Has Nicaragua gone mainstream?

Nicaragua’s tourism industry has gotten some mainstream press recently, but the country needs to define a clearer vision for the future to overcome the persistent tug of its past


After years of budding tourism growth, Nicaragua is suddenly coming into bloom as the new darling of the mainstream travel industry from New York to London.

In the past few months, Nicaragua has made U.S. News & World Report’s lists of top colonial retirement destinations and Best Overseas Retirement Options, was named the No. 1 “Emerging Destination” by Wanderlust Travel, and ranked No. 3 on the New York Times’ list of 46 places to visit this year.

It seems that if you’re going to make a Top 10 list of places to visit this year—something travel writers do with OCD regularity—you better put Nicaragua somewhere close to the top, preferably in the top three.

Travel writers, like most tourists, love Nicaragua. It has all the beauty, adventure, history, grit, affordability and sex-appeal that one would want in an up-and-coming vacation spot. It’s edgy but not dangerous; friendly but not phony; trendy but not mainstream. For travel writers, Nicaragua is a story that practically writes itself.

Why is it, then, that so many journalists seem to have a hard time writing about Nicaragua as an emerging travel destination without using trite caveats and tired references to the country’s problems of the past? Why is Nicaragua still better known for what it was than what it is?

Even The New York Times, the journalism industry’s newspaper of record, seems bewildered by the fact that Nicaragua is no longer the same country it was in the 1980s. In its write-up of Nicaragua for its list of countries to visit this year, the Times reports, “If the name Oliver North means anything to you, there’s a good chance that Nicaragua doesn’t jump to your mind when you think of a relaxing, high-end, spa-filled vacation.”

That’s sort of a cheap shot. It’s like saying, “If the name Jayson Blair means anything to you, there’s a good chance that New York Times doesn’t jump to your mind as a reliable source for travel lists.”

Wanderlust Travel was also unable to recognize Nicaragua for its merits as a travel destination without first mentioning the country’s troubled past. “Nicaragua might have had a turbulent past, but its travel-future is looking bright,” the British travel publication reported last month.

Despite nearly a decade of positive travel press, Nicaragua’s tourism industry still has a hard time standing on its own two feet. Even in mainstream travel stories, the country’s tourism industry still needs to be set up by a subordinate clause referring to revolutionary unrest from 30 years ago.

People’s expectations for Nicaragua are still based more on the events of the 1980s than the achievements of the past decade. No country in the world is without prior problems, but few other countries get the same treatment in the media.

Just compare the Times’ write-up of Nicaragua (“For the past 30 years, the country has been fighting its image as a land of guerrilla warfare and covert arms deals”) to its description of Ghana, which ranks fourth on its list: “Accra, the capital of Ghana, has welcomed business travelers for years.” If Ghana had gotten the “Nicaragua treatment,” the write-up would have read more like, “If you remember Ghana’s back-to-back military coups in 1979 and 1981, which led to the suspension of the country’s constitution and the collapse of the national economy, there’s a good chance that Accra doesn’t jump to your mind as a city that is welcoming to business travelers.”

Part of the media’s obsession with Nicaragua’s past is a problem of the country’s own making. Nicaragua’s president is the same guy who was in power 30 years ago, and he likes to harp on the past more than most people.

The constant reminders of Nicaragua’s past speaks to the failure of politicians to articulate a coherent new vision for the future and also the mainstream media’s failure to keep people informed about what’s going on in this part of the world. The last time the international media much paid attention to Nicaragua was during the war in the 1980s, so when journalists write about the country now they feel the need to pick up the old narrative thread before reporting on what’s changed since then.

While Nicaragua’s international image has been slow to move out from the shadow of its past, the good news is that tourism, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to accelerate the country’s image makeover and recast Nicaragua as a friendly and inviting place. But Nicaragua needs to do more to articulate a vision for the future of its tourism industry and shape policies to guide that growth.

Nicaragua has all the natural ingredients its needs to become a world-class tourism destination, but the country is making Top 10 lists for the editoral shock value of a country that exceeds people’s low expectations. That was fine for a while, but it’s not enough to grow on. It’s time for Nicaragua to evolve into a tourism destination that can be written about without mention of Oliver North.

Once Nicaragua can articulate a clearer vision for its future—one in which tourism will play a leading role—the rest of the world will start to see Nicaragua more clearly for what it is and what it aspires to be, and not for what it once was.

Nicaragua may never be known as a mainstream travel destination, but tourism–if done correctly– can at least help it move beyond its old reputation as a war-torn backwater.


  • Leona

    I moved here a few years ago from Texas to be with my boyfriend and am still baffled by all of the press touting Nicaragua as the next paradise. Where are they staying? I see garbage, poverty and bad roads. Where are all the five star hotels? I live in Granada and have yet to see a Ritz Carlton, Mariott or even a Club Med. I hear about Mukol but that is a private resort.

