Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nicaraguan Tourism: the Reality

Greg just got back from another dental trip/vacation in Nicaragua. I didn't go this time as I was just too busy and do not like to go to Nicaragua to work without going to my beloved little Mulukuku, the village in central Nicaragua that has been our base of operations and support for years now. Greg took the students to San Juan del Sur, the most gringofied part of Nicaragua and worked on the employees of the Pelican Eyes resort and some students supported by the Jean Brugger Foundation.

Greg stayed a bit for a vacation and reported that all is in full swing in SJDS. New investors, new buildings, full hotel, new shops, restaurants, etc. All for the rich gringos and Nica Ricos that can afford the escalating prices. Tourism is in full swing.

Tourism in Nica is still a bargain for some, and is growing exponentially. The country is seeing that tourism could be the key to success, much like Costa Rica has enjoyed. But to become the Costa Rica of the 21st Century, Nicaragua has to overcome some major obstacles.

1) Infrastructrure. Nicaragua is poor, one of the poorest countries on earth in many ways and the poorest in the Americas. Most survive on little, and even the working may make $100 a month, if they are very lucky. Therefore there is little to spend on public services. Unfortunately, much that is collected in taxes and fees and international aid is swallowed up by corruption and greed.

Tourists, paying good money for a vacation, are not going to put up with unreliable electricity, lack of water, dangerous roads, inadequate sanitary systems (The look I get when I tell first timers to not put toilet paper in the toilet, but instead deposit it in the waste basket is priceless. The old pipes can not handle it and get clogged regularly.)and poor telephone and communication services. For me, I expect it; for the tourist who just paid a bundle, they are not as forgiving. Currently, the power system is mired in corruption and scandal, having been privatized. Electricty is frightfully expensive, thus the prices charged to customers for hotels, food and entertainment rises.

2) Transportation. As I mentioned above the roads are horrible at best. You do not want to drive at night as the roads are full of roaming animals, people and lightless vehicles. Land transportation is cheap and plentiful, if you want to ride a chicken bus..100 people and a few farm animals crammed in a 60 passenger former school bus from Scranton.

The only airport of note is in Managua and has been radcally improved in the last 5 years. Unfortunately, lack of competition has kept airfares high. Forever only Continental and American flew once a day each to Managua. Delta joined them recently and there is a Taca flight from Miami. But the fares are high, almost $1000 roundtrip. Kansas City to San Jose Costa Rica offers Northwest, Delta, USAirways, and American with about 9 flights at about $800 roundtrip. Less for all the package deals through travel companies.

Greg and I want to go to Nicaragua in November and the fare is about $992 right now. Greg went late July for $700. If you have to spend more to get there, the lower cost of hotels and all the attractions is negated. Air fares are up everywhere, but without much competition, there is no incentive to lower them to Managua. So for the time being, it is going to be inconvenient and expensive to get there.

3)Security and Stability. Nicaragua is statistically safer than Costa Rica and violent crimes are few. Most crimes involve theft as the poor locals feel you have everything imaginable (and you do) and they have little or nothing. Just like in New York, Rome or Bangkok, don't flash cash, keep valuables safe or locked up and watch your surroundings. The violent past of the country, with revolution and civil war in the last 30 years, dogs the country's reputation. Cities have strict gun laws and you rarely see them. Police are plentiful but corrupt (about like here). There are some raucus demonstrations whenever the government does something unpopular, but they are mostly harmless. Keep your distance.

The government is beyond corrupt. The current president tried to get a grip on corruption and found himself stripped of authority. The possibility of Daniel Ortega becoming President has spooked a lot of Nicas and North Americans as well. We'll have to wait and see how that plays out.

I'd love to see more people discover the wonder of Nicaragua, the pristine beaches, the incredible wildlife, the warm, gentle people. It is going to take some work, but it can be done. I hope to be there to show you around.

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