(Voces está trabajando para traducir este artículo al español y se publicará muy pronto)
Since at least 2004 the Salvadoran Government has been planning large-scale tourism development in El Salvador. Among the goals articulated in the development plans is for tourism to account for 10% of El Salvador’s GDP, up from 3.7% in 2005.
Just this week, Global Travel Industry News wrote, “El Salvador is the diamond in the rough, the potential jewel that needs the savvy hand of a smart developer who is willing and able to chip away on the rough edges to release the beauty and unbridled opportunities of the destination.”
Many people view tourism as a way to create jobs and economic growth. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután, however, do not want developers to chip away at their rough edges or promote development they fear will irreparably harm to their mangrove forests, estuaries, beaches and other natural resources.
Government agencies have at least three plans guiding tourism development – the Plan for the Sustainable Develop of Eco-Tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay (2007), the 2014 National Plan on Tourism (2006), and the 2020 National Plan on Tourism. The 2020 Plan proposes constructing at least 350 new hotels and resorts that will offer at least 23,000 rooms. The Plan suggests that 85% (or 298) of these 350 new hotels and resorts should be small rural or beachfront cabins with 50 rooms or less. If each small hotels maxes out at 50 rooms, in order to achieve the 23,000 room goal, the remaining 15% (or 52) hotels and resorts will have to average 156 rooms.
The Ministry of Tourism wants 1.9 million tourists to visit El Salvador in 2014, a number they want to increase to 3 million with 12 million overnight stays in 2020. In 2005 Central Americans comprised 70% of tourists in El Salvador while North Americans were only 25%. The 2014 Plan says that by 2014 Central Americans should “be no greater than 40% of all tourists” and North Americans should make up at least 45%. The 2020 plan articulates the same numeric goals, but does not state that they should limit the number of Central Americans. Additionally, the 2020 Plan wants tourists to stay at least 7 days and spend more than $160 per day.
A small town nestled into the mangrove forests, but threatened by tourism projects targeted for the region
While the 2020 Tourism Plan does not identify any specific region for tourism, the 2014 Tourism Plan and the Jiquilisco Tourism Plan identify the Jiquilisco Bay as an important region for development. The region’s bay and long stretch of undeveloped coastline includes miles of beautiful beaches, mangrove forests, estuaries and rivers, islands and protected park lands. In addition to hanging out on the beach and surfing, the Plans envision tourist activities such as bird watching, canoeing and kayaking, boating and sport fishing, and more.
In 2004, CORTASUR, a government tourism agency, held a conference during which a consultant recommended that the Jiquilisco Bay become the Cancun of Central America, complete with hotels, resorts, shopping centers, restaurants, golf courses and other facilities. The consultant said that the first phase for development would include building a modern, paved road out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and acquiring land. A highway out the Peninsula was completed in 2011, and shortly after the conference land speculators began acquiring land. In 2003 a hectare of land on the Peninsula cost around $1,000. In 2005 the price the same hectare of land shot up to $12,000. Prices have been on the rise ever since. The 2014 Plan identified other goals for developing tourism in the region:
- Promoting foreign investment and local entrepreneurship to develop small, boutique hotels and eco-lodges, and restaurants;
- Equipping, altering, and cleaning the beaches so that they meet international quality standards;
- Creating the structure for services and activities related to sport fishing, bird watching, and a coastal route;
- Recuperating and conserving the coastal environment;
- Building the capacity of local human resources involved in tourism and those who would come in contact with tourists to better serve their clients;
- Improving the landscape and the beauty of urban spaces; and
- Improving the infrastructure of the ports.
Undeveloped beach along the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula
Currently the government is looking for foreign and domestic investments. The 2020 Plan says El Salvador should have at least 2000 investors in restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality services. To help out, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) recently approved a $277 million grant to develop El Salvador’s southern coast. While the funds do not identify support for tourism specifically, FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran Government MCC counterpart) and the El Salvador Investment Challenge issued a call for proposals while they were developing their MCC proposal. The ESIC said the purpose was to:
“to invest in public projects that catalyze private investments in tradable goods and services thereby generating economic growth and poverty reduction. The first phase of the ESIC is a competitive call-for-ideas that would catalyze investments in El Salvador through public-private partnerships, whereby private entities identify public or quasi-public infrastructure and services that are necessary to support private investments aimed at increasing productivity and trade of goods and services in El Salvador.”
Of the 49 proposals received, 27 involved tourism infrastructure projects in Usulután, La Libertad, and La Union. (Efforts to get the names of those who submitted proposals and what they proposed were unsuccessful). MCC funds won’t be available to fund hotels, resorts, or other private investments, but they will likely be available for infrastructure projects like building secondary roads, equipping, altering, and cleaning beaches, operating a tourism police force, creating programs to train locals in tourism and hospitality services, and similar projects to make it easier to attract investments. In addition to MCC funds, the Inter-American Development Bank has approved a $25 million dollar loan for tourism projects.
