Interview with Boris Iraheta

Secretary General of the Central America Tourism Agency (CATA)

Boris Iraheta

Secretary General

Central America Tourism Agency (CATA)

Mr. Boris Iraheta is the Secretary General of the Central America Tourism Agency (CATA), the entity responsible for promoting and developing tourism throughout the Central American region. At a time when the tourism industry faces significant challenges and with concerns about climate change, CATA's work is more vital than ever.

Under Mr. Iraheta's leadership, CATA is implementing innovative strategies to revitalise tourism in the region, focusing on sustainability, market diversification and improving tourism infrastructure. Today, we will explore how these strategies are being implemented, the challenges facing the region, and what we can expect in the future of tourism in Central America.

Could you tell us about your professional background before joining CATA?

I am Salvadoran with a background in business management in the areas of marketing, market intelligence, brand communication and tourism. My experience has been forged in various spheres, including private enterprise, non-governmental organisations, academia and state institutions.

I have also participated in regional integration spaces, as a member of the Central American Tourism Marketing Committee (COMECATUR) and the Marketing Commission of the Mayan World Organisation (WMO), contributing to strengthen the position of Central America as a leading tourism destination in the Americas.

As Secretary General of CATA, what are your main responsibilities?

In general terms, my main responsibility is to promote the multi-destination tourism offer of Central America and the Dominican Republic in international markets. The products that the region has to offer can be broadly grouped as: archaeology, sun and beach in the Caribbean, nature and adventure, sun and beach in the Pacific Ocean, as well as gastronomy. 

To achieve this, we focus on planning, organising and executing tourism promotion strategies for the region in markets of interest such as Europe and North America. In this way we make the Central American tourism product known in the most important international spaces of the industry. All of this is contemplated within the design of promotional, public relations and marketing campaign strategies that we execute year after year.

How is CATA addressing the needs of the different member countries in terms of tourism promotion?

We address the needs of our countries through joint work between the National Tourism Administrations and the National Chambers of Tourism. 

CATA was conceived with the understanding that the integral and sustainable management of tourism required the articulated work between the public and private sectors of the industry. One of the main creations of this articulated work is the multidestination.

The development of multi-destination promotion campaigns is one of our main means of disseminating the region's benefits. In them, we highlight the cultural and natural diversity of the isthmus, showing how each country complements the tourist experience of the other. 

Another of our concrete actions are international events and tourism fairs, which are effective platforms to establish contacts with wholesale tour operators, travel agents, media and potential tourists, but above all to ensure that the promotion of destinations translates into business for our business sector. 

Incidentally, we have just held the Central America Travel Market 2024, the region's tourism fair - the first in the post-pandemic period - with which we have renewed our commitment to the marketing of the multi-destination product. We had the participation of wholesalers and media from all over the world, who were able to see first-hand the offer of the countries in the region. At the close of the fair we counted more than 1,600 business appointments, which we hope will bear fruit in 2025. 

Sustainable tourism is a critical global issue, what initiatives is CATA promoting to encourage sustainable practices within the region?

At CATA, we contribute on different fronts. Certification and training is one of them. We collaborate with the Secretariat for Central American Tourism Integration (SITCA) to promote the Central American Integrated System of Tourism Quality and Sustainability (SICCS), which is the first regional tourism quality seal.  

Through it, we promote the adoption of sustainable practices in the tourism industry. This includes a three-level sustainable tourism certification programme for hotels, tour operators and other service providers. 

The promotion of cultural and nature tourism with a focus on preservation is another of our contributions. We value each of the efforts made in the countries of the region to preserve specific cultural manifestations. Also, species conservation plans. 

Under this scheme, the countries are making specific efforts that I think are important to highlight. For example, Belize has the only jaguar sanctuary in Central America. Guatemala has a cloud forest called the Quetzal Biotope, dedicated to the conservation of this bird of great importance for the Mayan culture. 

Honduras has a sanctuary for the preservation of different types of Macaws. El Salvador has an important programme for the protection of hawksbill turtles, known as the gardeners of the sea for their contribution to the balance of marine ecosystems. In Panama, sanctuaries can be found for the preservation of sloths, a species native to the tropical rainforests of Central America. 

In the case of the Dominican Republic, they have programmes for the restoration of corals. They consist of collecting coral fragments, raising them in underwater nurseries and transplanting them back to the reef.

All this, just to mention specific examples. The fact is that all management has a dedicated focus on sustainable tourism which makes local communities key actors in this process. This is where CATA finds the opportunity to promote existing practices for sustainable tourism in the region. 

