Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the Mirror,” a retro anthem of the social activist movement, is playing as I disembark my Avianca flight in Sal Salvador. I am here because El Salvador, almost as big as Massachusetts and the smallest of the Central America nations, is ready to promote tourism.
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
I recall the lyrics while sitting in the lobby of the rustic hotel Los Almendros de San Lorenzo in Suchitoto. This colonial town with the appeal of Antigua, Guatemala or Casco Viejo, Panama, is a highlight of El Salvador tourism. According to the Ministry of Tourism, MITUR, it is Suchitoto, Mayan ruins like Joya de Ceren, and the country’s many volcanoes that have brought in a projected $1 billion in tourism earnings for 2014.
Suchitoto is a Benchmark for El Salvador
Los Almendros owners Pascal Lebailly and Joaquin Rodenzno have lovingly tended its flowers and hand-curated artwork for years. It is, as they say in the trade, a “luxury product” whose tasteful style, excellent service, and gourmet restaurant serving authentic, farm-to-table Salvadoran-French cuisine can compete on a world stage.
Twelve charming suites that cost $110 per night (about half the average Salvadoran monthly salary) are booked by foreign travelers who’ve seen the stellar TripAdvisor and Booking.com reviews. On weekends, it’s sold out to wealthy Salvadoran families with bodyguards.
Pascal, a Frenchman by birth, and I discuss challenges to El Salvador’s tourism growth.
“The Salvadorans invest much more abroad than they do in their own country,” he says hopelessly.
I see hope.
Suchitoto’s cobblestone streets are lined with tidy, pastel stucco homes stenciled with a hummingbird motif and the words: “In this house, we live without violence against women.” It’s their homegrown effort to make a change.
El Salvador’s Economic and Social Progress
As a follow up to the generally successful Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations has identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for its member nations to achieve by 2030. The fundamentals: economic, social and environmental change, are each essential to tourism development.
On the economic front, El Salvador remains a country of haves and have-nots, much as it was when Monsignor Oscar Amulfo Romero, a Roman Catholic archbishop turned activist for the poor, was murdered in 1980. While the Vatican considers sainthood, his portrait graces everything from T-shirts in the surfing mecca of Playa Trunco, to mugs in the coffee region of Ataco.
ElSalvador is still paying for the Civil War that followed Romero’s assassination; a decade when 75,000 lost their lives and 2.5 million citizens fled their country’s violence. Today, the CIA World Factbook values remittances (dollars sent home by emigrant Salvadorans) at 17% of the GDP, second only in exports of processed food, sugar and ethanol. President Sanchez Ceren, a former guerilla leader representing the left wing FMLN party, recently signed an alliance with Guatemala and Honduras to work on issues in common. Both countries are, by many measures, worse off than El Salvador.
No Education, No Jobs, Big Problem
Socially, gang violence has blossomed since the War’s end in 1992, when Salvadoran mara (gangs of friends), who’d been trained to protect their turf in the immigrant jungles of southern California, returned to a land of no opportunity.
The country’s youth divided into Mara Salvatrucha (known asMS-13) and Barrio 18, sweeping families, wives and children into a domestic war that involves as much as 10% of the population and impacts everyone.
Traditionally, Salvadorans are known as the region’s hardest workers. Un- and under-employment now hover around 50%. Four in ten Salvadorans believe their children will have a better future outside the country; which is perhaps why Customs and Border Patrol caught 16,404 Salvadoran minors trying to enter the U.S. illegally last year.
A Commitment to Sustainable Change
In the nearby countryside, we stop to visit Hacienda Los Nacimientos with Senora Rhina de Rehmann, businesswoman turned farmer. At 70, she is actively reviving the lost Mayan art of indigo production, creating all natural dyes from acres of indigo bushes interspersed with organic cashews, hibiscus, and medicinal herbs. We walk over to vats where the fermented leaves are being beaten by hand in a troth of water.
“Why do I have one man and one woman working?” she asks rhetorically. “Because if I did not insist on it, there would be no work for women.”
Mrs. De Rehmann is providing education and job training to some of the same guerillas who commandeered her family’s sugarcane plantation during the Civil War. The transformation of her community is funded by buyers from Levi’s and tourists who learn to tie-dye scarves.
Being “The Murder Capital” is Not Good for Tourism
The Guardian estimates that August 2015’s average of 30+ gang-related murders per day gives El Salvador the highest per capita murder rate in the world — 90 times that of Great Britain.
That old adage: all publicity is good publicity isn’t always true. The current spotlight on El Salvador by the New York Times, Time and others is not flattering. More than 50 police and military have already died this year in gang violence as I write.
Tourism, especially from Central America and returning expatriates, represents about 3.5% of GDP with a projected growth of only 1.2% — a fraction of the 5.8% expected by neighboring Costa Rica.
Last November, Minister of Tourism Jose Napoleon Duarte Duran forecast a 4.3% increase in tourist arrivals for this year. But travel is a discretionary expense, and civil unrest, disease, weather, fear; any adverse event can decimate the numbers.
Nothing to Be Afraid Of in El Salvador
Minister Duarte reassures our group in an interview that tourists need not be afraid.
The tourism police, a force of 400 specially trained officers, have been deployed around the country. In contrast to the anonymized Policia Nacional Civil who combat gangs in black balaclavas, our two Policia Tourismo are happy to pose for selfies. Guide Moises F. from Salvadorean Tours says we media are the first group he’s led to have their own armed Tourism Police escort.
Any visitor can wrap themselves in a security bubble, I learn, for just $20 per guard per day, plus expenses.
Environment is a Place for Change
This densely populated environment is tough to manage sustainably. Agriculture’s declining share of GDP reflects how much commodity prices for coffee and sugarcane have fallen in the global market. Deforestation, erosion and mono-cropping are problems. My rainy season visit is –- unseasonably -– sunny and hot. This year, nearly 70% of the annual corn crop used for tortillas and the delicious national dish, pupusas, was lost to drought.
Locals fear the government’s plans for Pacific coastal tourism development will upset the region’s fragile ecosystems, so NGOs like ICAPO are tackling sustainable conservation. ICAPO monitors the endangered hawksbill turtle in Bahia de Jiquilisco, a RAMSAR site and Biosphere Reserve. An NGO, they are supported by conservation partners and the local Puerto Barillas Resort, which charges tourist groups $200 per half-day tour to watch their work.
Sofia Andes, an Australian volunteer, explains ICAPO’s mission as we speed through the mangrove to where other fishermen are waiting with two green sea turtles in their nets. Both animals, the adult female alone weighing more than 170 pounds, are hauled into our boat so they can be measured and tagged, their movements logged, and their DNA tested.
ICAPO makes environmental protection desirable by supporting communities. Locals who used to poach turtle eggs for food now get paid a bounty when they report a new nest. Puerto Barillas has funded an al fresco dining room on the pier off tiny Isla Parriya, so that our lunch money will support the island’s fishermen and the women who cook and serve us.
The benefits tourism has brought to Parriya: well fed children, local schoolhouse, medical clinic and internet access – are clear. Is it scalable?
El Salvador has a Bright Future
If the UN’s wide-ranging SDGs on poverty, health, education, gender equality, sanitation, energy, employment, infrastructure, environment and social justice represent ideals for the common good, they are a good barometer of El Salvador’s progress.
I know MITUR’s plans for tourism development rely on meeting at least some of them.
And my review? There are many mirrors, changing ways, and several reasons -– found only in El Salvador -– for tourists to return.
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