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Tourism projects spring up throughout Central America
The Tico Tmes / October 14, 2011

By Larry Luxner

From tiny eco-resorts to new megaresorts and cruise-ship ports, the six Spanish-speaking nations of Central America are investing heavily to bring tourists and their dollars to the region.

Earlier this year, El Salvador’s Grupo Agrisal opened a Holiday Inn in Escazú, just outside San José. It will also build an office center, Plaza Tempo, as part of the $20 million project. Agrisal says this is the first of seven hotels it plans to build in Central America, and the third property since a May 2009 alliance was signed between Agrisal and InterContinental Hotels Group; the other two are the Holiday Inn Salvador and the Crowne Plaza San Salvador.

Likewise, Mexico City’s Express chain announced that Costa Rica would be the site of its first establishment outside Mexico. The new $7 million hotel will be located in Heredia, according to the chain, which already operates 54 hotels in the value and business travel market.

The choice of Costa Rica was a response to conditions of “legal stability and a mature tourism market, said Charles Adams, director of promotions for the Express chain. “We analyzed several countries and found that in Costa Rica, investment is more viable and safe,” he said.

A $6 million Hotel Express is also set to open its doors in Nicaragua. Mario Saenz, general manager of Managua’s Multicentro Las Américas, said the 106-room, three-star hotel will be located nearby.

Guatemala, which is plagued by drug-related violence, nevertheless hopes to see a resurgence of tourism, particularly medical tourism. Promotion work by the Committee on Tourism, Health and Welfare of the Guatemalan Association of Exporters (Agexport) has apparently generated a sustained increase in that sector since 2007.

“For tourists, it’s much cheaper to fly, come here and stay in a good hotel, eat, walk, get treatment, and it all works out cheaper than in the United States,” said July Donado, president of Agexport. By 2012, the organization predicts that 5,000 tourists will visit Guatemala seeking medical treatment, and as many as 20,000 by 2015.

In Nicaragua — which is starting to see an in influx of tourists after years of stagnation — an international airport is planned for Lake Nicaragua’s Ometepe, the world’s largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake. The $7 million airport will boast a 1,500-meter runway and serve aircraft carrying up to 42 passengers, said Orlando Castillo, manager of the country’s state-run Empresa Administradora de Aeropuertos Internacionales.

Castillo said environmental impact studies have been carried out, and that the new airport will be built on the site of a long-gone tobacco factory. Costa Rican airline Liberia has already reportedly expressed interest in scheduling daily flights to Ometepe once the airport opens in early 2012.

“The decision to build an airport in Ometepe was taken due to the island’s great potential for tourism development,” said Castillo, noting that EAAI also plans to open two more international airports in Greytown, in the department of Río San Juan, and in Punta Huete, in the department of Managua. Earlier this year, Ometepe was declared Nicaragua’s third Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO; the others are the Bosawas and the Río San Juan.

Mario Salinas, CEO of Nicaragua’s National Institute of Tourism, said a $1.5 million project is now underway to restore the historical center of Granada, a major tourist attraction. The money — which comes from the Spanish International Cooperation Agency, the European Union and the Inter-American Development Bank — will go toward five specific projects including street widening, rehabilitation of Parque Azul and construction of a pier.

One of the country’s largest tourism projects is Isla Guacalito, a massive resort that stretches 670 hectares along the Pacific beaches of Guacalito and Manzanillo. Managua’s La Prensa reports that Grupo Pellas will invest $250 million in the project, including $115 million in the first phase, which includes a boutique hotel, 490 residential villas and a golf course. In addition, the project’s promoter, Sociedad Marina de Guacalito SA, claims it will generate 4,000 direct and 12,000 indirect jobs at its peak.

Another megaproject is underway in Honduras, where construction recently began on the country’s first mainland cruise-ship port. Banana Coast Landing hopes to become the latest cruise destination in an increasingly crowded roster of Western Caribbean ports that already includes Roatan, a booming island resort off the Honduran coast.

“Roatan has two cruise ports today, but this will be the first on mainland Honduras, and we think there’s a lot to showcase,” said Michael Greve, president of Miami-based Global Destinations Development, one of the project’s developers.

Greve told The Tico Times the port — with 50,000 square feet of leasable space on a 10-acre tract of land — will require at least $20 million and possibly as much as $30 million in investment. By December, he said, construction of an oceanfront shopping center and transportation hub will begin, with completion slated in time for the 2012-13 cruise season.

