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Prime-time tourism. Waiting in the wings

(eTN) – If I were Sol Kerzner or Butch Stewart I would immediately set about putting deals together in El Salvador.

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(eTN) – If I were Sol Kerzner or Butch Stewart I would immediately set about putting deals together in El Salvador. The country has miles of undeveloped beachfront with water as warm as a cup of tea and waves that range from gentle to challenging. Currently a favorite of surfers (from the US, Mexico and Europe) and their groupies, the destination (for reasons that I cannot fathom) has not even begun to hit its stride in prime-time tourism.

There are so many beach destinations that have lost their glow. St. Martin, for example, has hotels piled chock-a-block on one another and to find a beach requires a divining rod. In some Caribbean hotels the only view of the ocean comes from a picture post card. Forget the sound of the surf beating against the shore – this opportunity is for the privileged few who can afford the very priciest of rooms.

Virgin and Pristine

El Salvador is the diamond in the rough, the potential jewel that needs the savvy hand of a smart developer who is willing and able to chip away on the rough edges to release the beauty and unbridled opportunities of the destination.

Get Out of Town

On the drive from the airport to the capital, San Salvador, the city looks like any other commercial scene; high rise buildings, shopping malls, fast food options and lots of traffic. There are a few 4 -star luxury hotels that are used primarily for business visitors, but are lovely enough to encourage the busiest of executives to kick – back for a few hours to enjoy the pool and good booze. Aside from the fact that El Salvador presents many business opportunities, it would be close to sinful to leave the country without getting beyond the city -limits to experience the small towns and beaches that remind us of the beginning of Caribbean tourism.

Map It

El Salvador is located on the Pacific coast of Central America: look west for Guatemala and to the north and east for Honduras. It is the smallest of the Central American countries, but has the third largest economy. Although it has a land mass equal to that of Massachusetts it is the most densely populated country in all of the Americas.

As recently as the 1970s, the country was engaged in military conflicts and it was not until 1992 that a peace treaty was signed with the guerrilla forces, formally ending the 12-year civil war. Since most of the country is on a fertile volcanic plateau about 2,000 ft. (607 m) high it is subject to the vagaries of nature and has endured earth quakes (3 in 2001; 1 in 2007), droughts and hurricanes (1998, 2005).


Although small compared to other Central American and Caribbean countries, El Salvador’s tourism sector is expanding. This industry represented 2.9 percent of El Salvador’s GDP in 2011 and 3.2 percent in 2012. Tourism products and services contributed $771,000 million to the economy, making it the highest figure in the last seven years and placing it in third place as an important economic engine. Over 760,991 visitors entered the country in 2012. The goal is to exceed $800 million in tourism income and register over 1.8 million visitors, according to the Minister of Tourism, Jose Napoleon Duarte Duran.

Runs in the Family

Tourism Minister Jose Napoleon Duarte Duran is the son of the former President of the Republic of El Salvador and had learned the art and science of politics and governance from growing up surrounded by the problems and possibilities of the country. Duran started his professional career in the private sector and worked in banking. He has also worked with community –based organizations where he focused on the issues that included education, women and youth. The Tourism Minister sees the tourism industry as a pathway to employment.

To develop the tourism strategic plan, the Minister consulted with the many local community groups and carefully listened to their ideas and suggestions, creating a supportive coalition for industry development. To assure professional standards, El Salvador has many universities and training programs that offer degrees and certificates in tourism and English is taught in the schools. Advanced educational opportunities are presented through classes in tourism, and the culinary arts. The country is also improving its sports infrastructure and updating the soccer stadium. Beach soccer is a major sport in the country and in 2009 won the CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship.

Think Local. Go Global

At a recent tourism development conference for travel agents, tour operators and the media, Minister Duarte Duran introduced the concept of “Pueblos Vivos” to promote “internal tourism.” He also viewed this program as the perfect vehicle to strengthen “…ties and penetrating to the fullest those markets where El Salvador has potential to develop in, like Colombia and The Netherlands.”

Program participants represented fifty-six wholesalers from Canada, Colombia, the United States, Mexico and The Netherlands. Tourism Minister Duran was delighted with the global reach of the conference, and stated that, “Their presence gives us a vote of confidence that motivates us to work more to position El Salvador as a tourist destination internationally.”

To develop the travel marketplace, the Office of Tourism “…worked together with the Salvadoran Tourism Chamber so that local businesses, hotel and tour operators” would have the opportunity to “…show their products and promote…destinations.”

In order to increase tourism, “Our towns and cities must grow, develop and move forward…we continue to work with the mayors, regardless of their political views, to add value to our cultural richness, traditions and the beauty of all our towns, serving and benefiting local actors in each town, throughout the country.”

The Tourism Marketing Plan for 2020 reflects the uncertainly of relying on international visitors for tourism by encouraging public /private partnerships and inspiring Salvadorians living abroad to return. Recognizing that frequently cooperation is more successful than competition, the Ministry of Tourism (MITUR) is working with the countries that are part of the Central American area to encourage tourism to the region.

Looking Back. Moving Forward

The US provides funding to the National Institute of Tourism to promote tourist development in El Salvador. In 2011 the country received $630 million from this source, an increase of 18.9 percent over the previous year. The targeted locales include El Puerto de La Libertad, Los Planes de Renderos, el Cerro Verde and El Icacal beach. According to, there are plans to develop the Port of La Libertad into an international tourism destination, to reengineer three parks (Los Planes de Renderos) that will focus on ecotourism, culinary experiences plus culture and private/public partnership programs to enable to development of Cerro Verde and Icacal beach.

Additional funding for tourism has been secured through the Inter-American Development Bank via a $25 million loan directed at increasing tourism along the coastal marine strip. It is estimated that $2 million from the loan will be used to finance micro and small tourism businesses. There are plans to spend $3.1 billion on tourism governance that will include strengthening information systems and introducing Tourist Police. Environmental quality monitoring services, management plans and investments in an ecotourism park are also online (

In 2002, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of the El Salvador tourism product was developed by the Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development (CLACDS). It appears that the analysis is viable eleven years later:

SWOT Analysis

• Strengths

The country has a variety of cultural and natural resources

Enterprising spirit of the people involved in this sector

• Weaknesses

Minimal development of tour operator companies

Little differentiation due to low competition

Weak or nonexistent relations with other components of the tourism industry

Limited number of qualified guides

No governmental regulations for sector activities

• Opportunities

Improvement of the country’s image

Specialization of services offered

Development of new products

Strengthening of relations among all components of the industry

Strengthening of internal tourism infrastructure and governmental organization

Development of Central America market

Development of Mayan civilization market, offering packages combined with other destinations

• Threats

Increased lack of security

Negative international news

Recession in potential markets

Based on a recent visit it appears that El Salvador’s geographic location (close to the enormous US market), combined with its history as a former Spanish colony (such as the city of Apaneca), the cultural wealth of its friendly and hospitable population, and its biodiversity (very little, but significant beaches, volcanoes, and mountains) are conducive to tourism increases from all target markets.

However, this valuable treasure is threatened if preventive measures are not taken to curtail the persistent deterioration of its colonial heritage, the deforestation and destruction of its fragile habitats, and the loss of identity by its diminished indigenous communities.


The Salvadoran tourism industry has the potential for becoming a world-class competitor; hopefully the publicity it is slowly attracting will enable both the public and private sector s to understand the fragility of its product, and nurture development with sincerity and professionalism and not be consumed by an appetite for a quick fix and a fast buck.

About the author


Linda Hohnholz

Editor in chief for eTurboNews based in the eTN HQ.

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