Birding tourism, not in Nicaragua

Some expats who are birders are going to get together and just do some birding around the country, without expecting this to change Nicaragua. Anyone who wants to join us, promise to keep your mouth shut about tourism or I'll bite.

I brought a serious birder friend here and got several earfuls about what's wrong with Nicaragua as a birding destination. Mainly, it doesn't have anything dedicated for birders. This gets into the Catch 22 of anything -- if you don't have it, nobody will come and if you do have it, it has to be seriously different than some other place rather than being a place that has over 90% of the same birds that Costa Rica has. Some people think, "Birders come to Costa Rica/Panama. If we can just get them to come to Nicaragua, we can make money like the Costa Ricans."

Yeah, except Nicaragua doesn't have endemic species (some are shared only with Honduras, but that's only a few), doesn't have any trained birding guide who stay in Nicaragua (they go to Costa Rica according to what we've heard because Costa Rica already gets the tourists). Serious birding is generally done by people who are in communication with each other all over the world (I'm on my friend's FB list). If a vagrant Eurasian crane lands in Nebraska, birders from all over the US are there the next day. These people compare notes and they've researched the possible guides in an area. Guides who are good get talked up; guides who don't speak English and who don't know their birds get a bad rap.

It's the ultimate "you can't market to them if you don't have it" crowd. Most of them have the money for good glass (my friend came in with Leopolds and two Canon cameras with two long white zooms) and will pay for something special. They don't want to waste their money on places that don't have the birds, the guides, and the facilities.

My birder friend's next trip is to Majorca, Spain, and she's spent several months talking about it on Facebook. I never expect her to come back to Nicaragua, nor will anyone she's in contact consider going to Nicaragua rather than Costa Rica or Panama (with the world-famous tower with feeding stations at all levels of the canopy surrounding the tower, and with a coffee shop inside the tower when that lens gets a bit too heavy).

Periodically, I go by Lake Apanas Estates -- now with trees cut to improve the cattle grazing. It's the monument to the folly of believing that if we say we're going to build it, people will come, at least so far. Maybe the new management will improve the situation, but it looks like they're betting on a Spanish-speaking clientele rather than an American one (only current website is in Spanish).

I've been on enough NPS trails in the southeast and central US to know that what trails people actually hike tend to be well groomed. When I went off the better groomed trails, even in Shenandoah National Park with a rather large number of people from the DC suburbs there, I was pretty much alone except where the trail crossed a parking lot. When I've hiked the AT outside thro hiker season for the various areas, I've been pretty much alone, too, even in Harriman State Park near New York City.

A lot of the plans people have for tourism anywhere seem all talk and no specifics. Often they plan to use someone's idea that was successful enough elsewhere. But why come here when the other attraction is already up and running and perhaps not overcrowded yet. The answer, so far, is "Nicaragua is cheaper." Hotel maids are a tenth of what they'd cost in the US. Land is cheaper.

Some ecotourism is quite shuck and jive resistant -- if the birders have a bad experience, they've told their other birders friends sometimes even before they get home to not bother going to that place. If someone is paying $800 round trip per person to fly to Nicaragua, cheaper on the ground is worthless if they don't get the experience they want. If a guide learns English and all the local birds, and has a passion for the work, more people will be hiring him in Costa Rica than here, which means Nicaraguan-trained guides don't stay here (one of those circular problems).

Solving the circular problem requires someone having the money to pay the guides and the really good staff through the start up period. Then, Nicaragua isn't cheaper for them, but perhaps a more expensive start-up than would be the case for Costa Rica or Panama or Belize, places with good reputations already.