Peckish pelicans nosedive into the crystalline waters off Nicaragua’s most exclusive stretch of shoreline. Iguanas lounge in the shimmering mid-morning heat, oblivious to the political tsunami engulfing their home.
Until April, Manzanillo beach’s unspoiled sands were a “superstar getaway” graced by the likes of Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Fassbender and deep-pocketed jet-setters able to pay for the $550-a-night-plus rooms at Nicaragua’s premier resort, Mukul.
But the revolt against Daniel Ortega has transformed the luxury 37-room property into a guest-less ghost resort – and the most potent symbol of Nicaragua’s collapsed tourism industry. Custom-made mussel-shell chandeliers still adorn deserted oceanfront villas but the plunge pools outside are filled with stagnant water and decomposing leaves.
“It’s because of the situation,” said one staff member lucky enough to keep their job when Mukul closed last month after being abandoned by all its guests. Hundreds of colleagues were less fortunate. “We hope they might reopen, in November, or December or January maybe,” the employee speculated. “We’ll see.”
Nicaragua’s crisis – which has seen hundreds killed, thousands injured and led many western governments to warn against visiting the country – has ravaged the nascent tourism industry along its stunning western coast.
“I’d say most businesses are on the edge,” said Carl Segerstrale, one of the owners of NSR, a surf tourism company at the Hacienda Iguana condominium-resort just north of Mukul.
Segerstrale said occupancy rates in his properties had plummeted from 85% to 15% after protests began in April and were likely to fall further.
Hammer blow to reinvention of country
“Business-wise we are now really starting to feel the burn,” he admitted. “It’s extremely painful ... It is certainly secondary to the violence that is going on and the loss of life but ... [the crisis] has a real impact on families.”
Lucy Valenti, the head of Nicaragua’s chamber of tourism, said the turbulence had dealt a hammer blow to longstanding efforts to reinvent her country after years of conflict. Eighty per cent of small hotels and up to 35% of restaurants have closed. Of the 120,000 people employed in the tourism sector, about 70,000 have lost their jobs. Total losses so far stand at $230m.
“We had been constructing a new image for the country ... and we felt were really reaching the point where Nicaragua had started to become an emerging tourist destination,” Valenti said.
“Then all of a sudden this work of many, many years ... this dream, has been shattered. It’s really a tragedy for all of us and for the country.”
Exodus from country
Valenti said the only part of Nicaragua’s tourism sector still doing some kind of business were travel agents selling tickets to those fleeing the country. Pacific beach towns, which had been at the forefront of a successful push to reposition Nicaragua as a tourist mecca, have largely been spared the bloodshed and repression that has swept through other parts of the country.
But across the south-western department of Rivas there are constant reminders of the political strife and the extent of the opposition to Ortega. Roadside propaganda billboards featuring the one-time revolutionary hero and his unpopular wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, have been vandalized.
On the road to Mukul objectors have defaced a Sandinista mural showing three of the movement’s leading lights, Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge and Ortega. Only Fonseca, who died in combat in 1976, three years before the Sandinistas toppled the rightwing Somoza dictatorship, and is still widely revered, has been spared a face-full of blue and white paint.Nearby, a less nuanced message has been sprayed onto a wall: “Daniel a la verga,” it says. “Go fuck yourself, Daniel!”
Signs of the economic slump are also unmissable. In San Juan del Sur, a tourist town south of Mukul, most guesthouses and hotels are empty, closed or have put up desperate, capitalised pleas for custom: “HUGE DISCOUNT $10/person!”, “50% OFF PRIVATE BEACHFRONT ROOM!”“It’s kind of sad, the reason for getting those discounts,” said Fabian Männl, a 33-year-old surfer from Hamburg who had ignored the German government’s entreaties to stay away and was relaxing on Maderas beach at the start of a three-week break. “But ...”
Gabriela Castillo, a local businesswoman and property broker, said some saw an opportunity in the upheaval: “You’d be surprised how many people are buying property right now.”
Most, though, were shipping out. “There’s an exodus – a major exodus - not only of tourists but of capital,” she lamented over lunch at a virtually empty restaurant.“Everybody that comes here always says: ‘Oh, this place is going to blow up … like a Cancun.’ Those dreams have essentially faded away – and with those dreams a lot of the credibility of Nicaragua has just evaporated as well.”
One of the few hotels still functioning in San Juan is the historic Victoriano, a military-owned beachfront property which was built by a British businessman in the 19th century and later served as a beach house for the Somozas.
“The truth is it’s been a very, very hard blow for tourism,” said its manager, Franzel Mairena, who admitted only five of her 25 rooms were occupied. “It’s difficult to predict anything right now, but we are hopeful that things will get better.”
In a blitz of recent television interviews, Nicaragua’s normally media-shy president claimed the situation was already improving after police and masked paramilitaries launched a “cleanup” of barricade-ridden towns resisting his rule. “The country is starting to normalise,” Ortega told CNN.
Valenti, the tourism chief, disagreed. “It’s not normal. There are still a lot of people trying to leave the country. There are still police and paramilitaries searching for people,” she said. “You cannot guarantee to people that they can come and everything is going to be alright because at any moment here something could happen.”
One prominent Sandinista official in Rivas department tried to put a brave face on the unrest and its economic impact. “We will recover soon, very soon,” insisted the official, who initially agreed to talk on the record but later backtracked, fearing the consequences of speaking publicly at such a politically volatile time.
Photo: Flickr/JoyandJourney. A hotel in San Juan del Sur, a tourist town south of Mukul, where most guesthouses and hotels are empty, closed or have put up desperate pleas for custom
How might a solution be found? “Well, the way out of all this is for everyone to reach an agreement,” he said vaguely.
How might that happen? The official fidgeted in his chair and laughed. “It’s not in our hands … If it was in our hands I’m sure we would have solved it already.”
On a recent afternoon dozens of demonstrators gathered not far from the Sandinista headquarters in Rivas’ capital for their latest anti-Ortega rally. One had scrawled a warning to the president on a nearby wall reading “Muerte al Danielismo”. Protest leader Mercedes Tercero recognised local communities were hurting. “Businesses have shut. Tourists are not coming.”As the crowd prepared to process through town waving blue and white flags, Tercero said she saw a simple solution: “We need Nicaragua to be free of this murderer for them to come back.”