El Salvador tries to shed its reputation as a murder hotspot to attract tourists
By freelance correspondent Jennifer Huxley
Concepcion de Ataco has taken a proactive approach to attracting more tourists. (Jennifer Huxley)
Would you holiday in one of the world’s deadliest countries outside of war zones?
A grassroots movement in the tiny Central American country of El Salvador is trying to convince international tourists to do just that, and believes it is slowly gaining traction.
He has just returned from a promotional trip to Spain and Germany with the Minister of Tourism, Jose Napoleon Duarte Duran, and has launched the social media hashtag #DontSkipElSalvador.
‘Don’t skip El Salvador’
“People need to understand that the gangs have their own business and their own problems. They are concentrating on each other and they don’t care about tourists,” Mr Carrillo says.
“I tell people that in El Salvador, you don’t have to be careful, you need to use common sense like everywhere else — there are streets all over the world that you shouldn’t walk down, the same here.
“Through word of mouth, presenting at international tourism conventions and social media campaigns we are gradually changing the perception that El Salvador is a place you skip, especially because once tourists come here our people are so friendly and they fall in love with our beaches, wildlife, volcanos and coffee plantations.”
Beautifying towns, protecting tourists
Images of El Salvador’s natural attractions helped it win first place for its stand at the International Tourism Fair in Madrid earlier this year. On the home front, individuals’ efforts to grow the tourist trade are gaining backing at all levels of politics.
The National Civil Police service created a special tourism division in 2002, which provides free escorts for tourists on request, as well as a 24-hour information hotline.
Local councils are making the most impressive investments, according to Roberto Broz, who returned from the United States when El Salvador’s bloody civil war ended 25 years ago.
Mr Broz is an agricultural consultant by trade but has turned his hand to promoting sustainable tourism and trains locals to become specialty guides for travelling birdwatchers.
“I see change in towns like Nahuizalco, where in 2009 a new marketplace was built, the central park was redesigned, sidewalks were widened and plants, benches and decorative street lights installed to make the historic centre more attractive for residents and travellers from around the world,” Mr Broz says.
“The same for Concepcion de Ataco, while Suchitoto had a municipal tourism office many years before our Ministry of Tourism was formed in 2005.”
The municipal government have invested heavily in beautifying Nahuizalco for tourists and locals alike. (Supplied: Jennifer Huxley)
‘I felt absolutely safe’
Figures released by El Salvador’s Ministry of Tourism show that 2 million foreign tourists visited El Salvador in 2017, the highest number in 35 years.
But maintaining that level of growth will be challenging with the country struggling to kick its dangerous reputation, even on the more adventurous backpackers’ circuit.
Ilhem Bousnina, from the Netherlands, has been travelling the world for 15 months and, like many backpackers, only stopped in El Salvador to break her journey between budget hotspots Guatemala and Nicaragua.
Ilhem Bousnina has felt safe in El Salvador and enjoyed her stay. (Supplied: Jennifer Huxley)
After spending two weeks in several locations across the country including the capital San Salvador and the remote coastal town of El Cuco, she says she’s surprised by how safe she felt as a solo female traveller.
“If you Google ‘El Salvador safety’ it says ‘don’t go, it’s dangerous’, but when you read the blogs and talk to other travellers, everyone is really positive about El Salvador and I will be telling other people that I felt absolutely safe here,” Ms Bousnina says.
“The people here are all so friendly, the men don’t do creepy things like cat-call you, and there are lots of security guards and police around so you can ask for help if you ever need to, which I haven’t.”
The Australian Government’s Smartraveller website urges travellers to exercise a high level of caution in El Salvador, citing “very high levels of violent crime”.