After the protests, surfers are saving Nicaraguan tourism

*Featured on The Matador Network 

AS I SHUFFLED toward my seat in the back of the plane on a recent trip to Nicaragua, I was surprised by the faces that looked up at me as I passed. My earlier trip to the country in 2016 had been at the height of its tourism boom. During that time, a flight bound for Managua would have been comprised of a motley crew.

On board back then, you’d have seen resort travelers in straw hats ordering rum cocktails, grungy backpackers looking like they’d already been hiking for days, and maybe a dozen teenagers in a youth group planning to volunteer at a Nicaraguan mission. For sure, you’d see burley surfers from California or Florida, complete with wetsuit tan lines.

The point is, if you were flying to Nicaragua before the summer of 2018, you were part of a vast, varied group that contributed to the economic boom that put Nicaragua on the travel-industry map. However, in the summer of 2018, travel to Nicaragua came to a screeching halt.

Photo: Will Ulmos/Shutterstock

In April 2018, protests over Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s cuts to social security broke out in the country’s urban areas. At first, the protests were small and consisted mainly of those who would be immediately impacted by the new policy. As Ortega’s government responded to protesters with unprecedented violence, demonstrations spread across the nation.

Eventually, the social security cuts were scrapped, but by that point, the country was outraged by the deaths of peaceful protesters and demanded early elections. For the next few months, a back and forth between protesters and the government ensued that left hundreds dead, many wounded, and thousands displaced. Alas, Ortega survived the turmoil and remains in power in Nicaragua.

Since then, life has slowly returned to its normal, peaceful state, but the political strife led many foreign governments to issue travel warnings. The US State Department labels Nicaragua under the Level 3 Travel Advisory, “reconsider travel,” even though there haven’t been incidents of violence since the summer of 2018.

While the protests, which were labeled a “failed coup attempt” were a shock to the world and devastating to the country, officials at the Nicaraguan Tourism Boardpointed out that, statistically, traveler safety was unaffected. “There have been absolutely no issues or incidents with tourists and protesters or the police in [the] country,” an official there told me.

The Tourism Board directed me to a recent study on homicide published in July 2019 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which shows that the homicide rate in Nicaragua is among the lowest in Central America. While El SalvadorGuatemala, and Honduras consistently rank highly for gang activity, violence, and crime, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are grouped together in the lower risk category.

In fact, a deeper look at the US State Department website reveals that its Level 3 Travel Advisory for Nicaragua lists risks associated solely with protests and anti-government demonstrations — not with everyday travel.

Quiet in the countryside