Tourism Minister: Nicaragua is not the ‘New Costa Rica’

Mario Salinas says it’s time to cut the imaginary umbilical cord with Costa Rica and show the world how “unique and original” Nicaragua really is

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.

"Los Hungaros", a traditional folkloric dance in Nicaragua. One of the country's many unique cultural attractions (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“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.

Minister Salinas warns Nicaragua must not kill its golden goose (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.”



  • Matt

    Kudos to the Minister and his marketing team in North America. Very good work. I do believe him and think that we can attract 2 million visitors but we need more hotels and resorts and more attractions for these tourists.

    • Laura

      My friends in the US tell me that they have been seeing Nicaragua tourism promotions often in the US so INTUR is doing a good job.

  • Mahmoud

    I think a bowling alley would really help out, with disco bowling on Fridays. Everybody wins!

    • What

      A bowling alley? How many US tourists come to Central America to go bowling? What Nicaragua needs are more luxury hotels and resorts not bowling alleys.

  • Kelvin Marshall

    Bravo Don Mario! Well said on the “Lets not be the next anything”.

  • Kelvin Marshall

    What, Why are you only thinking US tourists?
    62% of the one million plus annual tourists come from Central America.
    That’s 620,000 tourists against the 250,000 from the US.

    • OEstrada

      Kelvin, and most are Nicaraguans like me living in the US and vacationing in our country. I’m down there 4 to 6 times a year spending a heck of a lot more than Minister Salinas says the country needs from tourists.

      • George

        Most Central Americans visiting Nicaragua are here for work and do not spend much money and do not stay in hotels which drives the average amount of spend down. While Americans stay in hotels and spend money.

  • Gerd

    Nicaragua wants to attract tourism with …

    … pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures, pastures and cows everywhere.

    … contaminaton of all water resources by poison, by trash and by poisonous  trash (all criques, all arroyos, all canyons, all rivers, all lakes, all lagoons, both oceans).

    … poisoning of food: no consideration of exclusion times after spraying toxic chemicals on plants or feeding of antibiotics and growth hormones to cattle and chicken, no functioning supervision and control of local meat and butchery activities, overdoses of agrochemicals in vegetables and fruits, added chlorine and even “formalina” in cheese and milk, spraying of food (cheese during transport, or restaurant dishes and tables) against flies with Baygon and similar stuff; sale of produce which does not make it through US fitosanitary and health controls.

    … assaults, robbery, theft: being “the safest” in Central America is a question of different levels, but does not mean absence of crime, at the contrary; many “no go”-zones, many places where “don’t go there at night” etc.


    Of course, there are luxury places with all the armed guardsmen to protect the 500 USD-a-day tourists. But from a Mother Earth defending government in favour of “the poor” (or even identical with them: el pueblo presidente), one should expect more than just try to attract people who spend more than 100 bucks a day.

    Moreover “da pena” (causes shame?), to see this “unique” tourism and “unique” traditions etc.: It is so obviously pure “money making”, even the dumbest tourist should notice it. When the big ships come to San Juan del Sur, mayors and other officials the first thing they do is saying “Thank you so much, because you tourists are coming to alleviate our poverty” (instead of showing real hospitality, real culture, real attractions, not setups for the gringos … The main reason to go on vacation is not doing charity.

    • Mario

      I see that you have a problem with Nicaragua, just stay away, and keep your comments to yourself.

    • Mahmoud

      Lets not be so light-hearted and positive. I mean, hey, Im all for being optimisitic, Gerd, but there is also a downside here.

    • Emilio

      You’re obviously Costa Rican…

  • Terence

    Yes it is time for NIcaragua to shine on it’s own by understanding and developing new tourism opportunities and attracting visitors from other countries. I did not see you mention Canada, we get cold up here! Anyway, I believe you country has far more to offer and can attract far more people with, ouside the box creative thinking.


    • George

      The creative thinking in North America has been very good. My sister entered the facebook sweepstakes and told her friends and thought the new American website was first class.

  • jimmycoffee

    Hmmmmm…….very questionable logic at play here. “We need to bring some more tourists here, and get them to spend lots of money in a cheap country. i.e. rip them off at every over-rated opportunity just like Costa Rica does”.
    No thanks…..I think I´ll take my holidays in Asia.

  • http://facebook ed jones

    If more airlines serviced Managua, It would be easier to fly into Managua. I usually fly into San Jose because the lack of air carriers to Managua.

