The slogan of the Nicaraguan tourist board, “A country with  heart,” is meant to draw attention away from its infamous violence and toward its warm-hearted people, its cultural offerings, and, of course, its natural beauty—things that have been there all along, just under the radar. “We haven’t reinvented ourselves,”
explains Maria Rivas, the Minister of Tourism. “We’re reinventing the way we portray ourselves.” Rivas herself represents this new Nicaragua—born there, educated at Harvard, and returned to redefine the world she came from. “It made a lot of sense to start promoting Nicaragua as an eco-friendly destination.”

Tourism here also benefits from what one travel writer called the “low expectation factor,” meaning that its tranquil beauty comes as a pleasant surprise, considering its ominous reputation. Still, visitors who are most impressed tend to be the ones who like to go off the beaten path.

“You really need to be a traveler, not a tourist,” says William MacKenzie, a retired police chief from Wenham, Massachusetts, who has visited the country twice. “If you’re expecting to go and have everything perfect, the infrastructure isn’t there yet. When that happens, it becomes another Costa Rica.”

MacKenzie first came to Nicaragua on an 11-day package tour set up by Michael Kaye, who has launched an offshoot of his Costa Rican adventure travel empire called Nicaragua Expeditions. Kaye’s plan for his newer business is to promote the same values of mutually beneficial travel that made him the “godfather” of Costa Rican eco-tourism by using naturalists, artists, and political scientists as guides to help with awareness and education. 

Business in Nicaragua is trickling in. Kaye says he gets three or four bookings a month, whereas he can get as many as 800 in Costa Rica. MacKenzie was able to visit villages tourism hadn’t reached, unmarred trails, and islands where he was the sole American visitor. “It was like stepping back in time,” he says.

This sense of virgin territory will, of course, be radically altered if and when the country becomes a favored destination. Kaye himself never intended to exploit the Costa Rican–ecotourism economy, and he’s ambivalent about Nicaragua using it as a model. He’s happy to be starting slowly with his efforts. But just as
entrepreneurs followed his lead in Costa Rica, many companies are now expanding their ecotourism empires to Nicaragua, too. Lindblad Expeditions will guide you through hikes, kayak trips, and snorkeling expeditions. Then there’s Gray Line’s “Granada Natural” expedition, which takes you to Apoyo Lagoon, just outside Granada. Dozens of outfitters offer scuba and snorkeling, surfing, canopy tours, and hiking, and there is a wealth of eco-resorts in which to stay.

Perhaps the best known—and a prime example of how the future of Nicaraguan eco-tourism could potentially shape up—is Morgan’s Rock, a hacienda and eco-lodge in Playa Ocotal, the southern section of Nicaragua, 45 minutes from the Costa Rican border. On 4,400 acres, a French family by the name of Ponçon and a British architect named Matthew Falkiner have launched a concerted conservation effort while still promoting the local economy, setting aside 800 acres of primary growth forest and planting 800,000 native hardwood and fruit trees for farming and use in local crafts.

“We wanted to promote nature as it is,” says Falkiner. “We don’t have to pretty it all up. We didn’t want to do anything that imposed very heavily on the area.” And, of course, they don’t have to pretty it up; the place is majestically beautiful, with tree-house–like cabins perched on a cliff, peering out over the water.

The furniture is handmade by local artisans (Falkiner also owns a furniture company, Simplemente Madera) with local Forestry Stewardship Council–certified woods like eucalyptus and guapinol; chunks of volcanic rocks form the walls.

But this is eco-luxury, Nicaragua style—an upgraded version of roughing it.

Getting to your room at Morgan’s Rock requires a bit of hiking and climbing, so it’s not for the physically unfit. “I’m not a developer, I’m an architect and furniture maker and I care very much about where the wood comes from, who the people are who are making it, and where our energy comes from,” says Falkiner. “I can afford to do it because I’ve got a niche market of clients who appreciate that.” Morgan’s Rock’s rates range from $90 to $300 a night. They can afford, in other words, to be choosy and go slow.

Elsewhere though, Nicaragua has numerous projects developing at a First-World scale and a First-World pace. These are less concerned about the environment than Morgan’s Rock, but could have a greater impact on the Nicaraguan economy overall. Rancho Santana, a private residential community located on Nicaragua’s stunning Western seaboard is the furthest along of these and offers a glimpse of the type of construction to come. The beachfront spread, complete with stables and tennis courts, offers spacious houses for well-heeled Westerners who want to retire to Nicaragua or spend a few months of the year there.