How does CATA collaborate with other regional and international organisations to promote tourism in Central America?

CATA believes in collaborative work for shared benefits. In recent months we have been working to approach different regional and international organisations that allow us to weave network links. For example, we have approached major consolidators such as the Spanish Confederation of Travel Agencies (CEAV) to make them aware of the cultural wealth, natural beauty and unique experiences that make our region a destination not to be missed. 

In the German market, we have promoted specific initiatives in collaboration with ARGE Lateinamerika for DMCs. With them, we explored strategies on how to enhance the marketing of tourism packages from Central America and the Dominican Republic, with a multi-destination approach, to attract more travellers from Germany.

On the other hand, we have accompanied UN Tourism initiatives for the region. Recently, we participated in the 69th meeting of the Regional Commission for the Americas, where leaders from 26 countries and international organisations joined together to promote collaborative work in the tourism sector. Also, aware of the challenges of air travel in the region, we participated in Wings of Change Americas (WOCA), organised by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). At this event, we met with airlines that already operate in the region and others that intend to enter Central American skies. 

What are the biggest challenges facing tourism in Central America today, and what unique opportunities does the region offer for international tourists?

Point-to-point and intra-regional connectivity remains one of the biggest challenges facing tourism in Central America. Especially when it comes to direct connections from European source markets. The truth is that countries are working closely with airlines to expand existing routes, increase frequencies and introduce direct flights. In the case of air connectivity between countries in the region, the challenge is the cost of airport taxes. On this issue, work is also being done on several fronts with the authorities of the different state institutions involved to promote open skies and finally achieve a reduction in the percentage of charges. 

Another point is infrastructure. Although improvements have been made in the tourism infrastructure in many Central American countries, there are still areas that require development, such as roads, airports, and tourism services. On the other hand, seeking greater management of the sustainability of destinations remains a challenge.  

The perception of insecurity in some of the countries may also negatively affect the inflow of tourists to the region. Finally, promotion and marketing. Central American countries often face difficulties in promoting themselves as tourist destinations compared to more established destinations in Latin America. 

All of the above are challenges where we have identified unique opportunities to work on. For example, in connectivity and open skies, the frank dialogue is well advanced and we hope to hear about concrete steps to make them a reality. In infrastructure, post pandemic, all countries are in tune with the renewal and this has included improvements to access roads, as well as to the conditions of the destinations themselves. All this with a focus on sustainability. 

Could you give us a preview of some of the projects or initiatives that CATA plans to launch in the near future?

In the near future, our big bet is to hold the Central America Travel Market Fair (CATM) - Honduras 2025. The countries of the region have decided to take advantage of the dynamic context that international tourism is going through, especially in Central America, especially with the positive trace left by the CATM fair, held in El Salvador in April of this year. 

We are planning, together with the UN tourism office for Latin America and IATA, a series of meetings with key players in the aviation industry, in order to reach agreement on connectivity.

We will continue to weave strategic alliances with airlines, hotels, wholesale tour operators and specialised media, in order to increase the number of people visiting the region.

There is a lot of work ahead. In 2023, the region grew by 16% compared to 2019, the last year before the pandemic. Adding up the visitor data as a region, we are among the 11th and 12th places for visitors internationally, according to data published by UN Tourism for 2023. We want to be in the top ten

How do you see the future of tourism in Central America in the next 5 to 10 years?

We see the future of tourism in Central America The future of tourism as promising, due to several trends and factors that could influence its development. The diversification of tourism products, environmental sustainability, technology and digitalisation, the mainstreaming of an inclusive approach to destinations, and the development of infrastructure seem to me to be elements that will lead the way in boosting tourism in the coming years. 

What strategies is CATA implementing to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change on the tourism industry in Central America?

The promotion of sustainable tourism by encouraging responsible tourism practices that minimise environmental impact and promote the conservation of natural resources. This includes the certification of hotels and tour operators that comply with environmental standards, as well as awareness-raising campaigns for tourists and businesses in the sector.

Given the fluctuation of traditional tourism markets, how is CATA working to attract tourists from new markets or segments?

We are already approaching wholesale tour operators and travel agents, consolidators and other key players in markets that are considered emerging, such as the Asian market. 

Hand in hand with this, we are working on modernising our tourism offer, adapting it to the category drivers of these markets. 

In terms of market segments, we are seeking closer ties with firms that can help us become certified in terms of inclusion, accessibility and smart tourism.

