Honduran Tourism: Selling Against a Coup

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Gustavo Amador / EPA

Honduran police officers stand at the entrance of a hotel in Tegucigalpa as supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya shout slogans on Oct. 8, 2009

A vacation in Honduras can conjure up visions of spectacular destinations: the Mayan ruins of Copán, cloud forest after cloud forest filled with exotic flora and fauna, the gorgeous beaches and the dolphin-filled waters off the island of Roatán. But that's not what tourist-industry reporters saw when the country's Minister of Tourism, Ricardo Martínez, presented a video at a recent convention in neighboring El Salvador. With a sound track of revolutionary music, it showed supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya clashing with riot police in the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Martínez, who was ousted from the government along with Zelaya after the country's June 28 coup d'état, was apologetic but unflinching about showing the video. "I'd like to tell everyone to come to Honduras and that it's a tranquil place and everything is beautiful, but you think I'd be successful with that message?" he says. "Of course not." Acting Honduran Tourism Minister Ana Abarca, appointed by the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, and other representatives of Honduras' de facto tourism institute were prohibited from attending the Central American Travel Market, the region's largest international tourism trade show of the year. Much of the world, including the U.S. and all of Honduras' neighbors, have refused to recognize the Micheletti regime.

Tourism was the country's main economic motor, but since the coup, says Martínez, Honduras' tourism industry — which grew by a robust 9% in 2008 — has plummeted 70%. The 7% tourism growth projections for 2009 are now expected to dip into the red. And the 155,000 Hondurans employed by the tourism industry are, in the words of Martínez, "suffering violently." Several TACA airlines flights to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which used to bring hundreds of tourists to Honduras every day, have been canceled. A project to build an international airport at the Copán ruins was suspended, and charter groups from Europe are backing out. Overall, it is estimated that Honduras' economy has been set back 10 years over the past three months.

The military-backed regime has attempted to prop up the collapsing industry by promoting internal tourism. Working with resorts and hotels on Roatán Island, a popular Caribbean dive spot off Honduras' northern coast, the de facto tourism board is promoting special two-for-one vacation deals. Many Hondurans have taken the bait, flocking to the white sands of Roatán and filling hotel rooms that were once occupied by U.S. and European travelers. Hondurans who support the de facto regime, such as tour operator Vilma Sauceda of Rema Tours, says the fact that Hondurans are "traveling like crazy" is a sign of support for the Micheletti government. She blames the drop in foreign tourism on a "media conspiracy" and "disinformation campaign" by Zelaya supports who are trying to create chaos and undermine the Micheletti government, which is not recognized by any other country in the world.

Martínez, however, thinks Hondurans are traveling because of economics, not political solidarity. "It's an opportunity to see Roatán, which has always been expensive for Hondurans," he says. And in many ways, the ousted minister notes, promoting internal tourism is the only option the Micheletti government has, since no one else will pay attention to them.

Despite Honduras' string of misfortunes, Martínez remains optimistic that the country's political situation will normalize and that tourism will help pull it out of the hole. Several big projects, such as Carnival Cruise Lines' tourism dock, under construction in Roatán, and a $15 million golf course–beach resort in the north of the country are still moving forward — a sign, Martínez says, of future recovery. "It's a matter of recuperating our international image, and I think that can happen overnight — just the same way we moved from positive to negative, we can jump from negative to positive," he says hopefully.

In the meantime, says Martínez, "we are still a state without individual guarantees. The police can come into your house without court order, you can be arrested without reason, and there's no freedom of movement." He wants tourism to come back to Honduras, just not on Micheletti's watch. "I'm not saying I am encouraging travel to Honduras, because I have shown you that the situation [for tourism] does not exist," Martínez told the journalists in El Salvador. "But what I am saying is, Please don't forget us, because we are going to solve this crisis. And once we do, we are really going to need your help."