In the year 1999, it is hard to resist the chance to take a look at
the enormous changes the last decade has wrought in the Central
America tourism landscape, and to peek ahead at new horizons.
Forming a land bridge between North and South America, the
region is shared by seven countries -- Belize, Costa Rica, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama -- many of
which suffered damage from Hurricane Mitch last October, but whose
tourism services have since been restored with attractions and
hotels up and running.
The region is recognized for the kind of vacation experiences
that people seek nowadays: Adventurous, nature-oriented, cultural.
Those travel experiences have been enhanced by a decade of
development of upscale hotel infrastructure and expansion of
interesting tour products.
And during the 1990s, there has been a major revolution in air
travel to Central America, with access eased and significantly
boosted as major U.S. carriers -- American, United, Continental and
Delta -- have opened new gateways and stepped up nonstop
frequencies on north-south services.
These carriers provide the region with benefits such as
destination promotion and frequent flyer programs. While U.S.
airlines have greatly expanded capacity on all routes, Grupo TACA
-- the regional marketing alliance of Taca, Aviateca, Lacsa, Nica
and Taca Honduras -- continues to provide a supermarket of air
services linking all regional destinations with eight North
American gateway cities: Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Houston, Los
Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and New York.
Furthermore, these Latin carriers are stepping up with new
aircraft, better scheduling, a brand new business class service
called Clase Ejecutiva, and a new frequent flyer program called
Distancia that pools the miles between TACA airline members.
TACA has led the way in introducing yearly schedules of
educational Selling Central America seminars that it sponsors for
agents throughout the U.S.; according to Roberto Carbone,
commercial vice president of sales and marketing, travel agents
deliver 80% of the airline alliance's U.S. passengers.
Continental Airlines, which debuted in Central America 10 years
ago, now flies to all seven countries from its Houston and Newark
hubs. It is putting increasing importance on its Latin American
destinations. Over the past two years, the carrier programmed a
blitz of agent Destination Awareness seminars across the country,
led by Roberto Girotti, director of product development.
"We see great future growth in leisure travel, which presently
makes up about
20% to 25% of Continental's passenger base," says Girotti, "and
we consider it essential to continue this educational information
bridge to help travel agents sell exciting, rewarding, affordable,
unspoiled, unforgettable and now more accessible destinations."
Spurred by the increase in business travel to the region, the
deluxe hotel infrastructure has expanded rapidly in the last five
years, and nowadays the leisure and commercial traveler will find
more comfort than ever in the major gateways throughout Central
At the same time, small hotels and inns continue to offer
visitors the essence of the Central American experience: A place --
be it an eco-lodge or an elegant little resort -- to hang one's
sombrero, whether it be in the highlands, near archaeological zones
of ancient Maya cities, around the fringes of a rain forest, or by
Led by Costa Rica and followed by Belize and Guatemala, Central
America "has a good selection of distinguished properties that
fulfill the expectations of the leisure traveler," says Dan
Conaway, chairman of Atlanta-based Elegant Adventures which markets
These boutique country inns and resorts provide comfort and
service and help to deliver the whole country experience that North
Americans seek in Central America, such as getting close to nature
and local culture, going fishing, horseback riding or birdwatching,
"This means selling up in an industry that is afraid to sell up,
but this is what agents must do to have satisfied clients and to
make a profit. And the product is there." No sector of the travel
industry has been more important in opening up new vacation
horizons in the region than the tour operators specializing in
They have eased the way in booking FIT and group travel with
flexible travel products ranging from resort and diving packages to
locally hosted programs highlighting ecotourism, archaeology and
Specialists in natural history and culture have added depth and
understanding to the Central American experience with
expert-escorted tours that focus on the wonders of nature and the
world of the Maya. And in 1999, the year of international airline
commission caps, tour operators are of primary importance to
Lori Sidawi of Sunny Land Tours in Hackensack, N.J., says,
"Agents will earn much higher commissions by selling the air and
land components of a tour operator package, rather than by booking
client arrangements a la carte. Operators guarantee not only
commissions, but such services as emergency assistance, and there
is value in that."