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.
BY DOUGLAS HANKS III
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.
of Nicaragua is either negative or nonexistent,''
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.''
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.''
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
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.'