    • sayayuca

      Private as opposed to what?

    • Scott

      to Leona – be more positive about the country that you apparently now call home! if it is that bad, maybe you’re best to head back to Texas with problems of their own

      • Nicaraguan

        Scott, your comment is a typical, and weak, reply used by those who cannot come up with a real argument against what is said. The truth is the truth. This is my native country. That does not mean I should look at it through the proverbial “rose-colored glasses.” I was born here but was fortunate to receive my formal education educated elsewhere (no, not in the USA). Should I also leave if I don’t like everything I see? Or should I stay, express my opinion and do my small part to improve my country? These are rhetorical questions. Of course I should stay.

    • rt

      yes, nicaragua has too much garbage, poverty, and poor infrastructure. but nicaragua’s charm does not center on glitzy 5 star hotels…considering you live in granada you should know best: a beautiful colonial town with rustic and authentic hotels (La Gran Francia), warm people that will openly invite you to a drink or a dance, a beautiful lake just a few minutes away, incredible food (try the Guapote or local fried fish), and relative peace of mind that you could not get in most other central american countries. you’re in the wrong frame of mind and probably wont appreciate what you have unless you change it.

      • Gerardus Dirks

        I really hope that Nicaragua will not change to what we see in many tourist places, that it stays what it is……. “Nicaragua”

      • Nicaraguan

        To see reality does not mean one is in “the wrong frame of mind”

    • Nica

      To Leona, I do totally agree with Scott, if Nicaragua is so bad why don’t you go back to TX or is it because the only place you can afford to live with your boyfriend for a few dollars is Nicaragua? The funny thing about your comment is that you said you have lived there for “years” now , so my question to you is what’s holding you? I bet you are living in a beautiful colonial house that you couldn’t even afford any other place in the world, taking advantage of the our people, our food, our traditions and instead of complaining get a “saco” a “escoba” and help cleaning up the streets. Here is an idea teach others to be cleaner, DO don’t TALK.

  • Theo

    I agree with the comment about list OCD. Everyone has a top ten list and tit seems that the writers have run out of countries to write about and now Nicaragua is the only one left. The politicians need to step up and change the image. All talk about the ingredients but where are the chefs?

  • Leona

    My sister came to visit and was stopped by police for no reason, harassed is San Juan del Sur and saw plenty of tourists looking for sex in Granada. How come the journalists didn’t get that treatment?

  • Carla Chamorro

    I hope they don’t give out the secret and keep Nica for the few, the very few.

  • jimmycoffee

    I can’t think of a single example in the developing world where Tourism has been done correctly. What may start out as expensive spas and holistic culturally-sensitive retreats, quickly stampedes with the incoming dollars (and mass tourism) into burger joints KFCand walmarts. Quite why everyone thinks that this will be Nicaragua’s saving grace is beyond me. A service economy produces only servants, and badly paid ones at that.

  • http://penalba.wordpress.com Rodrigo Peñalba

    This reminds the time we caught Hasenfus #Living80s 😀

  • rt

    i agree that nicaragua has failed to frame its vision and potential in a coherent way, and as a result it is often difficult to write something that truly captures the raw awesomeness of nicaragua. but there is a reason: an ineffectual and anachronistic government that is only interested in perpetuating its power and not much else. just go to neighboring costa rica and you’ll understand what a coherent approach to tourism looks like.

    nicaragua has much to offer, but it remain to be seen if the leaders of the country have the will to realize that potential.

  • http://opwr.org Indio Jones

    [name of country] isn’t perfect politically or economically, but has wonderful sites, pleasurable activities, and room for improvement. Be diligent, enjoy what you do, and make a difference.

  • Ken

    I dunno, this is what journalists do. They first go to the clippings file, then maybe make a few phone calls and speak with “informed sources” (usually the bartenders at the nicest hotels their expense accounts will cover and the cab drivers who bring them there from the airport).

    If you don’t like the outcome for Nicaragua, wait till your obituary is published. It will be the same clippings file rot. You’d be wise to issue a press release the day before you die to try to tweak the obituary, but I doubt it would help much.

    I’d be happy if we could get these lazy bums just to stop making their top ten lists. My God, some even quantify them.

    I agree with your point and think it was well made, just doubt anything will change.

  • Leona

    Why does the government keep pushing Guacalito and Mukol?? Is this the only resort in the country?

    • Nicaraguan

      Money talks…an old saying but still very true.

  • Gerardus Dirks

    Nicaragua is the next destination and it is more beautiful and has more history and nature then surrounding countries.
    The infrastructure is better then the surrounding countries and with 54% alternative energy sources it is an example for the western world.
    Who can not adept to other culture, other rules and regulations should stay their where they feel well and secure. Nicaragua is more safe then any other country is the Americas and only comparable on that level with Canada.. Indeed it is in development and we need urgently 4-5 star hotels because many like to come and Nicaragua has only a few higher end level hotels but I hope we do not have Marriots etc but a style that fits this country, like Mukol resort.

