Airlines Continue to Shun Nicaragua

Copa Airlines once again postpones flights, tourism possibilities weak

By Mabel Calero (La Prensa)

The Managua airport. File photo: Maynor Valenzuela / La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – As the tentative dates for resuming regular airline flights to Nicaragua approach, uncertainty has deepened in the tourist sector. For now, the majority of the commercial airlines have scheduled the return of regular operations for February. American Airlines alone still maintains that its flights will resume late in January. However, the recent COPA airlines announcement that they’re pushing the date back to March, has sounded new alarms that could extend.

The tourist sector’s fears are based on a pattern observed since August 2020.  When one airline decides to move their tentative date for resumption of flights to Nicaragua, others also move their calendars. Given this, the Copa announcement to hold out until March has put a damper over the tourist related businesses.  It puts a check on the preparations for Easter Week, the most important season for Nicaraguan tourism.

The travel agencies haven’t yet made any changes to their schedule for the return of the airlines. These indicate that American Airlines will return on January 21, a slight postponement of the original January 7th plan. If the airline adheres to that date, they’ll be the only carrier to resume operations in that month.

Easter Week high season prospects looks grim

Copa, based in Panama, had decided to leave its return date unspecified. Now they’ve announced that they won’t be resuming their flights to Nicaragua until March.

“Copa informed us that they won’t begin coming until March 1st. That leaves us very concerned. Given the way they keep changing, when that date approaches, it’s possible they say they’re coming in April. If that happens, we’ll lose the busiest week of the tourist year, which is Easter Week. This year, it falls at the end of March.” These were the declarations of Leonardo Torres, president of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Micro, Small and Medium Tourist Enterprises (Cantur).

The situation has worsened, because Spirit Airlines will begin operations in San Pedro Sula on January 10. Since December, it’s been making stops in Guatemala and El Salvador. However, it still hasn’t set a date for returning to Nicaragua. This is a blow to the pockets of travelers, since it’s a budget airline company.

The current schedule has United Airlines flights resuming on the 11th of February, and Aeromexico on February 4th.

Airport open since July but few takers among airlines

The Managua airport has been open since last July, but it’s been receiving flights from just two international airlines. Avianca reactivated flights in September 2020, due to the economic crisis it’s facing. Conviasa airline (a Venezuelan Consortium) attracts a specific tourist segment.  The majority of the travelers it brings are Cubans coming to make purchases at Managua’s Eastern Market. This type of tourism tends to support the informal market.

“If you look at the connectivity in other countries, it’s more fluid. For example, Spirit has already announced it will begin operating in Honduras. Why have they begun to operate in other countries and not here? For the same reasons that we’ve been repeating. The [government] measures in place must be softened, in order to reactivate international tourism,” stated Torres.

The postponement of international airline operations in Nicaragua has to do with the measures and protocols adopted by the government. The Ortega regime requires the airlines to forward a list of their passengers, together with proof of a negative COVID test. These must be sent to the Civil Aeronautics authorities and the Health Ministry. In addition, they demand that the airline’s crew also show proof of negative COVID-19 status. Nicaragua is the only country in the region that demands this.

The Nicaraguan government also asks the commercial airlines to specify in advance the type of aircraft they’ll be using. That specification is usually only required of charter flights.

Torres insists that until air connectivity is renewed, the tourism industry will continue to be affected. They can’t plan or organize, since there’s no certainty about the dates when the airlines will resume operations.

Over 15 airline companies operate in the Central American region. Among them are Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air France, American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, Delta, Iberia, Spirit, JetBlue, United Airlines, and Volaris. The majority are already flying to several Central American countries. Nicaragua has been left behind in terms of competitiveness. This reduces their possibilities of reactivating local tourism.

Overland transport is also blocked

The tourism panorama for those traveling overland is even darker. Costa Rica is fundamental for the reactivation of the industry in Nicaragua. However, that country isn’t willing to open its land borders for foreigners to enter. It’s hoped that in February they’ll begin processing visas, although that’s still not been confirmed by the Costa Rican government.  

“Carlos Alvarado (Costa Rican president) postponed the border opening until February. I believe it was because of the resurgence of the virus. I don’t see any other justification. It really doesn’t matter much to them, because they already have the air connections they need. But to us, it does,” stated Torres.

The land border for those wanting to travel north from Costa Rica is open. However, since the pandemic, proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test must be presented to cross into Nicaragua. That makes the trip more costly and more expensive for any tourist wishing to travel around the region.

“The trips are very limited. The only people traveling are residents and citizens. So, there are problems, because there aren’t any fluid land connections,” Torres added.

Josue Quiñonez is operations manager of the Nicabus international land transportation company. He explains that they’re hoping the Costa Rican government will begin issuing visas in February. However, it’s not at all certain they will.

“Since the pandemic, the Costa Ricans have only allowed residents and citizens to enter. Tourists, for example people who have a US passport, can’t enter by land. From Costa Rica, anyone who wants can enter Nicaragua. But they have to present a negative COVID-19 test done in the last 72 hours. You can also enter the other Central American countries with proof of a recent negative test. The Costa Rican government hasn’t set a date when they’ll begin to give visas. Mid-February has been mentioned, but that’s really changeable. I believe we’ll be waiting until March,” said Quiñonez.

He added that the transport companies are only leaving once a week, or every 15 days. That’s because there aren’t a lot of travelers. If it wasn’t for the working agreement signed between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the situation would be worse, Quiñonez concluded.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.