Central America: The State of Tourism

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 America.

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 the sea.

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 upscale-only vacations.

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, he says.

"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 Latin America.

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 adventure attractions.

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 agents.

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."

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