Security is a crucial aspect for tourism development. What measures is CATA taking to improve the perception and reality of security in Central America?

We are working on communication. Much of the security image of a destination has to do with the imbalance between the generation and dissemination of negative news versus positive news. We are working on communicating all the positive aspects of Central America, that we are a destination of unique nature, with millenary cultures and first class gastronomy. That we are modernising our infrastructure with new airports, extensions to existing ones, world-class convention centres and home ports for the cruise industry. 

In line with promoting our destination, we are about to launch a promotional campaign that highlights the reasons that make tourist destinations in Central America true enclaves to enjoy with the confidence of getting the best treatment, in the best natural and cultural environment, highlighting all the positive aspects to address the perception of security. 

Of course, security, as in other destinations, is a real issue to be addressed, what we are saying is that the perception of insecurity with respect to other destinations, with similar problems, may be distorted. 

However, the authorities are working on a daily basis to reduce incidents of insecurity, which they are working on in a determined manner, but it is also worth clarifying that they do not usually happen in tourist areas.

How is CATA working to improve the training and professionalisation of the tourism sector in the region?

CATA has played a crucial role in empowering the industry through digitalisation and innovation by introducing advanced technological solutions that optimise processes, improve efficiency and enhance decision-making. Its commitment to cutting-edge technology has marked a watershed, promoting digital transformation and raising standards in the sector.

This has been a progressive process that the Agency has been working on in recent years, in close coordination with the Tourism Authorities and the private sector represented in the Federation of Central American Chambers of Tourism (FEDECATUR). 

The COVID19 pandemic injected speed into this process. During the mitigation and reactivation phase, we trained more than 4,000 actors in the tourism industry in Central America and the Dominican Republic in techniques to reinvent themselves and address the crisis situation. We also developed the first catalogue of tourism experiences available on the website visitCentroamé 

In the stage of tourism recovery, which the region is experiencing with great enthusiasm, CATA has bet on the use of artificial intelligence from the vision of promoting collaborative actions of co-creation of tourism products with artificial intelligence that promote innovation and adaptability of the multi-destination offer in Central America and the Dominican Republic to new market trends.

As I mentioned earlier, we have been working with key industry players such as CEAC, IATA, UN Tourism, ARGE Latin America to have more specialised training and ensure the insertion of the regional tourism offer in the markets of interest.

How do international political tensions or changes in travel policies affect tourism in Central America and what strategies does CATA have to deal with these issues?

Definitely, any political, economic and social tensions or changes have an impact on tourism development. On this issue, we have seen how countries have been betting on turning tourism into a state issue, through long-term plans. From CATA, our strategy will always be to bet on collaboration, integration, the spirit of brotherhood and complementarity.  

We believe that one of the strengths of the institution is that the Board of Directors is made up, as I mentioned earlier, of authorities from the public and private sectors of regional tourism. It is especially the private sector that is in charge of following up on the actions or ensuring that the decisions taken are maintained in each of the countries, as well as in the regional space.  

What new tourism products or services is CATA developing to maintain the region's competitiveness in the global market?

CATA is promoting a tourism offer adapted to the new demands of travellers to ensure the insertion of the multi-destination region in the new global tourism landscape. For example, the Dominican Republic became a full member of the agency in 2019. From then to date, CATA has worked on the integration of both tourism universes from a complementary approach. 

Along these lines, in 2021, we held the first HACKATHON for the creation of multi-destination tourism products between Central America and the Dominican Republic. This unprecedented event was attended by 40 tour operators from the region. As a result, the first catalogue of multi-destination offers was generated, which already includes packages with the incorporation of the Caribbean island. 

This is important to mention because, in general terms, it helps to contextualise the genesis of the new generation of tourism products to which we refer. In 2023, as a continuation of this effort, we held the first workshop for the creation of tourism products with artificial intelligence. 

This allowed us to foster collaborative work between more than 30 tour operator companies in the region for the conceptualisation and development of unique and innovative tourism products through artificial intelligence. For the above, the Agency recently received the award for international tourism excellence, granted by the Excelencias Group within the framework of FITUR 2024.

Mr. Iraheta, it has been a pleasure to delve into the challenges and opportunities facing tourism in Central America with you. Your enlightening answers clarify the path that CATA is charting for the region, and the general outlines for the future of tourism in the Region.

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and to analyze traffic. Information about your use of this site is shared with Google. By using this site, you agree to its use of cookies.