Over the past couple of decades, Nicaragua has been an increasingly popular destination for barrel-hungry surfers. Offshore winds, affordable accommodations and the chance to score semi-uncrowded waves have lured surfers of all levels to the Central American paradise.
But since April of this year, many surfers have steered clear of Nicaragua. And that’s because the country endured one of the most tumultuous uprisings it had seen since its civil war in 1990. Over the past half year, there have been more than 300 deaths and thousands of injuries as a result of anti-government protests, which drove many countries to issue high-level travel advisories for the entire area. Here’s what happened, in a nutshell:
On April 18th, students, workers and pensioners started protesting president Daniel Ortega’s controversial changes to the social security system that was set to increase taxes and decrease benefits. The first round of student protests was met with military force and resulted in almost 30 deaths. Ortega repealed the reform but the unrest fueled further unrest as protesters started demanding the president’s resignation. Since April there have been over 300 deaths and 2,000 injuries in the country.
The country’s upheaval led the U.S. to issue a level-three travel advisory. Throughout the course of the uprisings, the country’s tourism sector has been rocked to its core. According to Lucy Valenti, who spoke to the Guardian, Nicaragua’s tourism sector has lost an estimated $230 million. Of the 120,000 people employed by the tourism sector, 70,000 have lost their jobs and over 80 percent of small hotels have closed since April.
The fear surrounding the political unrest has crept into the surf tourism industry as well. According to the owner of Surfari Charters Lance Moss, his and nearby surf camps have suffered financial losses this past summer. “We're definitely down a little bit from the number of charters we do,” Moss told me over the phone recently. “We were probably down 15-20 percent, something like that, but that was nothing compared to everyone else around us. This was our 16th season with Surfari so we were really lucky in that aspect but tons of businesses shut down.”
According to many surf camp owners, the violence was never aimed at tourists. “In cities like Managua, Leon, Granada and Matagalpa there were many deaths,” says Chancletas Beach Resort owner Shay O’Brien. “But the Pacific beaches of the country have remained calm through the unrest. Today the roads are clear and the violence is gone. Traveling to Nicaragua as a surfer is totally safe. As a business owner, I had to make a decision if it was safe to travel here from the capital [of Managua] and I went to the airport many times throughout the crisis and never once felt threatened. So, for this reason, we decided to stay open.”
O'Brien admits that this was the most tumultuous moment he’s experienced in his time in Nicaragua. “Throughout my time here in Nicaragua, I have never seen anything similar to this crisis,” says O'Brien. “We have many strikes and roadblocks over gas prices and sugar cane workers’ conditions, but never violence on a large scale like this. Unfortunately, it affected us very much. We had to let go of 12 staff members–one who had been with us for 12 years.”
Moss is hoping the political waters will calm and tourism will ramp back up next year. “Everything has been really stable for a while now,” says Moss. “November is a great month for Nicaragua and we are actually booked up almost the whole month. The southern hemi is kind of quiet from December to March so we usually shut down those months anyway. It'll be interesting to see what will happen with people booking for next season and deciding where to go.”