Tourism to Central America grows despite downturn

Latest figures released by the World Tourism Organisation show that the number of visitors to Central America increased by 8% in 2008, the highest increase in the whole of the Americas.

The region - which includes the countries of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama - received 8.4 million foreign visitors in 2008, attracted by its diverse offering of adventure tourism, wildlife, beaches, Mayan ruins and colonial cities, plus better international flight connections.The Spanish carrier Iberia has started to offer a fifth weekly flight from Madrid to Guatemala and Panama. Iberia has the largest offer of flights from Europe to Central America, with 350,000 seats available (4.2% more than in 2008). The Dutch airline KLM has also increased the number of flights from Amsterdam to Panama City from three to five a week. Air Caraibes has launched new weekly flights from Paris to Panama and Costa Rica, via Pointe a Pitre or Fort de France in the French Antilles.

From the US, Delta Airlines has started a daily flight from Atlanta (Georgia) to Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and the low cost airline JetBlue will start a daily flight from Orlando (Florida) to San Jose (Costa Rica) from 26 March.

Guatemala has announced the launch of a new “Mayan People” ethnic tourism programme which includes the development of three new tourist routes: The Mayan Universe Trail, the Mayan Calendar Trail, and the Mayan Dualism Trail. All services and products in the three new routes will be provided by members of the country’s large indigenous Mayan community, including local businesses, cultural associations, artists, craftsmen and tour operators.

The new routes will provide visitors with a true insight into the Mayan culture, and how this survives today. Besides exploring some of the main archaeological sites and sacred places, visitors will also have the opportunity to learn about Mayan food, clothes, crafts, spiritual ceremonies and traditions.

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Details of the routes are currently being developed and more information, including a new website, maps and other promotional materials, will be available later this year. There are also plans for a central reservations office to manage all visits on the three trails.

Also the first home port for cruises in Central America has opened in the tourism centre of Colon, on Panama’s Atlantic coast. Since December 2008 the new terminal is the home port for Royal Caribbean’s “Enchantment of the Seas” 2,200-passenger cruise ship, which offers weekly cruises to Colombia and the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire until April 2009.

The new port is expected to boost the cruising market in Central America. Cruising is already a major revenue source in Panama, where in the last cruising season alone (October 2007 to May 2008), 141 cruise ships docked bringing 163,358 passengers who spent around US$15.5 million.

The Nicaragua Tourist Board has launched a US$14.7 million project to promote tourism in the San Juan River area. A new “Water Route” is being developed with local operators to take visitors to the Solentiname Archipelago on Lake Nicaragua, home to a bohemian artists’ community, and then follow the San Juan River to the Caribbean, travelling through pristine jungle and visiting important archaeological sites.
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