Tourism and Development along Nicaragua’s Southern Pacific Coast


Tourism plays and increasingly important role in Nicaragua’s economy (Babb 2004, Baranay et al. 2001, INTUR 2006, Vanegas and Croes 2007).  Much of this boom is centered on what is now called the “Nicaraguan Riviera,” a stretch of coastline extending from the border with Costa Rica 100 km north to the sleepy fishing village of Astillero.  The first land sales along this coast took place in the late 1980s to foreigners who went to Nicaragua in support of the revolution.  After the fall of the Sandinista government in 1990 land sales around the fishing village of San Juan del Sur began to take off as the political climate in Nicaragua became safer in the eyes of outside investors.  Since than a rapid transformation of land ownership along the coast has taken place.  Gated and walled resorts, condominiums, private homes, residential developments, surf lodges, and ecotourism developments now dot the coastline.  More development is planned and the government promises to build a paved coastal highway connecting all communities along the coast. 

While this boom in tourism and second home ownership certainly looks good in economic terms and dollars generated at the national scale, we know little about how original residents along the coast have been impacted by this rapid change.  Many government agencies around the world, and academics alike, often make the assumption that earnings from tourism will trickle down and benefit all residents (see discussions that speak to these assumptions in Stronza  and Gordillo 2008, Vanegas and Croes 2007, and more generally in Weaver 1998).  Debates about the benefits of tourism are not unique to Nicaragua.  Academics have long-debated the benefits and drawbacks of tourism, especially in the developing world where local residents have less political power (e.g., Belsky 1999, Honey 1999, Stonich 2000).  However, the reality is that relatively few in-depth studies that assess the impact of tourism and ecotourism at the local level exist and even fewer studies have taken local experiences and perceptions into consideration (Stone and Wall 2004, Stronza and Gordillo 2008).   Moreover, the pace of change in Nicaragua has been so fast along the Pacific coast that we do not have a true overall accounting of where tourism development has taken place, the type of development occurring in each location, and the impact of this development on fragile coastal environments. 

Research Goals

To help us better understand the development along Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast this research has the three major goals that I list below:

a.  Create an inventory of the type of developments along the Pacific Coast from the border with Costa Rica north to the community of Astillero.  The goal here is to create a digital map using participatory mapping techniques.  This map and associated data will be located on an open-access website so that it becomes a live and useful document that can be continually updated.

b.  Document land cover change associated with development.  This will be accomplished using satellite images from 1990 and 2009.  This land cover change analysis will allow us to assess the impact of tourism development on the natural environment.

c.  Conduct in-depth studies in three rural coastal communities to assess the social, economic, cultural, and ecological changes associated with tourism.

All of this work will be accomplished by teams made up of faculty and students from UPOLI and the University of Denver, and, of course, members of coastal communities.  I want this research to be as inclusive as possible so that participants can learn the process by which to gather information about their own environments, analyze the data, and then make decisions based on their analyses.  This process gives power and ownership to the communities involved and also produces outcomes that are relevant to the stakeholders. 


In this section I address how I will accomplish each research goal.

  1. a. Participatory mapping

  1. b. We will document land cover change associated with tourism development along the coast. For this phase I hope to use free satellite images and obtain low cost or free remote sensing software (IDRISI) from the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University.  This will allow us to produce a land cover change map.  We will then add the information we collected in the participatory mapping stage to add explanatory power to our land cover change maps.  This is known as “socializing the pixels” because we will be tying social information to digital pixels (Liverman et al. 1998).

c.  The third main phase of the proposed research involves community-based research in several small communities along the coast to evaluate the impact of tourism on local livelihoods.  Community-based research of this nature is vital to this project because the overall goal of this research is to allow the community to use the results of the impact study to identify ways in which we can, if it is deemed necessary by the communities involved, find better ways to incorporate locals into the tourism economy in truly sustainable ways, or to explore alternatives to reliance on the tourism economy.  Tourism economies often have boom and bust cycles and locals must have alternative sources of reliable income (Stronza and Gordillo 2008).  So, this research goes beyond a study of the ways in which communities are affected by tourism because I propose to take those results and, working closely with the communities, look for ways to better their lives.  This type of applied scholarship follows the trajectory that I have take with my research in Guatemala where my work over the last eight years has produced tangible and sustainable results (like potable water systems) for rural Guatemalans.  I do this because I believe, like Peet and Hartwick (1999) that “development must involve growth in that part of a society’s economy that serves the needs of the poor people...[and] wants to extend the benefits from economic growth to a world of people, starting with the poorest while, in the process, transforming social relations of control to democratize all aspects of existence, and rethinking relations with nature to ensure both continued livelihoods and the fecundity of nature”  (p.11).  I propose to work in the small coastal communities of Astillero, Salinas, Limón I, and Limón II.  This work will be accomplished using a combination of semi-structured interviews using domains important to community members, focus groups, household surveys, and finally community meetings to discuss results and create plans for addressing identified needs (Austin 2003, Becker et al. 2003).  I have successfully conducted this type of research in remote and rural areas of Guatemala and I am sure I can do the same in Nicaragua.  I have taken University of Denver students to these communities in Nicaragua and thus have some initial contacts in the area.


This research will provide an in-depth study on the impacts of tourism on Nicaragua.  This is important because the results can be used to make informed decisions about the development and direction of this growing sector of the economy.  Moreover, the results of this study will empower local communities and position them to partake in the tourism industry in ways that they determine.  Results of this research will be disseminated to local communities and institutions as well as in academic journals where I can contribute to discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of tourism.

Select Bibliography

Abbot, J., Chambers, R. Dunn, C. Harris, T., de Merode, E., Porter, G., Townsend, J. and Weiner, D. (1998). Participatory GIS: Opportunity or Oxymoron? PLA Notes, 33: 27-33.

