Let’s Get Real About When Tourism Can Kill

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Warning: This is a rant. No beautiful photos of dreamy sunsets will go with what I have to say. Yet, I have to get this off my chest…When irresponsible and uncontrolled tourism leaves a wake of destruction in its path   It. Isn’t. Pretty

The truth is that irresponsible tourism can kill. It kills unsuspecting people, cities, small towns in pristine places, and our fragile environment. It kills morale and self-confidence, replacing them with fear and denial.  In its wake, it leaves us bewildered, confused, frustrated, afraid, and angry…oh so angry.

Irresponsible tourism affects everyone from the locals who are displaced to the business owners to the foreigners who have chosen to retire and live abroad. It affects us in Nicaragua and we are all responsible for the consequences of our irresponsible actions. No one gets off the hook easily…not anymore.

Yet, exposing the dirty side of irresponsible tourism in Nicaragua is a big NO! NO! Those who are courageous enough to speak out are harassed, shunned, and/or blocked from expat forums. Why? Well, I suspect a number of reasons, the biggest reason is economic. Responsible and sustainable tourism can provide direct jobs to the community and indirect employment generated through other industries such as agriculture, food production, and retail.

Responsible tourism can bring about a real sense of pride and identity to communities. By showcasing distinct characteristics of their ways of life, history and culture, tourism can encourage the preservation of traditions which may be at risk of losing their unique identities and cultural heritage.

Nicaragua relies heavily on tourism. Visitor expenditure generates income for the local communities, which can lead to the alleviation of poverty. The benefits of responsible and sustainable tourism are great, yet what about the problems that irresponsible tourism brings and how do we solve those problems without creating an awareness of them first?

I have written about the Codes of Responsible Travelers and I think that if we are responsible travelers we are aware of the effect we have on the places we visit. Yet, there is another side of tourism that is rarely discussed. What responsibilities do the locals have, the business owners, the local government, and the foreigners who have chosen to live in the high tourist areas? Do we escape accountability for when bad things happen?

I have given this much thought, and although I do not have a business in Nicaragua, I see the effects of the good and the bad practices daily. In discussing my thoughts, I want to make sure it is presented in a context where I don’t place anyone on the defensive or create emotional turmoil. I read about the problems on expats of Nicaragua forums, and I talk with many local and foreign business owners. These are only my thoughts on the problems. I place no blame on any group, but I think it is time that we ask ourselves some important questions to help our tourist communities be safe, enjoyable, and unique places for tourists to visit.

With the influx of foreigners moving to Nicaragua and starting businesses, are we loving Nicaragua to death? So….

Let’s Get Real About When Tourism Can Kill with six important questions we should ask ourselves as expats.

1.  What responsibilities do we have to ensure the safety of our guests?

“The tourists had money and we needed it; they only asked in return to be lied to and deceived and told that single most important thing, that they were safe, that their sense of security—national, individual, spiritual—wasn’t a bad joke being played on them by a bored and capricious destiny.”

When visiting a new place, I always ask the locals where the safe places are to walk and the places I should avoid. We usually stay in AirB&Bs and our hosts have always been gracious in answering our questions about safety. I always leave reviews either on Trip Advisor, or AirB&B about our travels. Usually, my reviews are very good, but occasionally, there are reviews that I have to write informing others of some of the problems we encountered.

But, my question is…How much should we tell tourists and should we warn them only if they ask? It is a moral dilemma sometimes because if we write about the problems, complain about the crime, or express our frustrations because we are people who live in these high tourist areas, then businesses may suffer, we are harassed by expats in denial that these problems exist, and/or we remove our posts from social media. People will be afraid to visit, and most likely will avoid the problem areas.

And if we warn them, how much should we say? Should I tell tourists that at least five people have died climbing our volcanoes? Do tourists need to know that two people died during Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur? Should we tell tourists to read the reviews carefully for the places they stay because some of the places can be dangerous or are unsafe for single women because of hosts who allegedly sexually harass the guests? Should we tell tourists about the known pedophile fugitives or the local thieves or a dangerous cult in Nicaragua?

2. How involved should we, as foreign residents of Nicaragua, be in the local politics?

One of the major problems that accompanies tourism is crime. Tiny police forces in Nicaragua are overwhelmed, underpaid, and understaffed. When uncontrolled tourism bombards a small community, fishing village, and picturesque colonial cities and they are unprepared to deal with the petty crime that accompanies tourism, should we take actions into our own hands or try to work with the local police force?

How successful are community watch programs or Friends of the Police programs in solving the problems that occur because of increased tourism?

As pensionado visa residents of Nicaragua, we cannot become involved in the politics in Nicaragua for fear of being deported. Yes! It is the law! So, we have to tread lightly and gently in discussing our thoughts about corruption and Nicaraguan politics in general.

