragua’s underdevelopment and troubled history of war and civil strife have become curiously unique competitive advantages in a global tourism industry where each country must distinguish its offering to pull tourists.
“Underdevelopment has its advantages,” Salinas said. “This is a small and very fragile country, but for historical reasons we have maintained the conditions that are not easy to find anywhere else in the world. If you go to the Caribbean you will find an incredible situation that you can’t find anywhere else in Central America. It is the like the first day of creation with nature that hasn’t been touched.”
That presents both an opportunity and a challenge, Salinas says.
“We can’t go in there and start to put in giant hotels and bring in big yachts because we will destroy this natural beauty,” the tourism minister says. “We have to talk with the people of those communities and support them to create little hotels that conserve the characteristics of the region. But this could start to happen along the Caribbean coast and give a new type of tourism alternative to the rest of the world.”
It’s that diversity that makes Nicaragua a tourism experience like none other, Salinas says. And tourism is helping Nicaraguans understand the importance of preserving their cultural diversity.
“If you go to the Caribbean and see a Garifuna dance, or if you see the Güegüense in Diriamba, you are seeing a cultural expression that is on par with the best in the world,” Salinas said. “But we have undervalued this forever.”
Tourism, he said, is showing Nicaraguans that familiar things people have always taken for granted have value.
“The goal is to develope and strengthen culture,” the minister said. “With tourism, we can present something that is truly unique to other cultures.”
Tourism can do the same for the environment, too.
“We are a country that received everything we need: fertile land, forests, rivers, lakes, volcanoes—and we have mistreated it all,” Salinas says. “For the past 300 years we have had the wrong attitude. So it’s important for us to change our mentality. Now it’s time for Nicaraguans to give something back to Nicaragua. And tourism helps us do that.”
The challenge, he said, is to continue to develop tourism in a way that is sustainable and respectful of the environment.
“The goal is to achieve development in Nicaragua but maintain all that Nicaragua has,” Salinas said. “People who develop tourism here need to help improve reforestation efforts and contribute to the cleanliness of country, so that we are increasingly friendlier with the environment. In this way, Nicaragua will grow with tourism and not use up all that it has. That’s the great challenge facing the government, civil society and the private sectors. We all have to be on the same page with this.”
If the country is able to continue growing its tourism industry in a way that is friendly to nature and respectful to cultural, Nicaragua will truly show the world what it means to be unique and original—as well as singular and peerless, for that matter.