Honduras is Poised for Tourism Growth

In the race to become the next popular tourist hot spot in Central America (following in Costa Rica's footsteps), Honduras is working hard for the honors. The country currently attracts less than half the number of visitors (700,000 last year compared to Costa Rica's 1.6 million), but expects a 10 to 15 percent increase in visitors in 2006, according to Ricardo Martinez, Honduras Minister of Tourism.

To fuel tourism development, the Honduran government is developing infrastructure, attracting investment from international hotel chains, and ramping up marketing and promotion efforts. The country hopes to capitalize on the recent boom in tourism to Central America, which logged the highest growth of any region in the world in 2005 (more than 14 percent), according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO).

The country's Copan ruins

"Honduras has a lot of tourism potential," says Augusto Huescar, WTO Regional Representative for the Americas. "Many travelers are looking for new destinations to discover. Honduras offers authenticity with its rich culture, history and nature."

Travel wholesaler Diogenes D'Alacio, president of Dalatour in Cooper City, FL, puts Honduras among the three top countries in Central America (with Costa Rica and Panama).

"I find the country's best selling point is ecological travel, because there is so much wildlife," says D'Alacio. "But it is also an excellent beach and dive destination." D'Alacio has been selling Honduras packages since 1989, and says that hotels, services and airlift have improved tremendously since then. Demand is also up; his Honduras business has doubled in the past two years.

Currently there are more than 900 hotels in the country with 20,453 total rooms, says Martinez, and more than a third of the rooms have been built within the last five years. He admits that only about 30 percent of the rooms are at international two-to-five star standards, but adds that the government is emphasizing quality for future development. The 10,000 hotel rooms expected to open in the next five years will more than double the inventory of international-quality accommodations. Archaeological Intrigue at Copan

The Honduran government's long-term plan focuses on three priority areas for development: the north coast from La Ceiba to Tela, the BayIslands and Copan, according to Martinez. "Every mayor has a magical saint or hot water spring he thinks should be promoted, but we must first focus on areas with primary attractions," he says.

On the north coast, the government has committed $40 million to build a new highway from Progresso to Tela, and another $15 million in infrastructure to support the Tela Bay Development on 770 acres of farmland near the National Park at Punta Sal, explains Martinez. The development will be called LosMicosBeach and Golf Resort, and will eventually feature four or five hotels, a golf course developed by a top course designer, 250 condominiums, two beach clubs and commercial shops. Letters of intent have been registered from Hyatt and Westin resort chains for hotel construction, he adds, with a planned opening at the end of 2008. Each hotel will cost $25 to $30 million.

In the BayIslands, Roatan is targeted for further development, and the government will spend $13 million on environmental projects to protect healthy eco-systems and reefs, according to Martinez. "Most of the island is green and unpopulated," he says, adding that there are only 1,200 hotel rooms available. But 400 new rooms are under construction, and more are slated. Also under construction is a $4 million cruise ship terminal, planned for completion by the end of 2007. A new high-speed ferry to the mainland launched in September, cutting cruise time to just one hour from Roatan to La Ceiba.

At Copan, better access roads and a new airport near the archeological site are planned.

But despite development efforts, travel wholesaler Richard Benson, president of Mac's Travel Pacs in Stuart, FL, says he thinks awareness is one of the country's biggest challenges. "Honduras is one of the more invisible countries to the American public," says Benson. "It doesn't have a bad reputation; people just don't know much about it."

Mario Aguirre, U.S. representative for the Honduras Tourism Board based in Miami, says that image development takes time. "Honduras is known for diving and the Mayan ruins at Copan, but we have been working hard to establish the diversity of the destination," he says. Campaigns promote nature, history and Caribbean beaches/diving with the "One Small Country, Three Wide Worlds" slogan. Aguirre adds that the Tourism Board is planning educational seminars at travel agencies across the U.S. in 2007, and is hoping to run agent fam trips with airline support.

Honduras Tourism Board: 800-410-9608, 305-461-0600, www.letsgohonduras.com