3. How important is planning in developing sustainable tourism?

I believe that planning for our future is invaluable. Planning for an increase in tourism is imperative. Without foresight everyone suffers. For example, we should ask ourselves, “What kind of tourism do we want? ” If we want a party atmosphere with bars lining every street, then we need to be prepared to deal with the problems that a party atmosphere will bring to our communities.

Tourism is relatively new to Nicaraguans. With the influx of foreigners moving to Nicaragua to start businesses, many of the locals can’t compete because they lack the start-up revenue, the awareness of what tourists want, and the marketing skills. Not only that, but the prices of everything increase significantly.

Nicaragua is experiencing growing pains in tourism. Are they prepared and have they planned for the future?

INTUR is the Nicaraguan Department of Tourism.

4. What are the laws of Nicaragua for developing businesses?

There are several good sites for information in starting a foreign business in Nicaragua.
Doing Business Here
How to Set Up a Company
Guide to Doing Business in Nicaragua
NGO Law Monitor: Nicaragua
Doing Business in Nicaragua

5. What responsibility does the Nicaraguan government have in developing safe, sustainable tourism?

I had an interesting conversation with a local business person who owns four businesses in Nicaragua. I asked him what he thought the biggest problem was in tourism and he didn’t hesitate in telling me that it was the government. His opinion is that Nicaragua enacts many laws that affect tourism, but very few of them are enforced on a consistent basis because they encourage foreign business ventures.

For example, he is required to pay into his local employees’ public health insurance (INSS) Yet, he knows of several businesses (mostly foreign) where the local employees are not receiving public health insurance, which is required by law. Also, he said that there are some businesses who do not hire local employees, instead they run their businesses with volunteers or foreigners. In exchange for work, they get free room and/or board.

6. Are we loving Nicaragua to death?

“Ironically, in many areas today’s number-one threat is not clear-cutting, overgrazing, or destructive mining practices. It is something more insidious. Well-meaning people, many of them former visitors who were seduced into moving to the glorious region, are loving it to death.”

Have we been seduced into moving to Nicaragua by articles, or blogs, or expat forums where the ugly side of living and working abroad is hidden from us? Is it possible that we are so enamored with our adopted country that we are destroying it with our affection?

The truth is ugly, but so is ignorance and denial. I hope I’ve given you some thought-provoking questions to ponder. I know that I’ve been thinking about these questions for a month and trying to figure out how to create an awareness of our problems without being offensive or casting blame on one group. We are all responsible to some degree. I believe creating an awareness is the first step to solving problems.

How do we create a thoughtful discussion of the problems that tourism brings without exposing the ugly side of tourism…the side that can kill?

15 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real About When Tourism Can Kill

  1. so many complex issues when cultures and business meet! I think you are doing what you need to do and are very capable of doing here – verbalizing the issues so that people become aware and can intelligently discuss the various shades of gray, instead of insisting on black and white simplicities.

  2. Great article .
    As a traveler abroad for most of my life and living in various countries since my early 20’s full or part time…. I’ve seen plenty .

    What I’ve discovered in this” evolving world ” is that the newer countries that are” now “on the scope for expats ,,,,, AND TOURISM……(and they’ve all been NEW…at some time ,,) tend to hide the real dirt even more.

    And its because of FEAR AND GREED…. its not good for business .,,etc etc …

    Plus a lot of expats tend to believe that where they’ve chosen to move ,,,is the best place ever…okkk…whatever….


    ask ALOT of questions ,,,look at the tourism , the expats , how they live , what they do , research research……

    Yep ,,,no where is perfect ,,,no where …

    but get real people and tell the “””””TRUTH “”””””””…,,,as in the end …..it will prevail….

    • Thanks Heidi. Sometimes it is difficult for me to write about the ugly things I see and experience in Nicaragua, because it is my home. I love the people, the culture, and the diverse country. I understand that I am responsible for helping to create a safe and friendly place to live, too. It is a great country to live in, but it has its share of problems, like all areas where tourism grows too rapidly. No place can be called paradise. That’s why I try to be honest when writing my blogs. I have lived in Nicaragua for 12 years and I have seen many changes. Most of them have been good, but within the past couple of years, I have seen and experienced some changes that have been alarming.
      You are right. We need to do our research, ask a lot of questions, and create an awareness of not only the bad things, but the good things that are happening in Nicaragua, too. I try to maintain a balance of good vs bad.
      You have done your research in considering to move to Nicaragua, and decided that maybe this country isn’t going to be a good fit for you. I applaud you for your research. You joined expat blogs and forums, talked with people from all walks of life in Nicaragua, and made a decision that is best for you through thorough research and investigation. Best wishes in your continuing search. No where is perfect, but I am sure you will find the place that feels just right for you. Hugs.