    • Martin

      It looks like there will be a new International Airport in Rivas ang the coast soon. No more long treks from Managua or Liberia.

  • Ken

    I really hope this campaign succeeds, just have my doubts. The gringos from Costa Rica have been increasingly pushing north, attracted by what they believe is the same lifestyle at lower prices, and as long as they do I’m afraid they will set the tone. Heck, I live in Costa Rica, and can’t go to Grenada without bumping into gringos I know from Costa Rica. I don’t think advertising is going to be enough to prevent the melding of the two tourist cultures, though other policies might. It’s also important, since gringo tourism in Costa Rica is destructive in many ways and Nicaragua needs to do better.

  • Sandra

    What Nicaragua needs is more luxury all inclusive hotels and resorts with affordable packgages, this will attract more tourist to Nicaragua, also better security for the safety of the tourist not be ripped off by taxi drivers, and street vendors.
    Better transportation to get around and enjoy the beauty of the country by investing in buses so the tourist don`t have to ride the chicken bus and be able to get around in a more safer enviroment and spend more dollars.

  • gotothebeach

    I tell people it’s the next Hawaii.

  • Robert

    We discovered Nicaragua a year ago and bought a vacation home. We have visited eight times since then and love the country… However, during 4 of the 8 visits we were stopped by the Masaya Police with trumped up traffic violation charges. We obey the speed limits to the point that local traffic is very annoyed by our slow pace. Meanwhile other traffic illegally crosses the center line at outrageous speed, makes dangerous passes and drives so reckless that they make a New York cab driver look like an old lady. Each time the police were looking for money. One time they asked for $20 and the next time $40, then $50 and finally $100. If the money were going to the town I would not feel so badly, but I am convinced that it is going directly into the policeman’s pocket. It has gotten so bad that we now are afraid to rent a car or drive around, which tends to limit what we spend. Good for us, bad for Nicaragua. This is the type of thing that will keep the tourists away. Nicaragua already has a reputation of being a lawless, gun slinging, revolutionary frontier by many Americans. Let’s not allow the police to promote that myth.

    • carol

      Not sure where you bought property but we always take a shuttle from Managua to San Juan Del Sur and rent a car there. We have been going down there since 2005 and built out home in 2008. We’ve been stopped 1 time (we use to rent a car in Managua and drive) and they let us go without a citation. Maybe we’ve been super lucky. Try to minimize the potential by doing the shuttle thing if you can.

    • Baker

      We always rent and drive ourselves when we travel. One sure way to prevent paying traffic bribes to the local police (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico or anywhere) is not to pay them. Change your gringo mindset and behavior. They stop you and ask for money because the fools before you paid. Learned behavior. Last year I got stopped at least 4 times during our travels. Each time it was legit or somewhat legit (u-turn, drifting over the painted island, etc. Small stuff, but technically legit. Drivers license was taken, then the game begins. Never ever have been asked to pay a specific “fine” (except in Cost Rica), but that’s where the conversation is headed. I just politely apologize, tell them I was unaware of what I did, then tell them to issue the ticket if I’ve done something wrong. I stick with this. Write the ticket and I’ll go pay it. I have never been issued a ticket. Sometimes the game goes on for awhile, I’m sure they want me to be scared and offer a bribe. Don’t, you don’t bribe the police in your home country, so don’t do it here either.

  • Sandra

    I agree with Robert, the police asking for money they make up the traffic violation charges for their personal gain this is something that need to be stopped, not to mention the reckless driving no signal lights and the illegal crossing of the centre line

  • http://nope Jonston

    Tourism is on the rise and if you collect the available tourism data and dissect it you will find that foreigners from the USA, Canada and Europe are increasing. The central American tourists are diluting this statistical picture – Spend less per day and come for short holidays. But the growing market is a quality market that will spend more and stay for a 1-2weeks. INTUR keeps contributing to this but they need to keep on targeting their marketing campaigns appropriately.

    Now the country needs to provide better quality lodging (B&B’s, all-in resorts, family stays, ecolodges, traditional hotels etc), continue with infrastructure and energy improvements and solve the trash problems created by everyone.

    The police is actually quite “honest” compared to all other central american countries. I live in Nicaragua and the police only stops me when I really made a mistake. It helps a lot to speak English and stay humble and respectful. By the way, you never pay the police directly money. The way it works is that you hand over your driving license and then you will need to pick it up after paying your fine at the police station. If you pay the police guy who pulled you over then you get to keep the driving license and just move on. Call it the “express service” aka corruption… You are happy (no time to waste, not willing to hand over your driving license, fraction of the real cost) and the police guy is happy. Win-Win! Obviously with major incidents things get more formal and complicated! So I actually find the police very helpful and human.

