MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Here’s how effective the country’s Tourism Police have been: The Central American nation welcomed 1,060,031 visitors who generated US$377 million in revenue in 2011, a year after 1,011,251 tourists brought in US$308 million, according to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR).
And it could be an even better in 2012 for the tourism industry, as 300,000 visited the country in the first three months, an increase of 15.7% compared to the same period a year ago, according to INTUR.
“Tourists prefer Nicaragua over other countries in the region because of its safety, its economy and its peacefulness,” said Martín Soto, a tourism guide for Ecole Travel, an agency that promotes the country. “There are no gangs and the threat of muggings and killings is lower than in the rest of Central America. This is an important advantage when vacationers are choosing a destination and now it represents a large opportunity for the country.”
Nicaragua is the second-safest country in the region, with 13.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, much lower than Honduras (82.1), El Salvador (66), Guatemala (41.4) and Belize (41). The safest country in the region is Costa Rica, with 11.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the 2011 Global Homicide Study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The key to Nicaragua’s blossoming tourism is the work of the Tourism Police, an institution created by the National Police in 2001 that works to guarantee the safety of tourists nationwide.
The Tourism Police was formed after the Central American Integration System (SICA) launched its 1997 Central American and Caribbean Strategic Plan for Tourist Safety, which mandated all law enforcement agents specializing in tourism safety wear a uniform distinct from other police institutions.
The Tourism Police’s 450 officers work closely with the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR), as both institutions train agents in stopping organized crime, drug and human trafficking, child prostitution and other types of exploitation of girls, boys and adolescents. The officers also receive training in human relations.
“With support from the tourism industry’s private sector, we at INTUR have established a solid alliance with the Tourism Police and we are seeing the results,” said Aurora Castillo, director of INTUR’s Services and Tourist Protection.
In addition, the Tourism Police supports, disseminates and carries out all of INTUR’s tourism safety plans and has hosted workshops for National Police Officers.
“The Tourism Police is a special force created to offer better attention to national and international tourists who require their services,” said Commissioner Jeannette Largaespada, chief of the Tourism Police. “The Tourism Police also seek to control the levels of crime that could be provoked by the development of tourism in the country, like theft, narco-trafficking, child prostitution, human trafficking and fraud.”
Nicaraguan authorities do not want the increase in the number of tourists in the country to lead to opportunities for criminals, Largaespada said.
“It is important for the country to grow in terms of tourism, but while this sector brings economic growth, it also brings negative aspects. We’re faced with new kinds of crimes because not everyone who comes into the country does so with good intentions,” she said. “That forces us to look for new means to maintain the national safety level we are recognized for today.”
In Nicaragua, the main crime suffered by tourists is stolen cameras, followed by theft through intimidation. There were a total of 251 crimes against tourists last year, which represent 0.56% of the 71,000 crimes committed nationally. In 2010, 886 crimes against tourists were reported, according to the National Police.
“High seasons for tourism are when the most crimes occur, especially in the most visited sites in the country, when tourists go into places beyond the security perimeter,” said Tourism Police Capt. Johana Delgado.
The most popular tourist destinations in the country are Granada, León, Managua, Rivas, Chinandega, Río San Juan and Corn Island.
Soon, INTUR and the Tourism Police, in coordination with the Nicaraguan Chambers of Tourism, will set up a free telephone line for tourists who become victims of crime, which will help them receive medical attention or transportation to embassies or consulates, Largaespada said.