El Salvador’s New World
By Maria Lisella
Anyone in the travel industry –from agents to operators and marketing gurus — can tell you, there is nothing as exciting as feeling as if you’ve discovered a “where to go next” destination. Second to that, is turning others on to it.
Enter El Salvador, known as the gateway to the Mayas, it is a must-see destination for any traveler who desires to follow the saga of the Mayans, loves to hike, visit new places and be treated extraordinarily well, another trademark of an unspoiled and emerging destination – a population that is glad you came. You can actually drive the length of the country in a day; it is about 160 miles long east to west, 60 miles east to west at the north and boasts 200 miles of coastline. Because of its size and shape, it has earned the affectionate nickname of El Puglarico, The Little Thumb. Sandwiched between Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is playing catch-up as the first Minister of Tourism, Ruben Rochi plans the country’s tourism development through 2019.
Tropical Weather and a Dollarized Economy
As in the rest of Central America, El Salvador is set in the tropics where there are two seasons: the green or rainy season also known as invierno, from mid-May to mid-October when the days are interrupted by short bursts of heavy rains only to clear up long enough for a misty sun to re-emerge and the hillsides are lush, and the dry season or verano, from mid-November, when the country is absolutely carpeted with bright and exotic flowers. The temperature changes more from day to night than it does from season to season.
Spanish is the national language but in the interior, it is possible to hear Nahuatl spoken by indigenous people. English is spoken sparingly, but you will also find people very willing to take time to communicate, understand and help. Additionally, El Salvador’s economy has been “dollarized” meaning the American dollar is official currency, a change that took place in 2001.
A World of Difference
Because I have visited El Salvador before, I have a reference point to note the significant changes in the past four years – in a single word, there is a hope, followed by a new energy in this country where 70% of the population is under the age of 34.
This year, the number of U.S. tourists traveling to El Salvador has increased by 24 percent and the number of Canadians by 51 percent. “There is no doubt in my mind that El Salvador’s safer environment has had a positive impact on tourism,” said Rochi. “The government has implemented various measures destined to increase tourism, including the establishment of a larger, better-trained and better equipped security force charged with assisting visitors.”
Once known only to surfers in search of the perfect wave, “El Salvador is emerging as an exotic tourist destination,” said Rochi. “Even our own Salvadorians, who live in the United States and have not visited the country in a long period of time, are surprised by all of the positive changes that have taken place since they last visited the country.”
El Salvador has a lot to feel good about. Its International Airport is the best in Central America and is due for an investment of $260 million for an expansion that will accommodate four million passengers annually by 2014.
The cruise and seaports are also on the list for major investment as is a railroad, underwritten in part by the Japanese, will stretch from El Salvador through Honduras, thus linking the Pacific with the Atlantic, further bolstering the country’s claims for a bigger role in the cruise and cargo trades.
In spite of 13 years of civil wars, the road network has improved and is considered one of the best and most extensive in the region. And the world is taking notice.
The World is Watching
Just two months ago, El Salvador’s first biosphere reserve was added to UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program’s global network. Apaneca-Llamatepec is located in the western part of the country that conserves zones of primary succession mountain vegetation over lava fields. It is a key ecosystem for filtering water that drains into aquifers, benefiting not only the protected area but the entire country. At about 7,812 feet, the Santa Ana, or Llamatepec, volcano is the largest volcano in El Salvador and is the nucleus for various neighboring “parasitic” volcanoes. Shade-grown coffee is an important economic activity for the inhabitants of the area, and the Reserve shows potential to develop sustainable coffee production enterprises through its innovative practices.
Additionally, about 40 miles west of San Salvador is another UNESCO World Heritage site, Joya de Cerén. This was a pre-Hispanic farming community that, like Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, was buried under a volcanic eruption c. A.D. 600. Because of the exceptional condition of the remains, they provide an insight into the daily lives of the Central American populations who worked the land at that time.
Just a stone’s throw from Joya de Ceren are the luscious Pyramids of San Andres, which are set in a valley between the dormant San Salvador Volcano, which is often circled by an enchanting mist and the Ilamatepec range. It is a partially excavated site that contains an acropolis and a plaza with pyramids and platforms on three sides. At one time, San Andres was a political, religious and economic center and an important player in regional trade and controlled the flow of obsidian. The pottery jars have been found at the site were used to transport cinnabar, iron and oxide, pigments used by artists. San Andres was the most important worshipping and trading center during the pre-Columbian period. Recent excavations have uncovered a network of underground tunnels linking one pyramid to another.
Internationally recognized ground operator, Gray Line Tours, falls under the guidance of Jaime Alvarez, who is admittedly, new to the tourism industry, but a fast learner. Supported by Raul Martinez who, with his wife, owned and operated his own tour operation, Green Expeditons, Gray Line counts a number of tours throughout El Salvador. Among the most popular are the Flower Route and the Artisan Route, which can be combined.
