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Nicaragua wants to lure tourists
Miami Herald - Nov. 17th, 2005

The country has launched a campaign to help American tourists forget about the country's war-torn past.


Fifteen years after the Contras stopped battling the Sandinistas, Nicaragua still finds itself fighting that notorious war. Not on the ground, but in the minds of U.S. travelers who continue to fear the lush, rustic country just north of Costa Rica.

''The image of Nicaragua is either negative or nonexistent,'' lamented María Rivas, a former marketing executive for Coca-Cola and Nestlé who now serves as Nicaragua's minister of tourism. ''It's not an easy job.''

But with the help of a Coral Gables firm and more tax dollars to fund promotions, Nicaragua hopes to erase its lingering war-torn reputation. It has a new slogan, '' A Country With Heart,'' to offer distance from the camouflaged Marxists and U.S.-backed rebels that Americans saw on their television screens throughout the 1980s.

On a recent trip to New York, Rivas' staff handed travel writers crime statistics that put Nicaragua second only to Canada among the safest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Instead of Cold War history, Nicaragua has made its colonial past a big part of its new marketing campaign, which emphasizes 16th-century Spanish architecture.

Even Bianca Jagger may get into the act. The ex-Rolling Stone spouse is one of several famous Nicaraguans -- including ''Bond girl'' Barbara Carrera and former Baltimore Oriole Dennis Martinez -- the country hopes will remind Americans that Nicaragua isn't such a strange land.

''It creates a sense of familiarity among Americans with the people of Nicaragua,'' said Beth Nelson, a partner at PPR Communications, the Coral Gables firm Nicaragua hired to run its tourism campaign. ''Our whole focus is on educating Americans about the country and about the people.''

Nicaragua's emotional appeal to travelers as a place with heart in some ways mirrors the campaign El Salvador waged earlier this decade to woo foreign investors. Even though that country's civil war ended in 1992, it weighed on the minds of U.S. business executives.

''All the research seemed to point out that people had a high awareness of the country, but for the wrong reasons,'' said Rissig Licha, Fleishman Hillard executive who ran the El Salvador account for the firm's Coral Gables office. So Fleishman Hillard pushed a new slogan that focused on the country's reputation for diligence: ''El Salvador Works.''

''Notwithstanding the war,'' Licha said, ''people gave the Salvadoreans credit for being hard workers.''

But aside from its Cold War notoriety, Nicaragua faces other challenges in the increasingly competitive Latin American travel market. The country boasts expansive rain forest canopies, but Costa Rica already dominates the so-called ''ecotourism'' niche for Central America. Nicaraguans tout their coffee and beef, but Colombia and Argentina get most of the attention on those fronts.

So Nicaragua has assembled a grab bag of other attractions to lure visitors: The rare chance to see fresh water sharks where a briny river meets Lake Nicaragua. Orchids growing near the Nicaraguan volcanoes that are part of the famous Pacific ''Ring of Fire.'' Mark Twain's trek across the country in 1866 -- a journey made popular during the California Gold Rush, when Nicaragua was seen as the safest trans-continental route available.

And for a country known for sub-par hotels and rough roads, the campaign touts Nicaragua as an unspoiled destination.

After coffee and beef prices took a dive in the 1990s, Nicaragua began relying on tourism as the country's No. 1 industry.

Travel to Nicaragua has climbed in recent years, according to official figures, from about 500,000 in 2002 to about 600,000 last year. Tourism officials and travel executives alike describe Nicaragua as still facing an uphill battle convincing Americans to vacation there.

''We do a lot of Costa Rica -- I mean a lot of Costa Rica,'' said Sylvia Berman, president of Post Haste Travel in Hollywood. But it's been three years since the travel agency sent someone to Nicaragua.

Annie Berk, vice president of Ladatco Tours in Miami, said Nicaragua's image problems stretch back even farther than the 1981-90 civil war, which ended in the country holding free elections.

''Prior to the problems in Central America -- when times were green and peaceful and all that stuff, back in the early 70s, Nicaragua was always a poor stepchild,'' Berk said. ''They were never on the tourist map, as Mexico was or as Guatemala was in those days.''

Now, Berk sees Nicaragua as an ''upstart'' destination still suffering from sub-par infrastructure but also making a slow recovery from past image problems.

''It's still perceived as war-torn,'' Berk said. But ''if everything stays quiet, there's only one place it can go: up.'

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