Hundreds have been killed and thousands injured since the uprising against Nicaragua’s president began in April. Governments from Mexico City to Madrid have warned their citizens to steer clear.
But Nicaraguan authorities are now seeking to draw a line under the far-from-resolved crisis, urging tourists to pay their “always beautiful” nation a visit despite the ongoing bloodshed and repression.
The “Nicaragua Siempre Linda” or “As beautiful as ever!” PR campaign offers no hint of the turmoil that has been rocking Central American’s largest nation since the start of protests against Daniel Ortega nearly four months ago.
Instead, a 38-second commercial suggests holidaymakers – who have been steering clear of the country since the turmoil began – return to what are now almost entirely deserted tourist hot-spots. Recommended destinations include the colonial town of Granada, which has been badly hit by the violence, and San Juan del Sur, a Pacific beach-town along Nicaragua’s stunning western coast.
Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s unpopular vice-president and Ortega’s wife, told state media that after the campaign’s official launch next week it would be taken to travel expos in Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, Slovenia, the US and the UK. “God willing, we will be at all these events promoting our Always Beautiful Nicaragua.”
In a rambling 20-minute broadcast, Murillo said it was time to move on from the “bloodbath” she accused her husband’s political foes of perpetrating, despite widespread international consensus that most of the killing has been state-sponsored.
Nicaragua’s political crisis has ravaged what had been a blossoming tourist industry, leaving an estimated 70,000 people unemployed and forcing 80% of small hotels and some of the country’s chicest resorts to close. Total losses so far are estimated at US$230 million.
Even so, Lucy Valenti, the head of Nicaragua’s chamber of tourism, said her members believed the PR blitz was a mistake. “We all believe Nicaragua is a beautiful country and has everything to offer as a tourism destination. But unfortunately this crisis has come and things have changed for us as an industry.”
Valenti said she believed the government was trying to rescue a lucrative industry shattered by the unrest. But it was inappropriate and dishonest to claim tourists could safely return to Nicaragua while heavily-armed pro-Ortega militias remained on the streets and it was unsafe to move from town to town.
In an article headlined Ortega’s paramilitaries drive tourists from Nicaragua, the opposition newspaper La Prensa also came out against the campaign. “In the country’s main cities there are still masked [forces] harassing the population, which scares off tourism … there are daily reports of forced disappearances, murders, robberies and violence which have caused the exodus of thousands of Nicaraguans,” it said.
While authorities are urging tourists to return to the country, thousands of Nicaraguans are heading in the other direction, fleeing to countries including Costa Rica and the United States in an attempt to outrun the violence or arrest.