Austin, D. 2003. Community-based Collaborative Team Ethnography: A Community-University-Agency Partnership. Human Organization 62(20):143–152.

Babb, F. 2004. Recycled Sandalistas: From Revolution to Resorts in the New Nicaragua. American Anthropologist 106 (3): 541–555.

Barany, M.,  Hammett, A.,  Shillington, L., and Murphy B. 2001. The Role of Private Wildlife Reserves in Nicaragua’ s Emerging Ecotourism Industry.   Journal of Sustainable Tourism 9(2): 95-110.

Becker, D., C. Harris, W. McLaughlin, and E. Nielsen. 2003.  A Participatory Approach to Social Impact Assessment: The Interactive Community Forum. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 23:367–382.

Belsky, J. 1999. Misrepresenting Communities: The Politics of Community-Based Rural

Ecotourism in Gales Point Manatee, Belize. Rural Sociology 64:641–666.

Bird, E. 2000. Coastal Geomorphology : An Introduction. Chichester ; New York : John Wiley & Sons.

Bond, R., J. Curran, C. Kirkpatrick, N. Lee, and P. Francis. 2001. Integrated Impact Assessment for Sustainable Development: A Case Study Approach. World Development 29:1011–1024.

Brosius, P., A. Tsing, and C. Zerner. 1998. Representing Communities: Histories and Politics of Community-Based Natural Resource Management. Society and Natural Resources 11:157–168.

Campbell, L.1999. Ecotourism in rural developing communities. Annals of Tourism Research 26:534–553.

Chambers, R. 1983 Rural development: Putting the Last First. Indianapolis: Wiley.

Chambers, R. 2006. Participatory Mapping and Geographic Information Systems: Whose Map? Who is Empowered and Who Disempowered? Who Gains and Who Loses? Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries, (25)2: 1-11.

Chambers, R. 2007. From PRA to PLA and Pluralism: Practice and Theory. IDS Working Paper 286, Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex), Brighton, UK.

Christ, C., Hillel, O., Matus, S.,  and Sweeting, J. 2003. Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism’s Global Footprint. Washington DC: United Nations Environment Program and Conservation International.

Doan, T. 2000. The Effects of Ecotourism in Developing Nations: An Analysis of Case

Studies. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 8:288–304.

Eadington, W. and Smith, V.1992. Tourism Alternatives: Potentials and Problems in the Development of Tourism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Epler Wood, M. 2002. Ecotourism: Principles, Practices and Policies for Sustainability. New York: United Nations Publications.

Godlewska, A. 1997. The Idea of the Map. In Hanson, S. (Ed.), 10 Geographic Ideas That Changed the World. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.

Honey, M.1999.  Ecotourism and Sustainable Development:  Who Owns Paradise? Washington D.C, Island Press.

INTUR (Instiuto Nicaraguense de Turismo) 2006. Boletín de Estadísticas de Turismo, 2006.  Managua, Nicaragua. 

Jamal, T., and Getz, D.1999. Community Roundtables for Tourism-related Conflicts: The Dialectics of Consensus and Process Structures. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 7:290–313.

Jones, S. 2005. Community-based ecotourism the significance of social capital. Annals of

Tourism Research 32:303–324.

Kruger, O. 2005. The Role of Ecotourism in Conservation: Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

Biodiversity and Conservation 14:579–600.

Li, W. 2006. Community Decision making: Participation in Development. Annals of

Tourism Research 33:132–143.

Liverman, D., Moran, E., Rindfuss, R. 1998. People and Pixels:  Linking Remote Sensing and Social Science. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

McNiff, J. 2001. Action Research: Principles and Practice. New York: Routledge.

O’Sullivan, D. 2006. Geographical Information Science: Critical GIS. Progress in Human Geography, 30: 783-791.

Peet, R., and Hartwick, E.  1999.  Theories of Development.  New York: Guilford Press.

Rambaldi, G., Kyem, P., McCall, M. and Weiner, D. 2006. Participatory Spatial Information Management and Communication in Developing Countries. Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries, (25)1: 1-9.

Russell, D., and Harshbarger, C. 2003. Groundwork for Community-Based Conservation: Strategies for Social Research. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Scheyvens, R. 1999. Ecotourism and the Empowerment of Local Communities. Tourism

Management 20:245–249.

Strand, K., Marullo, S., Cutforth, N., Stoecker, R., and Donohue, P., 2003.  Community-Based Research and Higher Education. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Press.

Stonza, A., and Gordillo, J.  Community Views of Ecotourism. Annals of Tourism Research  35(2): 448–468.

Stonich, S.1998. The Political Ecology of Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 25:25–54.

Stonich, S. 2000. The Other Side of Paradise: Tourism Conservation and Development in

the Bay Islands. Elmsford: Cognizant.

Taylor, M.J., Moran-Taylor, M., and Rodman-Ruiz, D.  2006. Land, Ethnic, and Gender Change:  Transnational Migration and its Effects on Guatemalan Lives and Landscapes.  Geoforum 37:41-61.

Tsaur, S., Y. Lin, and Lin, J. 2006. Evaluating Ecotourism Sustainability from the Integrated Perspective of Resource, Community and Tourism. Tourism Management 27:640–653.

Vanegas, M., and Croes, R.  2007.  Tourism, Economic Expansion and Poverty in Nicaragua: Investigating Cointergration and Causal Relations.  Staff Paper Series.  Department of Applied Economics, College of Food Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences, University of Minnesota. 26 pages.

Weaver, D.  2001.  Ecotourism.  Sydney, John Wiley and Sons.

West, P., and Carrier, J. 2004. Ecotourism and Authenticity: Getting Away from it All? Current Anthropology 45:483–491.