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Guess What New Tropical Location is Being Touted for Tourism? El Salvador? Yes, El Salvador.

     When I recently heard that travel writer David Paul Appell was planning a journalistic trip to El Salvador (he's co-editor of the well-regarded, I was startled, to put it mildly; El Salvador is not often regarded as suitable for tourism.  But David has a high reputation for uncovering new destinations, and his talents and experience are awesome.  So, holding my breath, I invited him to contribute a guest blog to  what follows below are his unedited comments on El Salvador, exactly as he submitted them, including the headline:

El Salvador as Emerging Destination – Ready for Prime Time?

When you think of the tiny Central American country of El Salvador – which I’m betting is rarely if ever – chances are that nothing particularly pleasant comes to mind. Throughout the 1980s there was a brutal civil war, and in the past decade gang members repatriated from the United States swelled murder rates to scary-headline proportions; the U.S. State Department even issued an alarming travel advisory not long ago. The war has been over for 20 years, though, and when one takes into account the fact that the violence takes place largely between gangs in areas where tourists would never venture, crime affecting tourists is not much different than the Latin American norm.

El Salvador does have a lot going for it in terms of attractions, attractiveness, and friendliness, and so this year in particular has begun making a more concerted effort to leverage all of that in a bid to attract more visitors. And the world is starting to notice; for example, the country was a
nominee for Travel Agent magazine’s top emerging destination for 2013, and the BBC dubbed it “Central America’s secret garden.” So I decided to attend the tourism fair held this month in capital San Salvador to interest/educate tour operators and travel agents, both to gain a more first-hand sense of the security situation and whether this land the size of New Jersey is ready for its close-up.

And I found El Salvador to be very likeable indeed, with plenty to see and do. You’ve got access to spectacular scenery (for example, there’s a volcano in the distance almost anywhere you look); fine ecotourism/adventure; sweet little historic towns; community tourism; Maya sites; and volcanic-sand beaches along 190 miles of coast with some of the hemisphere’s best surfing (even if you only body surf). Highlights include a UNESCO World Heritage Site touted as “the Pompeii of the Americas”; Joya de Cerén isn’t as spectacular as sites such as Tikal, Copán, and Chichén Itzá (or for that matter, Pompeii itself), but this town of 5,000 buried by volcanic eruption offers something a different: insight into the lives of average Mayans. Charming towns like Suchitoto very much remind me of, say, Antigua, Guatemala and Granada, Nicaragua – but before they became commoditized gringo colonies. And those beach waves! I don’t surf (and of the surfing lesson I took during my visit, the less said the better), but I sure love horsing around in some vigorous surf, and this are some of the most fun I’ve ever experienced – with the lovely lagniappe of water temperatures in the mid 80s Fahrenheit.

Prices range from good to downright cheap (and using U.S. dollars, by the way); even in capital San Salvador, which in terms of overseas visitors is more of a business than a tourist destination, you can score a full-service luxury hotel like the
Real Incontinental for $150. And out in the hinterland, a lovely room in a high-quality, historic small-town lodging such as Suchitoto’s Los Almendros can be yours for less than $90–sometimes much less (throughout the country, hostelries number less than 200, most of them smallish, with occasional exceptions such as the 552-room Royal Decameron Salinitas beach resort, starting at just $70 per night all-inclusive). Getting around is easy thanks to the country’s compact size (you can pretty much drive from one end to the other in five hours) and its good and sometimes even excellent roads; and rental rates as low as $25 a day.  Air service from the U.S. is provided by American, Avianca/Taca, Delta, Spirit, and United (in Canada, Avianca out of Toronto), and U.S.  tour operators include Central America Viaventure, Ladatco Tours, Tara Tours, and Yampu Tours.   

To whom might I recommend El Salvador? Well, unless you’re a surfer, it offers no major blockbusters in terms of attractions. But it is a sweet, laid-back slice of Central America before the mass tourism that has transformed Costa Rica as well as parts of Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua. As one South Carolina travel agent I met down there told me, “it’s not really for first-timers,  but for someone who’s been around and wants something different.” I can get behind that – and I look forward to returning soon.

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