POPOYO, Nicaragua — As tourism in Nicaragua skids to a near standstill amid continuing political upheaval, hotels and restaurants have shut down by the hundreds, the tourism workforce has been cut by more than half and even the most luxurious hotel in the country, known for attracting celebrities like actor Morgan Freeman, has closed its doors.
But there is one unlikely bright spot: surfers. They’ve continued to come, in some ways, because other tourists are not — pursuing the ideal wave with no one else riding it.
“The surfers want no one in the water. That’s what they live for. You search all over the world for an empty wave,” said Jackson Rowland, an Australian who helped put Nicaragua on the map as a global surf destination.
Other kinds of tourists have stayed away from Nicaragua since late April, when President Daniel Ortega, the nation’s long-time ruler, sought to crush a groundswell of student-led protests that have spread to other parts of society. Violence has been heavy, with tallies of 350 dead.
Rowland spoke from the balcony of Magnific Rock, a Popoyo hotel on a promontory over the Pacific which he co-owns with his parents, and a number of surfers rode the waves below.
“Within this little stretch, we have about 15 world-class breaks,” Rowland said, adding that swells arrive from Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere and can reach well over 20 feet in height. Still, his hotel had only some rooms rented, and Rowland said he had cut his full-time workforce from 55 employees to just 12.
But even surfing destinations in Nicaragua are suffering, scraping by on less than half of the business that they’ve had in past years. The rest of the tourism industry faces disaster after a decade of huge growth. Tourism was a primary source of hard currency before the crisis hit.
In 2017, Nicaragua earned $840 million from 1.7 million tourism arrivals, enticing foreigners eager to see colonial cities, tour volcanoes, explore tropical wildlife, snorkel along Caribbean reefs and visit cigar factories.
Since April, though, some 70,000 of the 120,000 Nicaraguans employed in the tourism sector have lost their jobs, said Lucy Valenti, president of the National Chamber of Tourism of Nicaragua. Seventy to 80 percent of small hotels “have ceased operations,” she added.
Hundreds of restaurants have shut down, and 200 tour operators have gone bust. Even the poshest resort in the nation, Mukul, part of a $250 million beach development a little to the south of here that drew movie stars like Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Morgan Freeman, announced in late June that it had “indefinitely” closed its doors.
“We cannot do anything. The only thing that can rescue the industry is peace,” Valenti said.
That is not even on the horizon. Both the U.S. and Spanish governments have warned against tourist travel to Nicaragua.
In July, the White House issued an eight-paragraph statement on Nicaragua decrying the “more than 350 dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of citizens falsely labeled ‘coup-mongers’ and ‘terrorists’ who have been jailed, tortured, or who have gone missing.” It said the administration was working with the Organization of American States to promote early elections.
Ortega, who most recently came to office in 2007, faces re-election in 2021 under existing rules.
In colonial cities like Leon and Granada, one-time tourist magnets, hotel and hostel owners say the drop-off in tourism has been disastrous.
“When they started killing the students, the tourists started to leave. Between the riot police, the mobs and the paramilitaries, the tourists don’t come anymore,” said the Nicaraguan owner of a hostel in Leon, who asked that his name not be used out of concern for reprisal. “Every day, pickup trucks pass by filled with armed people. Everyone shuts themselves up in their houses at six in the evening.”
The horse-drawn carriages have returned to Granada, a city of tree-shaded plazas and renovated colonial buildings in the shadow of towering Mombacho Volcano, but drivers said they have no business. The once-thriving city on Lake Nicaragua is bereft of tourists.
“Maybe in five years, things will return to normal,” driver Osman Guadamuz said.
The turnaround in fortunes since April has been dramatic.
“There was a big boom, I would say, between 2012 and April 2018. Everyone would tell you that we were on track to have the best year ever,” said Heather McMandon, a co-owner of NSR, a surf shop and related real estate agency in Playa Colorado.
But now, companies relying on tourism struggle to survive.
“I don’t know anyone who is not hurting,” she said. “As far as tourism goes, the surfing sector is the only one that is surviving.”
Nicaraguan tourism officials had hoped this year to draw higher-spending tourists, as neighboring Costa Rica has done. In 2017, average tourists to Nicaragua spent only $45 a day, while in Costa Rica they spent $130 daily.
But then came the social upheaval. Surfers who had been in Nicaragua before started asking contacts there about safety issues, said Bo Fox, a surfer and real estate agent in nearby Tola.
“There is a trusted person on the ground, and surfers are explorers by nature, and they are looking for adventure — and empty waves,” Fox said.
For a period in June and early July, barricades set up on highways from Managua, the capital, to the surfing beaches turned what was normally a 2 1/2-hour drive into one that could take six or seven hours. The barricades have largely been removed.
Still, many travelers make connections through Managua, or Liberia in Costa Rica, to a charter air service that drops them at a nearby airstrip known as the Emerald Coast Airport.
Barry Bushman, a high school math teacher from San Diego, said he had paid in advance for lodging for his surf vacation in Nicaragua and wasn’t about to lose out due to unrest that seemed more concentrated in Managua than out on the beaches. Besides, he said, he was enjoying the fewer surfers on the waves.
“You don’t pay all this money go surf with a bunch of people,” Bushman said.
Other surfers said they felt it important to support ailing companies catering to them.
“There are major problems in this country. Surfers are aware of it,” said Nirbhao Khalsa, a surfer from Atlanta. “Absolutely come. This country relies on it.”