    I agree that tourist are always an easy target. Especially driving rental cars…this hints the police to try their luck. Let’s not forget that this paradise is the poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti. Different realities and priorities but the people and the country are beautiful, respectful, original and unique.

  • George

    Gerd, I have been coming to Nica since ’87 and living in this god for saken country since 2007 and I totaly agree. tourists should be warned to stay away. thank-you!!!

    • Emilio

      I’ve you’ve been coming since ’87 and living there since 2007, then something keeps you returning and it must not be all that God-forsaken..just sayin’

  • George

    but I have to bust my ass in Canada for 4 months every year to chill in Nica!

  • Mario H

    If you are going on vacation to another country to do what you do at home, what’s the point in going there? If you want to go to a resort an be isolated from the country and its people… whats the point in going there?
    Very narrow minded people who travel abroad to “feel like at home”
    What is the value of the cultural experience of a trip if you want a secluded hotel? And then these people go out and look at the peasants from above, from the window of their tour bus, with arrogance, like if the outside people on the streets are monkeys in a zoo… for their ignorance and petty tourist satisfaction.

    Tourism should be promoted for the eco-friendly people, for those who look for real adventure and will not harm the environment of another country and treating the people of other cultures with respect, not trying to kill the nature of a place imposing their culture (Mac Donalds) and expect others to be subservient of their need for comfort.

    • Carolina

      Mario H is right on point! I could not agree more! How could you possibly get to know Nicaragua or any other country for that matter from the inside of a tour bus. What’s the point of having the same experience as if you were at home?

  • Alex

    Mario H has a point in that tourism needs to be promoted. Nicaragua just started promoting tourism a few months ago and people are now booking their vacations to Nicaragua. Ecofriendly is important but to market is more important. My family lives in Florida and is proud to see people tallking about going to Nicaragua.

  • Justin

    Nicaragua! I’m going for the first time this Sunday! I’m coming from San Francisco to surf the breaks of Popoyo via two brothers surf resort. I would like to bring school or medical supplies for the local community. Please can anyone help me get a perspective on what would be most useful and where to take it. I will be limited to the area semi-close to Popoyo but also near Managua because that’s where I’m flying into. I will be able to bring one or two extra bags on my flight. Thanks for any help on insight you may be able to give!

    • Mario H

      Very thoughtful of you. Now, remember that the custom agent at the gate may not be to sympathetic what what you bring. Maybe school supplies will be better than medicine. Somebody may thing you are helping a guerrilla group .. remember. “Dorothy… you will not be in Kansas anymore!”
      If you donate school supplies I would suggest to give it to a teacher at a public school. Good luck.

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  • Josie

    You couldn’t pay me to even visit this country after what happened to Eric Volt’s!!! I will continue to visit other central american country’s Panama, costa rica, Belize but I will never go to Nicaragua after the way they treated one of my fellow Americans.

    • john tansey

      I live here in Nicaragua and have great respect for the Nicaraguan people and culture. However, I am deeply concerned by the way the National Police (most of whom are very decent, honest people trying to do a good job with extremely limited resources) in Granada have handled the Hotel Joluva case. This case will have a seriously negative impact on Nicaraguan tourism—at least tourism from the gay, lesbian Bi, transgender communities throughout the world). The fact that two honest foreign businessmen living and working in Granada have been charged and convicted in a completely dishonest and corrupt action against them will definitely have an economic impact on Nicaragua—as it should. The GLBT travel community is close knit and often has more disposable income—perfect for what Nicaragua aims to accomplish. It’s too bad that ignorant myths and stereotypes continue to shape how the general public thinks about the GLBT community. This outrageous police action will prove to be a serious loss for Nicaragua and I hope that Minister Mario Salinas will take notice of this situation and speak out against this injustice.

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  • Kelvin

    Mr. Tansey, give it up already!

    Why is it that I knew your first sentence would be followed by a However or a But?

    You are slowly infecting all threads here with your Hotel Joluva defense.

    Your paragraph is really saying “I live here in Nicaragua and have great respect for the Nicaraguan people and culture, But, I want to change it”.

    Don’t like it, sell up and leave. Remember, something made you leave where you came from and something made you pick here.