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Central America tourist trade grows

Countries locked in struggle to win share of visitors’ cash

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) — Like jungle plants vying for sunlight filtering through the dense rain-forest canopy, Central America's nature-rich countries are locked in a struggle to win a share of the booming global-ecotourism market.

While the region's tapering Meso-American Corridor occupies just 0.5 percent of the Earth's landmass, it holds around 7 percent of the flora and fauna.

Now that dense biological heritage is starting to pay hefty dividends. Led by a vanguard of low-budget backpackers, visits to Central America's humid jungles and turtle-filled beaches have more than doubled from 1.7 million at the beginning of the 1990s to 4 million at the close of 1999.

Regional leader Costa Rica, with dozens of animal-packed Web sites and a $5 million budget for tourist promotion, wooed more than a million visitors in 1999 and captured in excess of $1 billion in foreign earnings.

With tourist growth of 16.4 percent last year and earnings in excess of $2.6 billion, the region is moving to attract affluent visitors in search of "soft adventure" through a Darwinian mix of competition and collaboration.

Spurning a recent proposal for Central American nations to pool $3.5 million for a combined tourism campaign in key North American and European markets, Costa Rica opted to go it alone to consolidate its position as the region's No. 1 destination.

Focusing on tourist security, better signs and support for small and medium-sized businesses, which account for 70 percent of Costa Rica's 27,000 hotel rooms, the Tourism Institute is set to step up its promotional drive to attract moneyed visitors.

While Tourism Minister Walter Niehaus said Costa Rica "has room for the richest (tourists) and also backpackers," regional neighbors are placing more emphasis on promoting high-end ecotourism to boost earnings.

Honduras, which ranks fifth in the region's tourist economy with 370,000 visitors last year, has dedicated around 70 percent of its $2 million tourism-promotion budget toward ecotourism.

"I feel it is the direction of ecotourism that people want to take. It's a global tendency even though most tourism continues to be sun and sand," Honduran Tourism Ministry adviser Ricardo Martinez told Reuters.

Targeting 20 percent income growth this year from a 5 percent increase in visitor numbers, Honduras is reaching out to well-heeled visitors with an interest in the wild nature and rich cultures of its remote Atlantic Coast nature reserves.

It recently opened a second eco-hotel in the Caribbean coast's Bosque Atlantida and is promoting trips to the remote Platano River Biosphere reserve and workshops opening up the vibrant culture of the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna communities.

With 928 species of birds and a host of plant and animal species new to science, Panama's Government Tourist Board (IPAT) hopes to harness its rich natural surroundings to boost 1999 tourism revenue of $540 million by 10 percent this year.

With a promotional budget of $1.8 million that it hopes to raise to $5 million, IPAT director Liriola Pitti de Cordoba said Panama is banking on a strategy that seeks to combine tourism with conservation and research.

"This concept goes a little beyond ecotourism ... directed at a population that is avid to know about the ecological and also scientific riches of the Panamanian Isthmus."

Working with the National Environmental Authority, Kuna, Wounaan and Embara Indian leaders and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, IPAT is promoting low-impact ecological and cultural tourism with an educational slant.

Granting 20-year tax breaks to business in selected development areas, Panama inaugurated work on the $20 million Hotel Melia in a former U.S. military base on the jungle fringes of the Panama Canal last year, along with the $350,000 San Jose Eco-Lodge Resort in the Pacific coast's Las Perlas archipelago.

And last month a private consortium opened Central America's largest ecotourism project, the $30 million Gamboa Rainforest Resort located in 340 acres of pristine jungle overlooking the headwaters of the Panama Canal.

The 107-room luxury hotel offers onsite educational and adventure packages pitched between $270 and $585 for three nights. Visitor attractions include riverboat excursions, aerial tram rides through the forest canopy and trips to the project's orchid, butterfly and reptile house exhibits.

"Tourists as a whole are looking for packaging as it's easier paying up front for everything," Gamboa's international marketing director Victor Pitti said. "We are a very good option that practically has not existed in Central America before."