By Mabel Castro (La Prensa)
HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua isn’t a priority in the plans to reestablish flight connections to Central America. The major airlines have postponed for nearly a year their return to the country and continue doing so. Meanwhile, they’re already offering services to the rest of countries in the region. This leaves the local economy in Nicaragua even more isolated.
The main reason for the bottleneck is the Ortega regime’s refusal to change their public health protocols. These are already the strictest in the region.
A survey of air traffic in the region’s chief airports illustrates this clearly. At least eight airlines are functioning in each of the other Central American countries. Nicaragua, however, is served by only two airlines – the Colombian airline company Avianca, and Panama-based Copa Airlines. The former resumed service to Nicaragua in September 2020, and the latter began service to Managua months afterwards.
Air traffic in other Central American countries
In contrast, Guatemala has 11 active airlines. Although it’s been one of the region’s countries most affected by COVID-19, Guatemala has loosened its restrictions for passengers. The Guatemalan government recently agreed to accept arriving passengers even without recent proof of a negative COVID result. Passengers must show proof of a negative test in the last 96 hours or take a test upon arrival at the airport.
As of now, ten different airlines fly into El Salvador. Unlike Guatemala, El Salvador hasn’t loosened their public health requirements. However, they’re not as strict as Nicaragua. Passengers have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, taken within the last 72 hours.
Honduras has eight airlines functioning. A recent negative COVID test must be shown, but this can be either a rapid or a PCR test.
Fourteen airline companies fly to Costa Rica. In October, the country suspended the requirement for a COVID test to enter the country They do, however, require proof of medical insurance that would cover extended illness in the country. Visitors without this must purchase temporary health insurance.
Panama is traditionally the region’s major hub. There used to be 20 airlines flying in there; currently there are ten. The country has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 epidemic, and strict guidelines are still in place. Proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test within the last 72 hours is required to enter.
Nicaragua’s requirements discourage air traffic
While the rest of the countries are recovering their connections to the US, South America and Europe, Nicaragua remains isolated. Avianca and Copa are still the only airlines flying there. The only bright spot is that Copa has increased the frequency of their flights, from once to three times weekly. Other major airlines, including Aeromexico, Spirit and United, are now saying “April”, although they’re already operating in other neighboring countries.
Carlos Schutze is president of the Nicaraguan Association of Tourism and Travel Agencies. He explained that the principal obstacle for the US airlines is Nicaragua’s entry requirements. The country requires proof of a recent negative COVID test not only for arriving passengers, but also for the entire flight crew.
“To begin with, the US airlines can’t operate that way. Due to privacy laws and union agreements, they can’t demand that their flight crews take the COVID-19 test. That’s supposedly the reason that none of the US based airlines resume operations in Nicaragua,” Schutze stated.
In addition, he added, there are other factors. For example, in the case of Aeromexico, they’re prioritizing routes where there’s greater demand, in order to best allocate resources.
“Many airlines took planes out of circulation,” Schutze explained. “Taking advantage of the moment, they made the decision to remove some routes and (..) reduce the number of employees. For business reasons they’re prioritizing countries or routes in greater demand to guarantee success of that route.”
Jose Adan Aguerri, ex-president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep) agrees with Schutze. To recover Nicaragua’s [air] connections, he feels, they need to adjust their international public health protocols.
“Until that happens, we’re not going to see any changes in the airlines’ decisions. Each month, they’ve decided to postpone once more their return to the country.
Schutze pointed out that the situation in Nicaragua is more complicated than the other Central American countries. Even before the pandemic, there were problems stemming from the 2018 disturbances. Those difficulties had already caused Volaris and Iberia to suspend their Nicaraguan routes. Later, with the pandemic, Delta airlines also left.
Nicaragua lacks air traffic as markets revive
Lucy Valenti of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (Canatur) reported that they’d recently “had a meeting” regarding tourism prospects. The chamber met with two international companies specializing in the international tourist market. “They told us that the US and Canadian markets will be ready to resume flights in the second half of the year. Those two markets are of great importance to us.”
The companies explained to Canatur: “The pandemic and the lockdowns brought a high index of savings to US and Canadian families. An important part of these savings will be put into travel. However, this travel will be to direct destinations. That is, the beneficiaries will be destinations that have direct connections with major cities in these countries. Also, those that offer tourist packages involving contact with nature and wellness. That’s an area of strength for our country. In addition, they’ll seek out less visited destinations – another opportunity for our country.”
Valenti added: “That’s what the National Tourism Institute should be looking at. They should be working to create the facilities and eliminate the obstacles that today keep tourists from coming. That includes the topic of connectivity and the lack of facilities for COVID testing. (..) The government needs to have enough vision to take the corresponding measures. These are measures very easy to effect, requiring only the will and the vision.”
Urgent need for rapid response tests
Aguerri spoke of another related topic. The country needs to authorize the realization of rapid response COVID tests. The use of these could help reduce costs and incentivize the airlines to return.
“We have a problem of testing capacity. In order to reactivate air connections and also maintain health security, other destination countries accept either test. Passengers can present results of either the rapid test or the PCR tests. Nicaragua, however, only accepts a PCR test result to enter the country. And for passengers that leave for other countries, they don’t offer rapid COVID testing.
Nicaragua’s inability to effect large-scale testing gained notoriety a month ago. When the US imposed the requirement of a negative COVID test to enter the country, a huge logjam occurred. The laboratory at the Conchita Palacios health complex is the only place in the country authorized to perform the test. They weren’t able to attend to passenger demand.
“If we use the [visitor] statistics right after the 2018 crisis, it could become necessary to perform 1,000 tests every day. (..) That number is still less than the visitor numbers before the crisis. The country doesn’t have enough tests, or the ability to process enough tests, to meet that demand. Authorizing and conducting rapid response tests is the only measure that would allow us to receive seven daily international arrivals once again.”
The rapid test would also reduce the competitive barriers due to cost. The low frequency of flights has already caused a considerable rise in ticket prices to Nicaragua. This contrasts with the situation of other countries of the region.
“Ticket costs are three – four times greater, in relation to other countries of the region. Meanwhile, the rapid response COVID tests are up to 7 times cheaper than the PCR tests that [Nicaragua] is demanding. Instead of paying US $40 for the tests needed to enter and leave, you have to pay up to 300 dollars for the molecular tests. Add that to a fare of US $900 – $1,000, and you make traveling an odyssey for the immense majority,” Aguerri stated.
Canatur urges dialogue and solution
Leonardo Torres is president of the Chamber of Micro, Small and Medium Tourist Companies (Canatur). He feels that finding a solution to the problem is urgent. He wants the airlines to hold a dialogue with the government, so they can find a point of balance.
“This situation harms us, as far as the market prices. Their price has gone up for Nicaraguans, as well as for people who want to come to Nicaragua. I believe that things should begin to improve now that we’re going to receive an important quantity of vaccines. That should help us make the measures more flexible. We’re going to insist on this: there must be an accord between the airlines and the government,” Torres concluded.