Among other things, the retail shopping complex will include jewelry stores, duty-free outlets, designer boutiques, a restaurant and a bar. A finger pier will accommodate two post-Panamax cruise vessels.

“Within four or five years, we’ll be very competitive with the other Western Caribbean ports in terms of volume,” said Greve, though he declined to say how many passengers he’s shooting for. “We also think that our area, where the rainforest meets the sea, is very different than the other ports, because we have mountains, three major waterfalls and the colonial city of Trujillo, founded in 1524. We’re marketing the port to both large cruise-ship companies and small cruise-ship companies, many of which are very interested. So we’re in pretty detailed discussions with them.”

OBM International, which is building the cruise-ship complex at Banana Coast, also designed Royal Caribbean’s private island, Coco Cay, as well as Carnival Corp.’s Grand Turk Cruise Center.

“This project will create a sustainable landside tourism industry, coupled with a custom-built cruise port infrastructure in a destination that combines ecotourism and soft adventure opportunities for cruise line guests,” said Randy Jorgensen, CEO of Life Vision Developments, one of Banana Coast’s joint-venture partners.

The country’s largest tourism venture, however, is Los Micos Beach & Golf Resort, a sprawling public-private investment under development in Tela Bay. When finished, it will encompass three hotels with more than 700 rooms; an 18-hole golf course, an undetermined number of residential villas, and various restaurants and bars. A consortium of Honduran and foreign banks is making $24 million available for the project’s second phase.

The biggest focus of regional tourism, however, is Panama — where hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into towering megahotels, turning Panama’s capital city into the wanna-be Dubai of Central America.

Nearly $40 million is being invested in small hotels (under 45 beds) in Chiriquí, Colón, Los Santos and Bocas del Toro, as more visitors arrive to Panama. Between January and May 2011, visitor arrivals increased by 12% compared to the previous year, said Ernesto Orillac of the Panama Tourism Authority, who says the country will exceed two million visitors this year. In previous years, investments focused on large hotels, while the largest new facility is the 100-room Hotel Esplendor, a $30 million investment.

Another such property is the Hotel Victoria, which opened its doors in early August. The new 127-room hotel, which cost $13 million, is aimed at business travelers, said Carlos Herrera, a company representative.

Marriott Hotels & Resorts recently announced plans to develop a 180-room hotel in the Casamar resort community on the Pacific coast. The five-star resort, near the city of San Carlos, about 55 miles from Panama City, will open in 2013 under a franchise agreement with Casamar Development SA and Corporación Turística del Pacifico SA. It will include condos and villas, tropical gardens, walking paths, restaurants, shops and a health club. The Pacific coast, a weekend destination for wealthy Panamanians, is rapidly developing as a tourist destination. Between 2002 and 2010, visits to the area more than doubled, to 1.7 million.

The project’s designer is Zurcher Architects, whose work includes Panama’s Bristol Buenaventura resort, as well as a number of Marriott resorts in Costa Rica.

Half a year after the July inauguration of the $430 million Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City will be the opening of another megaresort, the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, in December. The 66-story hotel will have 1,449 rooms, including 796 suites, as well as eight restaurants and bars, a club on the 62nd floor and a spa. It’ll be connected by a pedestrian sky bridge to Multicentro Mall and the Megapolis Convention Center.

Yet not everybody is captivated by such Miami-style glitz; in fact, many tourists specifically come to Panama to reconnect with nature. As such, Panama recently won a $4 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Global Environment Facility to develop a model for low-impact ecotourism within Panama’s National System of Protected Areas (SINAP).

The resources, complemented by $10 million in parallel financing from government agencies and NGOs, will foster biodiversity conservation and sustainability in nine protected areas selected on the basis of innovation, participation of local businesses and local sustainable social development.

The project will be carried out in the Bastimentos national marine park, the La Amistad international park, and in the Panamanian national parks of Volcán Barú, Maj. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, Darién, Soberania, Chagres, Altos de Campaña and Coiba.

These areas, in which more than 1,300 endemic species of plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and fish have been identified, cover some 40% of the area administered by SINAP and receive 60% of park visits. The other $10 million for the project will come from the National Environmental Authority and the Tourism Authority of Panama ($6.2 million), and the Panamanian Aquatic Resources Authority and The Nature Conservancy ($3.8 million).

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