The company offers daytrips as well as week-long excursions, all accompanied by a driver and an English-speaking guide who is bound to be a native of the country, so travelers get a rich experience that goes beyond tourist patter. JF was accompanied by Mac Bernal, whose insight and sense of humor are a bonus.
Martinez is largely responsible for developing the tours as only a native who has takes pride in the natural and cultural resources around him can do. The selection ranges from one-day journeys to coffee plantations such as the El Carmen Estate Coffee Farm in Ataco where visitors can participate in a “coffee tasting,” which when done by an expert, determines whether the coffee passes muster.
Martinez and Alvarez have responded to the trend toward experiential travel. Visitors get hands-on experiences such as dipping in the indigo trade, thereby producing a sample of your own work, also painting wooden carvings in the town of Las Palmas at its productive artisan cooperative; learning the technique behind the pat pat sound of making pupusas may be in the offing.
A Special Initiative
Gray Line works with a number of tour operators including American Escapes, Latin Travel Club, Ole Travel and Tara Tours.
But it is Gray Line’s cooperation with Sunny Land Tours that has spurred a new initiative to introduce the U.S. market to El Salvador.
Lebanon-born Elie Sidawi founded Sunny Land Tours in 1964 as a specialist to the Middle East, until the mid 80’s when second-generation owner Lori Sidawi and her husband, Jose Luis Cabada moved their operations to Costa Rica to concentrate on expanding their product line to include more of Central and Latin America.
Sunny Land Tours, Gray Line, TACA Airlines and the government of El Salvador supported JF’s visit. Call 800-783-7839; www.sunnylandtours.com
So the next time you sip a cup of coffee, sip it slowly, taste the body, note the aroma and test the acidity, just as you would if you were a coffee taster, as they do in El Salvador, which is one of the world’s top producers of coffee.
Besides coffee, there are the pupusas, a tortilla made of either corn or rice flour and filled with exotic vegetables such as lorocca, beans, cheese, chiccharones. No one seems to be able to leave El Salvador without stopping enroute to the airport for fresh pupusas in a town known exclusively for them – Oloquilta is less than 15 minutes from the International Airport, but Salvadorians who live in the U.S. just cannot leave the country without them; upon their return, head straight for the nearest pupusa stand.
Rutas de las Flores y Artisanas
A first-timer might follow a triangular route from the capital of San Salvador to the countryside of places such as Joya de Ceren, one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in El Salvador, Ahuachapan (pronounced Ah-wa-cha-pan) and Suchitoto, take a cruise to Bird Island if the lily pads cooperate (they often merge around the island in a defensive measure keeping boats and people at a distance), visit the workshops of La Palma, where a cooperative was started by Fernando Llort that has grown into a sizable export business that supports the workers and the town. Don’t miss Cerro Verde National Park, the views of Izalco Volcano, Coatepeque Lake and Santa Ana Volcano and return to San Salvador for museum visits, and a look into the country’s modern history.
Finca La Paz, or PeaceFarm is a 30-acre project based on the vision of a singular man, Jose Manuel Guzman, who was born in El Salvador, moved to the U.S. during the civil conflict and worked in New York for over 20 years. By straddling the two cultures, like thousands of El Salvadorans, Guzman combines American pragmatism with a pride in his homeland. In a way, Finca La Paz is a small but significant expression of the healing process taking place in El Salvador today.
The Finca’s trails wend through coffee plants shaded by tall banana trees, Valencia orange and star fruit trees, bromelia, heliconas, orchids and philodendrons to name a small fraction of the exotic plants and fruits that are nurtured in this privately-owned rainforest. Guzman sells potted plants to support the space and the staff, hosts schoolchildren on educational hikes and, lately, tourists visit the reception area on the Panamerican Highway sipping Guzman’s homegrown coffee. Gray Line is considering adding this stop on their 2008 Flower Route and/or the Artisan Route. Call 011-750-2785.
The city of San Salvador has a hotel inventory that includes Comfort Inn San Salvador, the Hilton Princess San Salvador, Holiday Inn Santa Elena, Hotel Terraza, Radisson Plaza Hotel San Salvador, Real InterContinental San Salvador, Suites Las Palmas and Sheraton.
JF stayed at the Sheraton Presidente San Salvador Hotel on Avenida la Revolucion, Colonia San Benito in San Salvador. It is outfitted with wireless access, terrific rooms and a great location. Call 503-2283-4000; www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/sansalvador
Once in Suchitoto, the Hotel La Posade de Suchitlan on Barrio San Jose, Suchitoto, Cuscatlan, is a wonderful place that boasts a fabulous view of Lake Cuscatlan, even if you do not stay here, try the food. The Swedish/Italian/El Salvadorian owner also operates Suites Las Palmas in San Salvador. Call 503-2335-1064; www.laposada.com.sv. For high-end clients try Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. Call 011-503-2335-1200.
