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.