Currently, opposition to the government’s tourism plan is mostly local. It appears that most Salvadorans approve of tourism as a way to create jobs and improve their stagnant economy. But many residents and organizations in the Bay area are concerned large-scale tourism, and even the small, eco-tourism projects, will harm fragile ecosystems like the mangrove forests, network of rivers and estuaries, the Bay itself, and local beaches.
According to the Mangrove Action Project, their fears are legitimate – tourism is one of the greatest threats to the world’s mangroves. Worldwide the loss of mangroves results in the decline of fisheries, and weak or lost buffers that shield populated areas from storm surges. Specifically, the Jiquilisco Bay’s mangrove forests are home to thousands of species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians and capable of absorbing more than 5 times carbon than rainforests, making them a vital asset for stopping climate change.
Environmentalists also point out that 12 million overnight stays by tourists will put an impossible strain on El Salvador’s scarce water supplies. A water expert at CESTA (the Center for Applied Technology) reports that the average tourist in El Salvador uses at least five times the water that the average Salvadoran uses. Three million tourists who are spending 12 million overnights will put an enormous strain on the nation’s water resources, which are already insufficient to satisfy the country’s demand. It is inevitable that water resources would be diverted to resorts and other tourist facilities along the coast, leaving Salvadorans with even less access to water.
Tourism can also have a tremendous impact on water quality. Three million tourists will produce large quantities of solid waste and sewage, and El Salvador lacks the facilities to manage them properly. Environmentalists fear contamination will further damage the country’s already contaminated water supplies. They also fear that construction projects, buildings, parking lots, and other development will will upset local water tables, resulting in irreversible salinization that would render them useless.
Environmentalists and local populations also fear tourism development and the MCC investments harm the four threatened and endangered species of sea turtle that use the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula beaches as a nesting ground. Approximately 40% of the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific use the region to lay eggs, and in recent years communities have played an important role in protecting their nests and saving the turtle from extinction. “Equipping, altering, and cleaning” local beaches, building beachfront hotels and resorts, and allowing tourists unfettered access to beaches would likely be disastrous for these conservation efforts.
In El Chile, land speculators have started to buy the best land and deny access to locals, which is against the law…
Locals also fear that tourism will result in their mangrove forests and beaches being privatized. Even though Salvadoran law prevents private ownership of beaches and recognizes the right for all people to enjoy unfettered access, private landowners are already fencing off sections of beach and limiting access to mangrove forests. Locals are aware that the Royal Decameron in Sonsonate have sectioned off more than a mile of beach in front of their resort, denying locals all access. This is more than just an issue of locals enjoying a swim every now and then. Many of the families that live near the coast depend on fishing to survive and must have access to the water.
Community boards in the region have also expressed a concern that land speculation is already having on their efforts to achieve food sovereignty. More than jobs, communities want to preserve their agrarian culture and ensure they can feed their families with locally produced, organic food. Just the idea that there might be tourism has already fueled a land grab in which small farms and cooperatives are sold to investors, meaning that they no longer contribute to the region’s ability to achieve food sovereignty. And once farmland is turned into a golf course, resort, or shopping center it is lost forever.
Many people in the Jiquilisco Bay region are quick to say they are not anti-tourism; they are just opposed to the scale of the government’s plan and the lack of consultation with the affected populations.
Young punchero from La Tirana giving a tour of the community’s mangrove forests
La Tirana, a small community nestled in a mangrove forest, enjoys hosting bird watchers and others who regularly ask to be guided through local estuaries and forests. The community’s board even wants to build some small cabins and a comedor (eatery) so they can better host visitors. Residents are very committed to protecting the forests, despite their lack of electricity or running water. Their plans for tourism will allow them to control the number of people that come and go, the areas they visit, and the impact that it would have on the region. La Tirana residents are concerned because land speculators have purchased land in the community and they have heard of plans to build a resort and golf course next to the mangroves. The local population is adamantly opposed to these plans and has vowed to fight them any way they can.
Even though tourism enjoys national and international support as a apparent win-win way of developing the economy, locals are confident that they if they organize they can stop plans to develop hotels, resorts, shopping centers, and sport fishing in the region. Prior to 2005, most people in Cabanas supported Pacific Rim’s plans to mine gold and silver – they thought it would provide them with jobs and economic growth. But once they realized the impact mining would have on their environment, especially water resources, locals organized a strong movement against Pacific Rim and mining. Pacific Rim never got mining permits and this month the Legislative Assembly introduced a bill to ban mining in El Salvador.
Organizations and communities in the Jiquilisco Bay region understand that stopping tourism will be a long, difficult struggle. But according to a declaration they made in July,
“our communities have a history of struggle and organization. This land and its resources belong to us, and our children and grandchildren, and we have the strength, courage, and moral duty to defend our lives and territory until the end.“