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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Adventure awaits in Central America. Now it just needs tourists to return.

Havens for adventure travel such as Costa Rica and Guatemala have struggled to bring tourists back

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
6 min

YAXHÁ NATIONAL PARK, Guatemala — As the cloudless sky turned orange on an October evening, tourists admired the spectacle from Structure 216, the highest pyramid in the Mayan archaeological site of Yaxhá here. The only sounds to be heard were the noise of wind whizzing through the ancient stones and the loud verses of howler monkeys.

The wooden platform surrounding the temple can hold up to 20 people, allowing them to catch a view of the sunset over the nearby lagoon. But on that day, there were no more than 10 tourists, a tour guide and the park keeper.

Countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Belize were popular with adventure travelers before the pandemic hit. Adrenaline-filled activities such as climbing the Mayan ruins, year-round surfing, diving and exploring the jungle attracted millions of visitors from all over the world. But even as travel resumed in 2021, Central America has struggled to bring back international tourists.

In the first nine months of 2021, combined data from the local tourist authorities for Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador show that international tourist arrivals across these four countries were about 35 percent of what they were in 2019.

The sector is still lagging, and while there were signs of recovery in October and November in some countries, the omicron variant is another obstacle on the way back to growth.

Danny Callaghan, chief executive of the Latin American Travel Association (LATA), a U.K.-based group that promotes travel in the region, said that between surges in 2021, travelers were booking and inquiring about Central America.

“But there are challenges … as well as lack of clarity around crossing borders,” he said. “Consumers are extremely wary of the possibility of conditions for return being imposed, with the onerous costs that often apply.”

Because of that hesitancy, hospitality businesses and tourism companies are having to reinvent themselves.

Isaac Herrera, 42, an independent tour guide based in El Salvador, has shifted to offering only small private tours. He works in Metapán, an area filled with waterfalls and hiking trails.

“It has been much better because this way people feel safer,” he says. “I don’t mix groups. Instead, I work with people who already know each other, like friends or families.”

But the private tour route does not always guarantee success in this time of crisis, said Jesús Yat, 61. He works as a tour guide in Petén in Northern Guatemala, commonly known as the “Heart of the Mayan World” for its archaeological ruins. Yat gives tours around landmarks such as Tikal — a UNESCO World Heritage site — and Yaxhá.

“There are weeks where I do not find any clients requesting my services,” he says. “For now, the majority of visitors are locals, and they have visited the sites two or three times already, so they do not require my services.”

In Flores, Guatemala, the four-star Isla de Flores hotel has relied on locals to help weather the pandemic and only recently began receiving international guests — a major shift from their usual business.

“Before the pandemic, we only received international tourists,” says hotel manager Carla Rodríguez, 32. “But after, we started working only with locals, and for that, we had to lower our rates. Until this summer, we had only Guatemalan tourists. Since then, it has been picking up. It is about 50-50 now.”

There have been very few people coming into Guatemala from abroad. In October, there were 50,154 foreign visitors, less than a third during the same month in 2019, according to the latest data from INGUAT, the national tourism institute. While this was a slight improvement on the previous month — arrivals in September were down 76 percent vs. 2019 — there’s still a long way to go. In October, 29 percent of foreign visitors came from the United States.

Ana María Díaz, 34-year-old nonprofit worker, and her father, Ron Goldberg, 75, from North Carolina, flew into Guatemala in October to volunteer at an archaeological dig in Tikal. They felt comfortable visiting Guatemala only after getting vaccinated.

“I studied archaeology and one of my good friends is the director of the Tikal project,” Díaz said. “It was one of those bucket-list items. I wanted to come last year but we couldn’t because of the pandemic. But we couldn’t wait too long because it always becomes harder and harder to take time off. This was the best time; it’s near the start of the digging season.”

In the neighboring country of Belize, the story is similar. The full reopening of seaports and land borders, initially scheduled for the end of 2021, has now been pushed back to February because of the omicron surge. Tourists flying into Belize can enter with a negative test result and have a certified accommodation.

Tour operator Tukán Travel Belize launched in 2019, just before the pandemic. The company invested thousands of dollars in equipment and was able to pay it off in a few months while business was good, says assistant manager Celine Neal, 27.

They have managed to survive and are hopeful for a better year in 2022. Even with the spread of omicron, they have experienced in recent weeks an increase in last-minute bookings and scheduled tours for this year.

“Tourism in Belize has not fully recovered, but with the borders officially open in 2022, more tourists will be allowed to visit, and it will make it much easier for travelers,” Neal says.

The tourism Central America had in 2021 from outside the region consisted of mostly North American visitors. As European border openings and requirements fluctuated in 2021, visitors saw Central America as an alternative. As international travel picks up this year, it is essential that tourists from other parts of the world comes back to Central America, Callaghan says.

“We have really pretty locations,” says Efraín Zacarías, the manager of Raíces del Lago, a restaurant in Flores, Guatemala. “I want to say to international tourists not to be scared, because we have all the protocols in place.”