Steep Air Fares to Nicaragua Foments the Costa Rica Option

 The Liberia, Costa Rica Airport.  Photo: ITC

Air fares from Managua to/from the US or Europe are so expensive that travelers are turning to the Costa Rican airports for cheaper tickets.

By Ivan Olivares (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Ticket prices to fly out of Nicaragua to a destination in Europe or the US have risen so high that travelers leaving the country prefer to go via Costa Rica, traveling overland in order to catch a plane from there to any of their destinations.

The Ortega government’s June 17 announcement that they were suspending the requirement that all arriving passengers present a negative PCR test has still not convinced US or European based airlines to return to the Nicaraguan skies. Other passenger documentation restrictions imposed by the government still lead to increasing the airline companies’ operating expenses.

“The airlines require flexibility to operate, since they attend so many different destinations on a global scale,” explained Adan Gaitan, owner of the travel agency Viajes Munditur.

As a result of the conditions placed on US airlines, flying out of Nicaragua, to the US or any European destination has become excessively expensive, more so than what it was already.

“A ticket from Managua to Miami will easily cost between US $500 – $800 dollars, depending on the season,” Gaitan continued. As a result of the high cost of tickets, Lucy Valenti, former president of the National Chamber of Tourism (Canatur), noted: “The country’s competitiveness as a tourist destination is diminished. In addition, there are few available seats for passengers,” be they business travelers, foreign tourists or Nicaraguan nationals returning to the country.

“Traveling to Nicaragua has become tremendously expensive,” Valenti added.

Strictly speaking, both sources recognized that this isn’t a new problem, but that it has worsened as a result of the 2018 socioeconomic crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The regime’s inadequate response has made Nicaragua the only country in Central America that the US airlines aren’t serving.

“Even prior to 2018, we were the country in the region with the fewest air connections,” Valenti recalled. She was referring to the fact that only some of the large US companies that compete in the world market for airline flights (and very few or none of the European airlines) offered flights to Managua.

During those years, “it should have been a priority for the country to develop more aggressive strategies to bring in more airlines, because those that were available weren’t enough to develop the country’s tourist activity,” stated Valenti. And if that wasn’t possible then – at a time when the private sector enjoyed privileged access to the highest government circles – it’s far less probable that it could occur now, when the “Model of Dialogue and Consensus” has been broken.

“We’re waiting for the ‘gringo’ airlines to return. The government knows that while they don’t come, tourism won’t grow,” Adan Gaitan pointed out. He recognized that there’s a communications problem between the public and the private sector. “The authorities may have good intentions, but they don’t consult us. We have the experience. Tourism isn’t a question of competing amongst ourselves, but of offering quality services to satisfy the demand,” he illustrated.

Better Liberia than Managua

The situation described has obligated the national tourist sector to offer new options for Nicaraguan passengers interested in flying to the United States or Europe. They can do this by traveling overland to the international airports in Liberia or Alajuela, both in Costa Rica, then boarding an airplane that costs a fraction of what it does to leave directly from Managua: US $300 – 350 for a round-trip ticket between San Jose and Miami, depending on the season.

This mechanism has proven workable for the Nicaraguan tourist sector, especially hotels and tour operators in the south of Nicaragua. They offer services that pick-up passengers from the Liberia airport and transport them to Nicaragua, or vice versa.

This initiative isn’t new, but in the past the operation was much smaller, for several reasons. On the one hand, the Liberia airport was smaller; also, more tourists flew directly to the Managua airport. Essentially, these services handled only a few travelers who bought a combined package that took them to Costa Rica first, and later to Nicaragua.

Then, as now, the companies working on both sides of the border coordinated with each other in order to attend to these travelers. “What we do is set up vehicles to take passengers to Liberia, although sometimes we’re only allowed to take them to the border, where a vehicle from Costa Rica picks them up, all for the same price,” a businessman from the sector told Confidencial on condition of anonymity, in order to avoid government reprisals.

Munditur prefers not to offer that service, for technical and commercial reasons, so that “those who travel via Costa Rica do so on their own. People make their own reservations, because in that country there are a lot of airlines that travel to the US. They pay US $50 – 80 dollars to go to Costa Rica, and from there they buy a ticket for some US $300 to Miami or other destinations in that country.”

The fact that the US and European airlines aren’t flying to Nicaragua also makes connections with Europe difficult, hence the Liberian airport is seen as a good option for finding seats, with the additional benefit of being a lot more economical than the options available in Managua.

“You can make connections using Copa or Avianca, but the availability of seats is much less than what they had before, meaning the tickets are more expensive,” Valenti summarized.

[Editor’s note: Nicaraguans without a US or European visa or residency need a visa to enter Costa Rica. Additionally, “foreign visitors entering Nicaragua should be aware that they will be asked to present their vaccine cards, showing two doses.  Unvaccinated foreign visitors, both children and adults, will still be asked to present a PCR test.  Further, all foreign visitors must fill out and submit online a form some 7 days before traveling. Those who don’t submit this can be denied the right to board their final airlines.”]

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times

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