The Hotel Santa Leticia in the Apaneca region is among the most comfortable (screens on the windows in rainy season are a plus); but there is also El Jardin de Celeste and Las Flores de Loisa. Call 011-503-2433-0277. All are near the Canopy tours. Call 503-2433-0357; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.coffee.com.sv
TACA operates frequent service to El Salvador, but faces competition from American Airlines out of Los Angeles, United out of Miami; Continental and Delta out of New York; as well as Aeromexico and COPA. Call 800-400-TACA; www.taca.com
The air of reconciliation can be traced from the reforestation of the Guazapa Volcano, a site of devastating battles to a government mixed with officials from the ARENA party, sprinkled with representatives from the FMLN; in other words, even those with diametrically opposing viewpoints are committed to rebuilding El Salvador’s society, industry and its profile in the world as a serious place of business, culture, tourism and optimism.
Exclusve interview with Rubén Rochi Minister of Tourism
Big Plans for Little El Salvador
A marketing expert, Rubén Rochi, was named El Salvador’s first Minister of Tourism in 2004 and faces one of the biggest challenges of his professional career -- to create a country brand for El Salvador. Supported by President Antonio Saca, Rochi’s efforts are bolstered by The Tourism Law, which outlines generous incentives for investors and an international plan in which to position this small country that is about the size of Massachusetts. JF interviewed Rochi in San Salvador, shortly after he returned from a few days in Japan where he presented his tourism platform to encourage investment. He is intense, good-humored and fluent in both English and the business at hand--marketing El Salvador.
JF: How would you characterize El Salvador?
RR: First of all, we are in many ways, a very young nation -- 70% of our population is under 34 years old, and 60% of our industry is based on service; the country is still predominantly an agricultural nation.
Almost 25% of our visitor arrivals are for business and meetings. We have the largest private banking sector in the region; and we are the second most important financial center after Panama. We have the TACA Group hub that further supports business travelers to use the country as a meeting center. The country also counts thousands of square feet of space devoted to and designed for congresses and conventions at the international fair grounds, which we plan to improve and expand.
JF: What are your long-term goals for El Salvador?
RR: In 2006, we welcomed 1.4 million visitors from all over the world. Our goal is to attract two million visitors by 2014; and increase their tourism spend from $90 a day to $140 a day; just as we would like to extend their stays from an average of 2.3 nights as we recorded in 2006 to five to seven days.
JF: You mentioned you were conducting an educational campaign within El Salvador.
RR: We have spent $4 million on tv spots and billboards to develop an internal consciousness – posted in airports and shopping malls emphasizing the natural beauty of the country as a source of pride and the importance of having cordial cabbies for instance, although the people of El Salvador tend to be naturally warm and welcoming. The ads also illustrate how a single dollar as it travels from hand to hand; how we can all contribute to making visitors feel comfortable; and that it is important to keep the country clean. We are also enforcing a law to replace old private buses withmore efficient, cleaner units.
JF: It would seem San Salvador is ready for visitors, what about other parts of the country?
RR: Large hotel chains are putting the country on their radar screens: Sol Meliá, Barceló, Hoteles Global; we plan to increase our hotel inventory from 4,766 rooms in 2004 to 12,000 by 2014.
The Decameron, an all-inclusive resort on the coast is a major success story that has been fully booked since day one and is adding 150 rooms. And the project at Ilopango is garnering some interest from Wyn Bishop to develop a high-end resort that would charge about $500 a night, along with a cluster of boutique properties that would average about $250 a night. On another note, we will soon have audio equipment to guide visitors at archeological sites such as Joya de Ceren for instance.
JF: What about the cruise sector?
RR: The Port of La Union will be complete by 2009 and it will have three terminals: a multi-purpose terminal, containers, and finally one for cruise lines.
JF: Do other Central American countries present competition for tourism dollars?
RR: Not really, there is a Presidential mandate among all Central American presidents to promote the region as a multi-country destination. We see El Salvador as the gateway to the Mayan world, but that world also includes the culture of Guatemala, the sites of Copan and Roatan Island in Honduras, Costa Rica has cornered the ecotourism market and El Salvador’s strength is business. We are just four hours to Antigua, Guatemala, six hours to Tela and Ceiba in Honduras and eight hours from Nicaragua.
JF: What is the appeal for investors?
RR: El Salvador is the second freest country in Latin America after Chile. We have a stable and “dollarized” economy, and at 7.03%, very low interest rates. Our fiscal incentive packages include full tax exemptions for a period of 10 years on income tax, on real estate transfers and acquisitions for land used for projects and on equipment that must be imported for the projects. We would like tourism investors to consider developing the hotel sector, but to never lose site of the meeting and business ingredient. Our archeological discoveries distinguish El Salvador from its neighbors in Central America, plus we boast wonderful beaches, rural areas, indigenous culture, crafts and space for golf courses and a cruise port, impressive, no?