The government of Nicaragua and representatives of the Spanish hotel chain Grupo Barceló announced on Wednesday a joint venture to build a tourism airport at the Hotel Barceló Montelimar, in the central Pacific municipality of San Rafael del Sur.
The tourism airstrip—the first that will build on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast—will be 75% owned by the government and 25% owned by Grupo Barceló, which operates two hotels in Nicaragua.
Tourism Minister Mario Salinas said the new airport will mean more tourists and possibly more international flight connections.
“With this new airport tourists can arrive directly, not only from within Nicaragua, but also on direct flights from other Central American countries, from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala or Panama,” Salinas said, according to official media.
Nicaragua’s polemic attorney general also celebrated the agreement.
“The new airport will help tourism and help development in the Pacific coastal zone of our country,” said Hernán Estrada, who signed the accord on behalf of the government. “This will contribute to everything we have been doing in the past years, which is promote tourism and investment and promote judicial security for private businesses and also for the state of Nicaragua.”
A negotiated settlement?
Estrada’s generous assessment of his job performance promoting tourism and judicial security in Nicaragua might not be shared by all foreign investors who have dealt with his office.
Indeed, just four years ago Grupo Barceló claimed it was being “harassed” by the attorney general’s office after Estrada put a lien on the all-inclusive resort, claiming that the Spanish hotel company was in arrears with the Nicaraguan government for not paying in full for the property.
The original hotel facility, located on a sprawling beach property confiscated from the Somoza family during the revolution, was built by the Sandinista government in the 1980s to provide a socialist beach getaway.
Three years after the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the property was sold to Grupo Barceló for $3 million. Fifteen years later, when the Sandinistas returned to power, they contested the 1993 sale, calling the price that was paid for the hotel “ridiculous.”
Estrada argued that the $3 million paid in 1993 was meant to be a down payment and the rest was to be paid with 10 annual installments from 1996 and 2006. At the very least, Estrada argued, the hotel owes Nicaragua $1 million in back taxes. President Daniel Ortega went so far as to threaten expropriation if the hotel didn’t pay up.
Grupo Barceló cried foul and claimed the Sandinistas were wrong on all counts. The Spanish hotel chain said the deal they made in 1993 was to buy the entire property for $3 million, a fair price, they said, for a war-torn country with no infrastructure or tourists to put in the rooms. In addition, Barceló’s lawyer, Tomas Delaney, argued that the hotel had paid more than $9 million in taxes since 1993. He said the hotel company didn’t owe the government anything else.
Delaney said in a 2008 press conference that Grupo Barceló felt like the Sandinista government was treating them “like delinquents.”
Now, the new joint venture to build an airport in San Rafael del Sur (presumably where Somoza’s old airstrip used to be) appears to have settled the dispute between the government and the hotel group.
“This is an important day because it puts an end to the differences, which were resolved in benefit of everyone,” said Spanish Ambassador León de la Torre Krais.