Juan Pablo Nieto

Central America: a region moving together towards sustainable tourism development

From its genesis, through its achievements and acknowledging the challenges, this article seeks to synthesise six decades of the tourism integration process in Central America and the Dominican Republic. The role of the public and private sectors, as well as the participation of Central Americanists convinced of the opportunities of working together and using tourism as a vehicle for development, are the most decisive elements of the process. A road that has been travelled with effort, which requires more alliances and awareness of sustainable and competitive development in order to take full advantage of the region's strengths: its natural and cultural heritage, as well as the warmth of its people.

The genesis of regional integration and its organisation.

201 years after Central America's Independence from the Spanish Crown, the region is consolidating as a territory rich in culture and nature. With more than 57 million inhabitants, it is the sixth largest economy in Latin America. The path towards Central American integration has been moving forward for almost 75 years, with Belize, Panama and the Dominican Republic joining the region.

From 1951, with the creation of the Organisation of Central American States (ODECA), to the signing of the Tegucigalpa Protocol, which gave life to the Central American Integration System, governance and institutionality have been strengthened, articulated around five pillars: (i) democratic security, (ii) climate change and integrated risk management, (iii) social integration, (iv) economic integration and (v) institutional strengthening. Under these pillars, the more than 35 sectoral secretariats and institutions are coordinated, including tourism.

An important aspect of this regional governance is the figure of the consultative committees, whose purpose is to promote the participation of civil society, the private sector and NGOs, so that the needs and interests of the population are represented and to guarantee compliance with the Tegucigalpa Protocol. In addition, they advise the Secretariats of the integration subsystems and propose recommendations to strengthen integration. Although their proposals are not binding, they allow the political and technical bodies to take into consideration the voices of the region's living forces.

With respect to tourism integration, the starting signal was given by the Agreement for the Unification of the Draft Central American Standards for the Promotion of Tourism in 1965, which allowed for the creation of the Central American Tourism Council (CCT) and the Central American Tourism Integration Secretariat (Secretaría de Integración Turística Centroamericana). Another important milestone was the Montelimar Declaration of 1996, in which the Heads of State and Government declared tourism as a priority activity of national and regional interest and became the first roadmap towards regional tourism integration. Parts of the text of the Declaration read:

A visionary declaration that gives a preponderant place to the participation of the private sector in the process of building the sustainable and competitive multi-destination that was aspired to. This recognition materialised in the definition of the region's governing bodies and institutions. Although the CCT does not have a Consultative Committee, its structure integrates, as members with voice, the Federation of Central American Chambers of Tourism (Fedecatur), which is represented by the presidents of each of the national chambers. In addition, within the working committees, such as the marketing and quality and sustainability committees, the executives of the national chambers participate actively, taking part in the agreements that they propose as recommendations to the ministers and those responsible for tourism. 

In addition, the Central American Tourism Promotion Agency (CATA) was created, whose board of directors is made up of the ministers and heads of the tourism portfolios of the countries, as well as the presidents of the national chambers with full rights. This body is joined by the platinum members, a category in which Grupo Taca was for many years. 

This regional structure is guided by the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development 2021-2025 (PEDTS), which is organised into four pillars: (i) tourism policy and integration, (ii) tourism promotion and marketing, (iii) quality and competitiveness, and (iv) institutional strengthening, coordination and public-private articulation. Currently, the region is in the process of building the Regional Tourism Policy (PRETUR), which I am fortunate to coordinate together with a consulting team.

This process of integration articulated by public bodies has meant that the private tourism sector must also be strengthened and formalised. For this reason, although Fedecatur had already existed informally for many years, it was not until 2004 that the first general assembly was held where the federation's statutes were approved and deposited with the General Secretariat of SICA, which gave it legal life. The seven countries of the isthmus participated in this federation, including Belize and Panama, and more recently the Dominican Republic joined. 

On the other hand, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the tour operator associations were organised around the Central American Federation of Tour Operators (Facot), an entity that, together with Fedecatur, made the first multi-destination product for the European market that CATA promoted in its beginnings viable. Unfortunately, this organisation was diluted, but its role continued to be assumed by the federation of chambers. 

Subsequently, with the support of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and as a result of a project to support small hotels in the region, the Central American Federation of Small Hotels (FECAPH) was created, which strongly promoted the organisation of hotel MSMEs in the region, as well as the improvement of their competitiveness and intra-regional marketing capacities. 

A final instance of private tourism integration is the Tri-national Chamber of Tourism, which is organised within the framework of the tourism project of the Trifinio Plan - a SICA body that promotes development projects for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - and which unites the tourism value chain of the northern triangle of Central America.

This has enabled tourism integration.

Making tourism visible in the policies and economies of countries has been a challenge at the global level, which persists to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the development of each country. At the regional level, this challenge has been twofold, since it has involved doing so at the national level and then extrapolating it to the regional level. In this respect, it can be indicated that, at the political level, this has resulted in 24 years in 33 mandates or declarations, addressed in ten Meetings of Presidents. There have also been six resolutions or recommendations of the Central American Parliament in 21 years and one resolution in 2003 of the Forum of Presidents of the Central American Legislative Powers. 

In addition, tourism integration entities have signed more than ten cooperation agreements with regional and extra-regional entities such as the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the International Social Tourism Organisation (OITS).

From the point of view of tourism development, SITCA and CATA have implemented several projects with funds from Spain, Japan, Taiwan and the European Union. This has allowed for the creation of the Central American Integrated Seal of Quality and Sustainability (SICCS), the provision and transfer of technology for the geo-referencing of tourist attractions, the creation of regional routes, the strengthening of statistics, their standardisation and support for the creation of tourism satellite accounts, among others. 

In terms of promotion and marketing, the region has made progress in the creation of a solid platform through CATA, creating catalogues aimed at intra-regional tourism and the European market, carrying out studies of the best prospects for the products of the eight countries. It has also consolidated its marketing tools, such as press and familiarisation trips, sales seminars for wholesalers and the largest meeting with the trade and specialised press at the Central America Travel Market (CATM), which combines pre- and post-tours with two days of business meetings. 

What remains to be done.

Like any process, tourism integration, whether seen from the public or private sector, has had its ups and downs, successes and failures. I can say without fear of contradiction that, in spite of this, it has been a process that has served as an example to mature national tourism management and has demonstrated to the rest of the sectors in the region that tourism is a sector that, although vulnerable, is solid, resilient and united. It has been able to gain political space in integration, as well as credibility in its institutions and with international cooperation.

However, the challenges it still faces are:

Juan Pablo Nieto Cotera

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.

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