MANAGUA—For the past 10 years, unimaginative travel writers, real estate developers and all types of Nica neophytes have been calling Nicaragua “the next Costa Rica.”
The hackneyed description is meant to be a comment on Nicaragua’s affordability and growth potential, and a compliment on its coming of age. But Tourism Minister Mario Salinas says it’s time to put that cornball comparison to rest.
“In lots of U.S. publications they talk about Nicaragua as the ‘New Costa Rica.’ But we don’t like that, because we think we have a diversity of offerings—a culture and a history—that Costa Rica never had,” Minister Salinas said during a recent talk to the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
Nicaragua is Nicaragua, he said.
Indeed, Nicaragua is a country whose tourism slogan promises a “unique and original” experience, not: “Nicaragua: we’re like Costa Rica was 10 years ago. Stick around!”
Salinas says, “Now is the moment to distinguish ourselves among the multitude; to sell ourselves as a destination and inform consumers in the U.S.” about all Nicaragua has to offer.
“We have to differentiate Nicaragua and show people why Nicaragua and not Costa Rica or Panama or South America or Brazil,” he said. “We have to present our offering and show what makes us unique and why a North American tourist should come to our country.”
Though Salinas’ job was rumored to be on the line last February, after he publically criticized the Prosecutor General’s rash handling of the Teonoste land dispute, the tourism minister is still on the job and focused on seizing the moment to promote Nicaragua tourism stronger than ever before.
“We have never had a better moment in the tourism sector to promote Nicaragua,” he stressed.
He says security issues in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are offering Nicaragua a chance to fill the vacuum as a near-shore destination for U.S. tourists who want all the culture, weather, natural beauty, and adventure of Latin America, yet without all the violence.
In that sense, Salinas says, Nicaragua wants to associate more with the prosperous southern half of Central America and less with the problematic northern half. But most importantly, he thinks Nicaragua needs to distinguish itself from the herd as a unique destination in the region.
Nicaragua is already starting to develop a reputation as an emerging destination in the region. In 2007, Nicaragua attracted fewer than 800,000 foreign tourists, representing 10% of Central America’s total tourism market. Nicaragua was the sixth most popular destination in Central America, ahead of only Belize and behind everyone else. Last year, Nicaragua attracted more than 1 million tourists, represented 13% of the Central America’s tourism market, and had moved up a rung to number five in the region, passing Honduras.
Extrapolating from the current trends, INTUR projects that by next year Nicaragua will move into third place in Central America, behind Costa Rica and Panama.
By 2020, Nicaragua hopes to have as many as 2.6 million foreign tourists a year, or 425% more tourists than visited the country in 2000.
Quality, not Quantity
In the numbers game of tourism growth, the number that matters most is how much tourists spend during their visit, not how many tourists enter the country.
In fact, for a country like Nicaragua, at some point tourism growth will become an issue of diminishing returns if the country gets “too crowded.” After all, a country of 6 million people can hardly aspire to attract 20 million foreign tourists each year.
The goal, therefore, is to start attracting tourists who stay longer and spend more, Salinas says.
Already, Nicaragua has increased its annual tourism revenue by an average of 15% each year since 2007. In that same period, the average tourist’s stay here has increased from 5 days to 8.3 days.
Still, the average tourist in Nicaragua spends only a fraction of what tourists spend in other tropical markets. Tourists here dole out an average of only $44.7 a day, less than half of what tourists spend in Costa Rica. (In that sense Nicaragua would like to be more like Costa Rica).
“We have to bring 2 million tourists here a year, but we need them to spend $100-$130 per day,” Salinas said. “That’s like having 5 million tourists that spend $50 a day. That has to be the goal, because it will help us preserve our nature, our culture our folklore, and our traditions—because that’s what we have to sell. And if we lose that, we have killed the golden goose.”