MANAGUA—Nicaragua is arguably the hottest tourism destination in Central America. And now it wants to go viral.
The Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) yesterday unveiled the country’s first official English-language webpage www.nicaraguatourism.us, plus a $3 million promotional campaign to boot.
The 2012 marketing effort, which will focus on North America, Latin America and Europe, will be the country’s most aggressive and coordinated outreach and image makeover to date.
INTUR’s belated foray into cyberspace was worth the wait. The attractive website is full of detailed information about lodging and travel in Nicaragua, and includes click-to-buy tourism packages from U.S. and other international tour operators.
The site also features a fully searchable database on all the hotels in the country, and will soon include its own booking engine to give visitors a one-stop shop to custom design and book their own Nicaragua trip, or sign up for a ready-made package offered by tour operators.
“Until now, there has not been a website in the U.S. where people can go to learn more about Nicaragua. Now all the info is there,” says Paul Cohen, president of Partner Concepts, the U.S. marketing firm handling Nicaragua’s new campaign. “Now we have a Nicaragua store, we have product in the store, and we are going to bring people into the store to start buying. We’re making it easy for them.”
The promotional campaign also includes an aggressive online advertising campaign and social media component through its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/visitnicaragua. INTUR hopes to get 100,000 “me gustas” on its Facebook page by raffling off free trips to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s fashionably late arrival to the World Wide Web is being celebrated in a country that’s used to better-late-than-never. Hoteliers say they are encouraged by the government’s marketing efforts and impressed with INTUR’s eagerness to partner with the private sector to promote the country like never before.
“This looks like the beginning to a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship,” says Matt Prezzano, guest services manager at Rancho Santana Vacation Rentals. “The rising tide lifts all boats.”
Tourism boosters hope the rising tide will also continue to lift Nicaragua on its continued climb through the ranks of Central American tourism destinations.
“In 2007, we had the fewest tourists in Central America, and now we are above Honduras and El Salvador and we’re closing in on Guatemala,” said Tourism Minister Mario Salinas, who unfortunately may also be hearing footsteps of a different kind.
While some of Nicaragua’s forward motion has come at the expense of other Central American countries’ backwards slide, it’s all positive gain for the land of lakes and volcanoes. In 2012, Nicaragua hopes to attract 1.12 million tourists and move up another notch in the Central American ranks.
“By the end of 2012, we should be in third place, behind Costa Rica and Panama,” Salinas said.
But before The Nica Kid gets its title shot against the heavy hitting Costa Rica, it needs to spend more time practicing its footwork around the speed bag.
Customer service and product quality are two issues the tourism sector needs to focus on to improve Nicaragua’s offering and prepare the country for continued growth, industry experts say.
Putting money where it counts
Rather than trying to force its politics into tourism by wasting promotional efforts on nonstarters such as Venezuela, Russia, Syria, Iran or South Ossetia, Nicaragua is wisely investing its limited resources in proven markets.
Of its $3 million investment promotion fund for 2012, Nicaragua has earmarked more than half—about $1.66 million—for promotion in North America, its single largest tourism market. Most of that money will be spent in the U.S. on a variety promotional campaigns, from a costly ad run in the NY Times to advertising at Major League Baseball games, including those of the New York Yankees (the true yanquis, enemigos de humanidad).
INTUR will also invest $528,000 in Central and South American markets, including Brazil—the world’s fastest growing tourism market. An additional $870,000 will be spent on advertising and promotional efforts in Europe.
Still, Minister Salinas, who has been instrumental in increasing the country’s tourism budget from nothing to something, says $3 million is not enough to pay for the country’s extreme image makeover.
“We need $2 million more,” he said.
Prepaid tourism debit cards coming
When it comes to domestic spending, INTUR is also teaming up with local Banco de Finanzas (BDF) to offer tourists (and everyone else who wants to pay to play) a prepaid Visa debit cards that will give people 5-20% discounts at participating tourism businesses.
In return, participating businesses will benefit from BDF’s new tourism promotion campaign, which will start next month.
The prepaid, rechargeable bank cards—an initiative that will be announced officially on March 15—will be made available to tourists at the airport and at all BDF branches throughout the country.
The Visa cards are based on a model of pre-paid cards already being used by tourists in Costa Rica and El Salvador. BDF claims the cards will offer tourists both savings and security while visiting Nicaragua.
Plus, it will allow BDF and INTUR to track how and where tourists are spending their money in Nicaragua.
Keep on marketing, baby
Despite Nicaragua’s penchant for political mischief and addlepated folly, the country has to keep up the work of marketing itself as a safe and attractive tourism destination, Cohen says.
The marketing expert, whose extensive portfolio of clients includes such far-flung lands as Mongolia, Namibia, Vietnam, Botswana, Papua New Guinea, Iceland and Greece (among dozens of others), says when times are tough, you have to market even harder. He notes that drug-ravaged Mexico has spent $60 million on U.S. advertising in the past six months alone.
“There are issues everywhere; every country has negative-image issues, so you need to focus on the positive and sell hard,” Cohen told a group of a dozen hoteliers gathered at INTUR for yesterday’s unveiling of the new promotional campaign and website. “I wouldn’t be that concerned about image.”
Minister Salinas is also optimistic—at least about the future of the country’s new promotional campaign.
“This plan is ambitious, but it’s feet-on-the-ground. We can do this,” Salinas said. “The goals are achievable and Nicaragua needs to do it. We can’t wait another 10 or 15 years, we have to it in five.”