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Nicaragua hopes 'Survivor' will propel a tourism surge

A Pacific Coast beach town has been playing host to the crew and cast of CBS-TV's 'Survivor.' It's all hush-hush, but fits in with a government push to market Nicaragua for tourism and investment.

August 22, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua —

The cast and crew from the television show "Survivor" have moved into this southern Nicaragua beach town. But don't talk about it!

It's all very hush-hush. CBS refuses to discuss it. Any locals receiving a paycheck have been ordered to mum the word. As though the presence of a bunch of gringos, television cameras and strapping work crews, zipping up and down streets in late-model pickup trucks, would go unnoticed in this town of 18,000, best known for surfing and summer homes.

San Juan del Sur, once little more than a fishing village, small shipping port and site of sporadic combat during the Contra war of the 1980s, has already dealt with a certain influx of expat arrivals. They've snapped up real estate in recent years and added to the business of discreetly placed mansions and fancy hotels.

Still, for all the bohemian coffee shops, late-night bars and Spanish-language schools, San Juan at its core remains a fairly laid-back, unhurried town of languid sunsets and leafy canopies.

So when Hollywood meets underdeveloped Nicaraguan Pacific Coast, there are bound to be winners and losers.

The surfing dudes and struggling fishermen grumbled that the best beaches were closed periodically for "Survivor" production, interfering with their recreation, in the case of one group, and, for the others, their livelihood.

"Here in San Juan we live from fishing," said Iris Villegas Mendoza, the wife of a fisherman and mother of five. "We've lost days [of income], and it has hurt us."

Surfer Carlos Siezar complained that three of the best beaches for catching southern Nicaragua's awesome waves had been blocked. "We can't do our thing," he said, "and it's been like that for nearly seven months."

But Erik Quiroz, who rents out 4-wheel-drive vehicles and books trips to Managua, two hours to the north, is more than happy with the intrusion.

"It's been great for business," he said. "I have more bookings, and from people who are coming down because this is where 'Survivor' was filmed."

In a "media fact sheet" provided by CBS, drafted this year, the "Survivor" production company said it planned to spend $6 million in Nicaragua on "direct production costs" — including flights, accommodations and fuel — and create 200 6-month-long jobs.

It was unclear how much of the money would trickle down into the community, and Nicaraguan officials say the country's low prices were a major appeal for the production company. The "Survivor" crew is said to have taken over the entire Pelican Eyes Resort, a gorgeous and luxurious retreat with a cascade of infinity pools ensconced amid lush palms up the hill from San Juan.

CBS spokeswoman Lori DelliColli declined to discuss the production further until the show airs next month, citing "the safety of our crew and confidentiality of the show." Asked by e-mail what safety issues she had in mind, she said she meant safety from the prying eyes of fans and media.

Oh.

The "fact sheet" said Nicaragua was chosen for "the country's natural beauty and the high level of support from the government."

That would be the government of President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista former revolutionary who is currently pulling all kinds of strings to get himself reelected in violation of the Nicaraguan Constitution.

Government officials apparently think "Survivor" could be good for foreign business investment and tourism, even though the CBS commercial for the show proclaims Nicaragua a land of "impenetrable terrain, smoldering volcanoes and savage wildlife." (Savage wildlife? The mosquitoes?)

Granted, Nicaragua as a tourist destination could be a tough sell to anyone who knows much about the country's violent history; bitter, dirty politics; propensity for earthquakes; and ranking as the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere (barely above Haiti).

Officials want to gloss over those negatives, scrub the country's image and portray Nicaragua as a place of beauty (which it is, in its way). In fact, tourism has been growing modestly but steadily since 2005, the year before Ortega was elected for a second time around.

Nicaragua, officials say, was the only country in Central America where the number of visitors and tourism revenue grew in the difficult year 2009.

Now the government is counting on "Survivor" to drive the trend and has granted the producers tax breaks, access to public beaches and jungle land, and other incentives.

Javier Chamorro, head of the semiofficial Nicaraguan Investment Promotion Agency, said the costs and any inconveniences for residents were far outweighed by potential benefits.

"We're trying for an exposure we never had," Chamorro said. "The more buzz there is, the more positive it is for us."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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