  3. yes, so much to think about regarding tourism and its downside. Regarding ignorant people responding to blogs, a major newspaper in Toronto closed its response blog due to such horrible racism. This had to do with aboriginal peoples. Just yesterday it was announced that eighty people have been arrested for child porn. All children on the site were under 12 years old. One of my best friends rented a room out to a young man, a chef, and he was implicated in a huge child porn arrest. They took my friends computer and went over it with a fine tooth comb, to find nothing. What is this world coming to? Good to keep fighting the fight. I must say your recent experience at the little island off of Cartegena left me cold. What fun to having women manhandle you for a massage, or to braid your hair. Is that some kind of cultural experience????? Sounds horrible to me. And then to pay so much money for that horrible experience. One ends up feeling so used up with no good memories from the experience. Glad you let us know of all these things going on.

    • Laura, thank you for sharing your thoughts and your stories. I think that some of the people who respond so viciously to articles like in the major newspaper in Toronto are trolls stirring the pot for a reaction. If we don’t feed the trolls, they will go away or move on to another article. It’s a real shame that our world is filled with so much hate and anger. It seems like it is constantly at a boiling point.
      As far as my tourist experience in Cartagena, most of the local visitors to the island were entertained and having a good time. It just depends on what kind of experience we want to have when we travel. I prefer real cultural experiences, but I am probably in the minority. Most people simply want to be entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that until it gets out of control and we are harassed and hounded by aggressive vendors. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  4. We bought a small hotel earlier this year. It’s been here nearly 20 years, so it’s not new in the tourism of the area. We have done everything by the book: set up a Nica SA, our employees are paid the wage set by the govt and in the system. We do have volunteers also, largely because we homeschooled and have kids with wanderlust and they’ve done their share of volunteering and being hosted – it’s a great way to learn about other cultures and meet interesting people. We’re in the process (been approved, awaiting the cedulas) of getting legal residency. We bought a vehicle through the business and have it insured.

    Our biggest challenges are infrastructure (stable power and internet), the cost of power, and bureaucracy. The President’s expressed welcome to new investment doesn’t trickle down to the people who work in the various offices investors have to deal with, unfortunately. We do NOT get involved in local politics, nor do we expect the police to respond if we have an actual emergency, sadly.

    We DO warn our guests of security issues we know about (and have a security guard at night), tell them how much a cab *should* cost them (vs what the cab driver will try to charge them), remind them to use common sense with their belongings when they are out and about. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend walking down the beach at midnight using your iPhone is a smart idea!

    • Jen, thank you so very much for taking the time to comment from the perspective of a responsible foreign business owner. Like I said in my post, I am not a business owner, but I have had some experience managing a youth hostel on the island, so I appreciate your information.
      I hope I opened the door to having a civil discussion about the problems that exist with irresponsible and uncontrolled tourism. We all play a part in helping the tourists have a safe and enjoyable experience.
      The problems with the infrastructure, such as reliable power and Internet, good roads, trash disposal and a steady supply of good drinking water are frustrating at times. They are definitely important things to consider when starting a business or moving to a developing country. The more people, the more problems, and without knowledge of these things beforehand, we all suffer.
      The beaurocracy is overwhelming and confusing. You are right! Trickle-down doesn’t seem to trickle down to those we have to deal with in various government offices.
      My intentions in writing this article were to bring to light the problems that uncontrolled tourism can bring to a tourist community. This article can apply to all heavily touristed areas in the world.
      The first step is to create awareness. Thank you so much, Jen for replying to this post with thoughtfulness and understanding.

  5. We believe (and hope) that Ecuador has learned from Mexico and Central American countries about the dangers of too rapid growth in the ex-pat and tourist population. With a few exceptions in Vilacabamba and Quenca, most of the growth that we have seen has complemented the local industry and population. Let’s hope it stays that way.

    Great post regarding the dangers of tourism. Thanks!

    • I agree, John and Mary. Throughout our travels in Ecuador, we saw many fine examples of responsible tourism. Your adopted country has the foresight and thoughtful planning to keep tourism in check. We never encountered beggars or aggressive vendors in Ecuador. The cities were clean and the infrastructure was reliable. I belong to several Ecuador forums and rarely do I read about frustrations with tourism in Ecuador.
      Thanks for commenting. Nicaragua is young and vulnerable in the tourism business. They are beginning to see the value in planning ahead. I am optimistic that these problems can be resolved with the rapid growth by creating an awareness first. But, it does no good to complain and blame one group of people. We can do this if we all work together.

  6. Thanks for taking time/energy/emotions to write this one — also true in Mexico — any “undiscovered paradise”….

  7. I heartily agree! My recent, private, written concerns were told that financial interests by a few powerful and political local individuals made opposition almost impossible. Very sad, especially at a new growth time when discussion and education are vital.

    • Exactly, MH. But, if we continue to wade through the new growth and expansion without consideration of the future we will all suffer. At least I can provide some questions we all need to ask ourselves. But, I fear for our adopted country, the locals, the foreigners, and everyone living here.

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