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Tuesday, June 18 2019 @ 08:40 PM UTC

Multicountry trips create Central American tourism surge

Travel & Tourism By Kathia Martinez, ASSOCIATED PRESS PANAMA CITY, Panama 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 culture and wildlife than its war-torn past. And tourism revenue has surpassed that of most local industries. Now regional officials are trying to encourage visitors to experience the region the way Americans have long traveled in Europe — by taking in several countries in one trip. Some 20 companies in Europe, mostly Italy, Spain and Britain, already promote tours of Central America that include visits to multiple countries in the region. And Air Costa Rica and Air Panama are trying to capitalize on the trend by opening two new routes between the Costa Rican capital of San Jose and two popular destinations in Panama. Promoting regional tourism is seen as a way of improving other aspects of life in Central America, from the economy to 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.

Preliminary data indicates that some 6.5 million tourists — mostly from the United States, Mexico and Canada — visited Central America last year.

Nicaraguan Tourism Minister Maria Rivas said the Sept. 11 attacks contributed to the growth.

"They are coming to destinations that are closer and safer," she said.

Marcos Gandasegui, whose Ancon Expedition travel agency specializes in nature tours, described the spike after Sept. 11 as an "explosion." He said the appearance of SARS in Asia also encouraged many to turn to Central America for their vacation plans.

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.

"It's not something that grew up unplanned," said Coralia Dreyfus, a tourism official with the Central American Integration System. "It has been something that the seven countries of the region have been working on."

Still, Gandasegui said the growing industry has forced countries to focus on tourism and related projects, like strengthening infrastructure, health and education in their countries.

One thing the region doesn't need to develop is its natural resources: pristine beaches, coral reefs, some 900,000 species of plants and animals, and rich and varied 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 countries' second-largest source of income, after money sent home by migrants living in the United States.

Last year, 13 years after peace



accords ended that country's civil war, 1.1 million people visited El Salvador and spent $644 million. In Guatemala, where the civil war ended in 1996, 1.3 million tourists visited, spending $868 million.

Panama has also worked to build up its tourism industry, converting many of the former U.S. installations turned over with the canal hand-over in 1999 into restaurants, resorts and even an upscale cruise ship-docking station. The country has been so successful that tourism revenues have risen to $860 million, surpassed only by revenues from the Panama Canal.

Nicaragua and Honduras have the smallest number of tourists, with 700,000 and 800,000 annual visitors respectively. But both countries rely heavily on tourism dollars, with Nicaragua seeing $190 million from visitors and Honduras with $500 million annually. Nicaragua has also just lately begun promoting its tourism industry, and has received lavish coverage in many top travel publications aimed at affluent Americans.

Costa Rica is the region's granddaddy in the industry, especially 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.

If you go

Here are resources to get information on traveling to Central American countries.

-Belize. Vist or call (800) 624-0686.

-Costa Rica. or (800) 343-6332.

-El Salvador.—html/lugares.html.

-Guatemala.—3.html .

-Honduras. (click on "English") or (011) (504) 222-2124, ext. 502.

-Nicaragua. or (888) 733-6422.

-Panama. or (011) (507) 226-7000.

-Major airlines flying to South America. Delta, Iberia, Taca, United Airlines, US Airways, Mexicana, American Airlines, Martin Air, Continental Airlines, Cubana de Aviacion, Avianca, Sol Air.

-Regional Tourism Web sites.

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