Tourists nation-hop in Central America
By KATHIA MARTINEZ
By KATHIA MARTINEZ
Ten or 20 years ago, mentions of countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala conjured up visions of soldiers and civil war.
But today Central America has become a tourism hot spot. The isthmus between Mexico and Colombia is better known for its cultures and wildlife than its war-torn recent past. And tourism revenue has surpassed that of most local industries.
Now regional officials are trying to encourage visitors to experience the area the way Americans have long traveled in Europe — by taking in several countries in one trip.
Some 20 companies in Europe, mostly in Italy, Spain and Britain, already promote tours of Central America that include visits to multiple countries.
Promoting regional tourism is seen as a way of improving other aspects of life in Central America, from the economy and law enforcement to health and education.
"Tourism is the passport to peace," said Sara Sanchez, Panama's tourism minister.
The number of visitors coming to Central America has spiked notably in the past two years.
In 2004, some 5.7 million people visited the region and spent more than $4 billion, up 14 percent from 2003.
Nicaraguan Tourism Minister Maria Rivas said the 9/11 attacks contributed to the growth.
"They are coming to destinations that are closer and safer," she said.
Regional officials say they have been working for years to build up the so-called "industry without smokestacks" by encouraging investment, culture and the development of a regional market.
Marcos Gandasegui, whose Ancon Expedition travel agency specializes in nature tours, said the growing industry has forced these nations to focus on tourism and related projects, such as strengthening infrastructure, health and education.
One thing the region doesn't need to develop is its natural resources: undeveloped beaches, coral reefs, some 900,000 species of plants and animals, and rich cultures fed by the countries' native Indian heritage, European colonialism and coastal settlements.
For El Salvador and Guatemala, two countries that survived years of civil conflict, tourism has become the second-largest source of income, after money sent home by migrants living in the United States. Last year in Guatemala, where a civil war ended in 1996, 1.3 million tourists visited, spending $868 million.
Panama has converted many of the former U.S. installations turned over with the canal handover in 1999 into restaurants, resorts and even a luxurious cruise ship docking station.
Costa Rica is the region's granddaddy in the industry, especially in eco-tourism. Last year, 1.6 million people spent $1.5 billion hiking its cloud forests, touring its volcanos, sunning on its beaches and observing its famous wildlife.