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Run by Ex-Gunrunner : Nicaragua's Tourism Up Despite War

March 12, 1986|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — It might sound like an undesirable job--minister of tourism in a poor and steamy republic at war. But for Herty Lewites, the official in charge of tourism in Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution and the civil war have meant success.

Rather than repelling tourists, the war between the Sandinista government and Washington-backed rebels is drawing thousands of Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans who say they want to support the Sandinistas or to see the leftist revolution at first hand. As a result, the dollar-earning Ministry of Tourism has become a thriving element in an otherwise crippled economy.

"When I travel abroad and say I am minister of tourism, no one believes me," Lewites said the other day. "They don't believe a Tourism Ministry can exist in Nicaragua. Tourism in war?"

5 Tourist Centers Built

In fact, Lewites' ministry has built five tourist centers at beaches, lakes and lagoons and has developed airport duty-free shops into a chain of "dollar stores" that did $10 million in business last year. The ministry runs a total of 42 state enterprises, including restaurants and hotels and the Tur-Nica travel agency.

Tourism officials, like spokesmen for the U.S. Embassy, say they are unaware of any travelers who have been hurt in the war with the rebels, the so-called contras, who are confined largely to the northern and southern border areas.

According to Lewites, 100,000 foreigners visited Nicaragua last year, 40% of them from the United States. President Reagan declared a trade embargo against Nicaragua in April, prohibiting direct commercial air service between the two countries, but he did not impose a travel ban.

25,000 in Industry

Lewites declined to specify how much money his government nets from tourism, but he said that tourism was the country's fifth-ranking foreign exchange earner, after coffee, cotton, fish and sugar, and he hopes to raise it to third. He said 25,000 people work directly or indirectly in the tourism industry.

Some here attribute the growth in tourism to Lewites as much as to interest in the revolution. Lewites, the son of Polish immigrants and one of the few Jews in Nicaragua, was a successful candy maker and gunrunner to the Sandinista guerrillas before they came to power in 1979.

Lewites, 47, said he learned English at Liberty Candy School in Los Angeles, where his father sent him in 1956 to prepare to go into the family business. Later he spent a year in the federal prison at Terminal Island for arms trafficking.

Now he is a Sandinista party militant, and despite the war he is planning ahead. He is building a resort at the old beach house of Anastasio Somoza, the late dictator, and dreaming of a national zoo.

The income from tourism is reinvested in tourism and can be measured in the recently remodeled ministry building, one of the most attractive structures in Managua, Nicaragua's ramshackle capital.

Many Tourist Spots

While many Sandinista leaders are forced to explain shortages and hardships to struggling Nicaraguans, Lewites is in the enviable position of offering the public new, low-cost entertainment spots financed largely by tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism, Inturismo, has developed Jiloa, a scenic volcanic lake site with boardwalks, cabanas and small-boat facilities about 10 miles outside of Managua. On weekends, the waterfront, some of it confiscated from wealthy Nicaraguans, is crowded with thousands of Nicaraguans who pay a penny to get in.

Similar to Jiloa is El Trapiche, a series of spring-fed streams funneled into natural pools that are surrounded by restaurants, picnic grounds and an amphitheater, also about 10 miles from the capital. The ministry also has paved a winding road up to the volcano Masaya, where sightseers stand at the mouth of the steaming crater and watch flocks of screeching parrots circle overhead.

Using Old Somoza Site

Lewites has begun to develop Montelimar resort on about 40 acres confiscated from the Somoza family. Montelimar, expected to open next year, eventually is to include a 130-room hotel, 80 cabanas and a casino.

"Somoza's house will be a restaurant and casino," Lewites said.

Most of the foreigners who visit Nicaragua, however, come not to see the natural beauty but to get a look at the Sandinista revolution. Most of them, Lewites said, are connected with churches, unions and universities, groups generally sympathetic to the Sandinistas, or curious professionals, politicians and political aides.

"It's not necessarily your average vacation," said Paul Wessel, 26, a paralegal from San Francisco visiting his sister, Lois, who works here as a translator.

"I wanted to see what life was like here," he said. "We've seen coffee and cotton farms, traveled by thumb, train and flatbed truck. We met North Americans working here, people from the National Assembly, a Nicaraguan woman teaching law students and people giving polio immunizations.

Finds No Animosity

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