  • valerie

    Leona, please shut up and go back to Texas since it is so much better over there. Like many others have said I’m sure you live in a beautiful home (sorry house) in Granada with maids to hand you everything. It’s Americans like you that give others a bad name. I have lived in Managua for several years and yes its not perfect but I call it home. Every country has its flaws including the the great USA. I appreciate Nicaragua for what it has. Also it you want a cleaner city try involving yourself to clean instead of asking juancito or Juanita.

    • Nicaraguan

      Rudeness like yours should be censored. Leona is allowed to to express her opinion…and no, I do not know her. Just defending her right to say what she wants. At least she doesn’t stoop to insulting others here. With respect, maybe yous should think about leave. We don’t need rude, foreign people here in my country.

  • http://www.mariposaspanishschool.com Paulette Goudge

    Actually war, covert arms deals and Oliver North were all products of the United States (backed by my country of origin, the UK, of course) NOT of Nicaragua. They should be used as reasons not to go there! Oh and CIA led drug running could also be mentioned!

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  • Jim

    I absolutely agree with Jimmie Coffee. Mass tourism is a lousy industry. Most of the money goes right back to the multinational corporations. What it creates is not a productive economy but a price-inflated one as the Gringos descend, and thus a parasitical and greedy one along with legions of bartenders, cleaning maids, bell boys, waiters, cab drivers, “night spots” and table dancers, and eventually drugs and casinos, and last but certainly not least, the despicable and always self-rightreous “developers,” and therefore miles of cement. It’s just easy money for crooked politicians in cahoots with the local elite all partnering with the multinationals and looting the country and maintaining an unhealthy division economically. Not good. Almost all bad. Tourism can be a small and well regulated part of a country’s economy and still not be a devouring reality, but as soon as it gets the bit in its jaws it spells the end. Just look at Cancun and the Costa Maya, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, the Costa Brava in Spain, and on and on all of them towards cultural and environmental destitution.

  • http://www.cigarsafari.com Jonathan Drew

    As a person who has lived in both Nicaragua and the United States since 1998, it brings me great happiness and sadness to read this article and the COMMENT section.

    First, the Nicaraguan Dispatch Article/Editorial – The article makes a point that Nica needs to articulate a clearer VISION for the future. While the vision here for Nica tourism and business does reach out to the world, the effort that has brought us to this point needs to be capped off right now – with a big bang – and I firmly believe that we are almost there.

    I think that the new resort of Mukul is definitely another step in the right direction toward attaining that VISION. Carlos Pellas, the government and private business (both big and small, such as the banks and private businessmen and woman) seem to be leading this charge, so I foresee organic growth continuing to drive the tourism and business sector. The safety factor of the country will be the decisive factor that allows so many new small businesses and large to continue to invest.

    Nica tourism and business is here to stay – with a great future that will certainly blow past Oliver North and the pain that so many people have had to endure in the area. Education will continue to improve here as well, and help in the advancement of the communities and culture without all the exploitation. I am very excited about Nicaragua and continue to invest here, from our tobacco biz to new land ventures in the north and possibly toward the beach areas.

    The COMMENT Section. Everyone jumped all over Leona for making some negative points. I don’t think that this was fair. I absolutely love how Pro Nicaragua everyone was in the comment section, believe me, as my friends call me Mr Nicaragua and I believe that the center of the universe is Esteli.

    However, Leona makes some points that we all need to work on here as a community. I would love to help create and invest into a Pollution Awareness Program that has feet on the ground helping to relieve some of the street side pollution – and charter an awareness program that helps inform the people, including gringos and everybody that road side pollution is unacceptable.

    Lets keep Nicaragua moving in the right direction and keep the tourists coming, businessmen and woman investing, and ethics and culture of the people at heart.

    Jonathan Drew

  • M

    When foreign people that are bratty talk about Nicaragua, they just point out the negative things, but I mean who does not have negative things? I’ve been harrased in the states, I’ve seen tourists in the states just looking for sex too, in Madri Gras there are only crazy slutty American teens. US will never have the wonderful landscapes and colonial towns nicaragua have. Where are the beautiful volcanoes and lakes in the US? Or the marvelous beaches where millions of sea turtles await?
    I have been living in Nicaragua for 16 years and never have been prouder of the decision I have made, it is a very healthy environment where me and my children live safely since Nicaragua is the SAFEST country in America

  • davido

    Leona please do go back to Texas or start picking up trash when it bothers you . There are club meds for you all over the world where you would never have to interact with the locals

    • Nicaraguan

      Another “no brainer” reply…sigh…where did these folks learn their table manners?