The homes, which start at a couple hundred thousand, are far beyond the reach of most Nicaraguans, but the development, built on former cattle land that used to employ only a handful of people, is clearly providing badly needed jobs for local people. Other projects popping up are not as high end as Rancho Santana, but are likewise aimed at attracting American retirees. These are condo developments scatering to snowbirds already priced out of Mexico or Costa Rica, like Gran Pacifica, located on the southwest coast. This resort community— villas, condos, golf courses—is making a little bit of Nicaragua a lot like Florida. Or, as the company’s web site puts it, it’s “Mayberry by the beach.”

The architecture is Spanish colonial-ish—their design group is also responsible for the pastel uniformity of Seaside, Florida—and they’re using some local Nicaraguan staff, but they’re shipping in most of their building materials. Promotional materials promise paved streets and an “enjoyable shower.” “Gran Pacifica will deliver a quality of living that most North Americans take for granted,” they boast, because the developers are putting in infrastructure, like a brand new sewage system and high-speed telecommunications. Thus, the company’s offerings seem strangely pricey for condos in a Third World country. Oceanfront dwellings start at $140,000.

Eco-lodges like Morgan’s Rock, and retirement villages like Gran Pacifica and Rancho Santana, will likely all coexist to bring in more tourists—and more cash.

The Nicaraguan government, for its part, seems happy to welcome both approaches. According to Rivas, the tourism board and the Ministry of the Environment have worked to devise what they call an “eco-tourism tool kit”—a combination of environmental guidelines and tax incentives—to encourage the right kind of development. “We learned about what other countries were doing, and we made sure recent development was in line with environmental standards. Even if they are in the middle of the city, they have to meet some requirements,” says Rivas. For example, environmental-impact statements are required for all new buildings, a minimal hurdle to be sure, but one that not all developing countries choose to institute while trying to attract foreign investment.

It makes sense: Nicaragua needs to hold on to its natural wonders if that’s what it’s going to sell. But at the same time, officials are hesitant to impose requirements strict enough to scare away the kind of developments that will attract a broad array of foreign vacationers and their money, like Gran Pacifica. “There are building codes that need to be met,” says Rivas. “But we are not stopping real estate from developing. In some areas, we don’t have restrictions on materials or property because it’s a demonstration—we want to give incentives to people; we can’t tell them that they should build using local materials only.”

Of course, Nicaragua’s government isn’t the only force shaping its economic future—the country is still largely dependent on international assistance. The World Bank is funding several development initiatives, including a $44 million project to improve motorways and wire the countryside for telephone service (as well as a $9 million project to promote silviculture, the practice of caring for forests with respect to human objectives). And long-term success in meeting Nicaragua’s goals — reducing poverty, creating jobs, and attracting development—depends partially on whether it complies with an International Monetary Fund program that encourages foreign trade and requires the country to resolve property-confiscation cases left over from the Sandinista era. (Land taken by the communists is being returned to its original owners, many of whom are descendants of the Somozas.)

In any case, the government’s approach to tourism at least seems to be working to attract some revenue. Visitor numbers have increased 170 percent since 1993, and tourism dollars increased by 500 percent, from $30 million to $150 million. Meanwhile, there are some signs of social improvement: Nicaragua’s overall poverty rate dropped 4.5 percent from 1993 to 2001, life expectancy rose from 61 years in 1985 to 68.7 in 2002, and infant mortality dropped from 52 per 1,000 births in 1990 to 32 per 1,000 in 2002. But while certain sectors of Nicaragua are improving, other areas continue to suffer. The number of poor increased by 9.1 percent in the Pacific urban region between 1993 and 2001, and the literacy rate increased by only one-tenth of one percent between 1998 and 2001.

So even if eco-tourism can support a larger economy, some wonder if that alone will draw the crowds required to make a dramatic improvement—and if it’s fair to put so much emphasis on it. After all, it’s not outrageous to suggest that fighting poverty should take precedence over preserving nature. 

“I think tourism is fantastic for Nicaragua, but there’s lots of stuff on the way that we have to sort out,” says Falkiner, referring to the issue of pace and scale, as well as how to make the country, not just the investors, the beneficiaries. The Morgan’s Rock model might be too small and too slow for a country that’s eager to catch up. But that’s the whole point of sustainability: it’s about delayed gratification. You need to proceed with caution.

In some respects, Nicaragua is quite lucky to have only recently discovered its environmental attributes, in the middle of an eco-marketing craze when people are eager to find the next big green thing. But those who wish to take in its offerings might have to jump on the bandwagon before there is one. “Now’s the time to go, while it still hasn’t been overdeveloped,” says Kaye. “[Nicaragua will] never be the next Costa Rica—it’ll be its own thing.”

Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006