Central America: Hurricane Mitch

Without doubt, Hurricane Mitch was the storm of the century. While the organizations and governments around the world launched immediate disaster relief efforts to areas where people had lost their homes and livelihoods, miraculously, most tourist areas and facilities escaped damages from the high winds and rains.

However, Andrea Holbrook, president of Holbrook Travel in Gainesville, Fla. reported that "Hurricane Mitch, in creating a broad image of regional hardship, had also created a problem in selling not just destinations affected by the storm but all of Central America.

"Right after the storm, we found that even Costa Rica, which was not in Mitch's path, was affected."

In addition to Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama were out of harm's way, and again miraculously, Mitch sidestepped Belize where damages were restricted to Ambergris Caye. Resorts on the island lost their docks and dive shops, which were rebuilt for the Christmas season -- reportedly a good one.

Guatemala was not hit directly by Mitch, but flooding did take out some roadways and bridges in the south. According to Mark Rogers, of Clark Tours in Guatemala, Guatemala's president "Alvaro Arzu did a great job, and the bridges and highways were reopened in 72 hours. Yet, our cancellation rate was severe for November through April, a season that before Mitch showed almost full bookings in the countryside."

American Airlines, in conjunction with its AmericanAirlines Vacations program, targeted Guatemala for a special travel bonus project to help restore tourism to one of the area's most important destinations. A bonus of 10,000 frequent flyer mileage points is being awarded to all clients booked on any of the AA Vacations during February, March and April.

According to Jaime Alvarez, president of Miami-based 4th Dimension Tours, which operates a separate division handling American's private label program, "the bonus points promotion for Guatemala has been launched over concern that extensive media coverage of damages in Honduras and Nicaragua has spilled over particularly into Guatemala -- although in many ways to all of Central America.

Alvarez says that with the resumption of a normal tourist flow into Guatemala, the benefits would also accrue to neighboring Honduras whose Maya ruins at Copan are a popular day trip or extension to visitor itineraries in Guatemala.

Damage and the greatest toll in human life in Honduras centered around the capital city of Tegucigalpa, and the Bay Island of Guanaja took a big hit. However, by Christmas, the Pousada del Sol (800-642-3483) and the Bayman Bay Club (800-524-1823) were open for business. On Roatan, resorts on the south shore were unaffected, with the exception of Anthony's Key which reopened on Feb. 1 (800-227-3483) with 16 additional air conditioned units. On the island of Utila, there was little damage, other than to dive docks which have been repaired, and in general, surveys show that the reefs that draw divers in droves to the Bay Islands are in good condition.

The country's leading inland attraction of Copan required road repairs in the aftermath of Mitch; these were completed two weeks after the storm. Additionally, access roads from Guatemala, as well as the little airfield on the Guatemala side of the border, served by Jungle Flying from Flores, are fully operational.

In Nicaragua, Hurricane Mitch hit hardest in the most rural areas, while attractions of interest to tourists, such as the popular and deluxe resort of Montelimar, seem to have avoided damages and all facilities are working, if under-utilized by the North American market.

Hermine Taramona of Tara Tours feels that Nicaragua is the country that has come the furthest in the region. "The public and private sectors have worked hard and they have accomplished a lot in their interesting and appealing country," says Taramona.

The country has enormous potential, she said, ticking off some of its attributes: Two grand colonial cities, Granada and Leon where visitors can tour around by horse and buggy; Corn Island, a magic and pristine natural wonderland, and Masaya volcano, about as close as one can get to the caldera where "you can look right down into its throat."

Grupo TACA's president Federico Block has affirmed that "the best way the world can demonstrate its solidarity with Central America is to increase business and visit our region. The tourism industry in our various countries generates work and benefits for millions of people, and it is essential to regenerate tourism as fast as possible." n

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