Daydreaming is a helpful exercise in visualizing a better future, but executing a plan is imperative to building a new Nicaragua, says Carlos Pellas, the country’s leading businessman.
Woolgathering, he says, is only helpful insofar as it leads to some sort of actionable ideas.
“Vision without action is a dream; action without vision is a waste of time, but vision and action together can change the world,” Pellas told an overflow crowd of Nicaraguan business leaders and well-heeled socialites who gathered Tuesday night in Managua for an award ceremony to decorate Pellas with the country’s top business honor, the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce’s Business Excellence Award. “We need to dream, but we also need to act.”
In Nicaragua, Pellas says, the hindrances to doing business are myriad and daunting, but it’s always been that way. Just ask the original “foreign developer,” Spanish explorer Francisco Hernández de Cordoba, who came here with big plans in 1524 but was decapitated by the locals after founding Granada and León (on second thought, don’t ask him).
Doing business in Nicaragua has become easier since then, but there’s never a perfect moment, Pellas says. Investors who wait for ideal circumstances to execute their business plans will quickly grow old and cynical, slipping into a vapid state of ennui with other fussy-pants naysayers who never accomplish much, Pellas said.
“The true businessman is never on a completely certain path,” Pellas said. The challenge, he says, is not to become paralyzed by all the snags, twists and encumbrances on the road ahead, but to get to it and then persevere.
That’s what Pellas is doing with his ambitious $250-million tourism project, Guacalito de la Isla, which is already causing international buzz even before its inauguration next January. Pellas, whose family business conglomerate controls 21 companies—everything from agriculture and healthcare, to rum, insurance, automobile imports and financial services—is focusing much of his attention on making Guacalito de la Isla his “legacy project.” When he talks about his coastal development, he does so with the irrepressible excitement and boyish giddiness of a little kid describing his favorite Christmas present.
“We’re doing something completely different, something the world will be talking about for years,” Pellas said.
Leap of Faith
Though some might find it curious that a billionaire with a midas touch would fret over the same investment concerns that nag mortal investors, Pellas says when he started Guacalito de la Isla in 2007, his ambitious plans to build a world-class spa and golf resort on the southern Pacific coast seemed risky—if not slightly loony—given the situation in Nicaragua.
“Go back in time six years to November 2006, when Comandante Daniel Ortega had just won the elections after 16 years out of power and there was a great uncertainty in the country about what was to come. No one knew if there would be a new agreement with the IMF, if we would continue with current economic model or go back to the ‘80s, or if they would respect the financial system or return to a scheme of interventionism,” Pellas said. “During this uncertainty, many of us remembered the crisis we lived though in the 1980s—the scarcity of products, the price-controls, the constant devaluations.”
The political and economic uncertainty of Ortega’s return to power, plus the Nicaragua’s normal pitfalls to doing business, made building a luxury spa and golf resort on an inaccessible beach seem as feasible as building castles in the sky.
“The zone was physically isolated and the (promise) of the coastal highway was just another project of many. The image of Nicaragua beyond its borders was that of a bellicose and unsafe country. The tourism infrastructure was nonexistent, and (the town of) Tola was the closest to civilization,” Pellas said.
On the upside, the property Pellas found—an undulating virgin forest lined with 200-year-old trees, cupped by white-sand beaches and kissed by Pacific breakers—is of such unutterable natural beauty that it makes all that other stuff seem like lesser issues.
Plus, Pellas said, he was encouraged—and perhaps challenged—by his own family’s history of pioneering new industry in Nicaragua. His great grandfather, Francisco Alfredo Pellas, must have faced even greater hurdles when he first came to Greytown from Italy in 1875 to start the Nicaragua Steamship Navigation Company at the age of 25, Pellas ruminated.
“When he came to do business here in the 19th century, the list of obstacles was even longer than what I faced with Guacalito,” Pellas said. “Not only did he not know the country, but he didn’t even know what it was like on this side of the world. And he left one of the most prosperous cities in the world at that time to move to a place that was known only for sickness and civil war.”
A helpful government
Despite initial reservations about the Sandinistas’ return to power, Pellas says the administration of President Daniel Ortega has been extremely helpful and welcoming to investment.
“The support of the government for the development of this project has been very important for us,” Pellas said. He says the government permits for Guacalito de la Isla have been “managed with efficiency and velocity,” helping the project finish its first phase within the six-year time frame and prepare its doors for opening in less than two months.
Pellas has not had the same experience in neighboring Costa Rica, where his Pellas Development Group is also working on a tourism project called the Santa Elena Preserve in Guanacaste.
“Just to give you an idea, (Guacalito) started at the same time as the project in Costa Rica, and in Costa Rica we still haven’t even been allowed to place the cornerstone,” Pellas said. “We keep requesting permit after permit and I think I going to die of old age waiting for permits. Meanwhile, here in Nicaragua, we are going to be inaugurating the spa and the golf course in a couple of months.”
Pellas said the Guacalito project will also be unmistakably Nicaraguan, from the Flor de Caña oak cask headboards on the beds to clientele itself.
“We didn’t want to have a project that’s only full of gringos; if you go to Four Seasons or Los Sueños in Costa Rica, you don’t see a single Tico—no one. And I didn’t want to do that, so we started a project called Friends and Family for Nicaraguans so that form the beginning there would be an integration of Nicaraguans and foreigners.”
Now is the time for Nicaragua
While there is never a perfect moment or circumstance to invest, Pellas says this is the closest Nicaragua has come so far.
Now is the time for Nicaragua to lose its training wheels and start to really gain some momentum as a world-class tourism spot, he says. And he hopes Guacalito de la Isla will provide “the spark to convert Nicaragua into a tourism destination.”
“Others already believe it will happen,” Pellas said, pointing to last Sunday’s New York Times feature on Nicaragua Rising. “Believe it; our hour has come.”