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Honduran Island Tourists Scarce

December 23, 1998

ROATAN, Honduras (AP) _ Take a post-hurricane peek at Honduras’ most popular tourist destination: A turquoise sea laps white-sand beaches with tidy cottages set against emerald mountains. And not a tourist in sight.

``Mitch didn’t wipe us out,″ said Jeff Farnum, 45, manager of Sueno Del Mar dive shop and hotel in the island village of West End. ``But the government telling people Honduras is destroyed, and the bad press _ that’s what’s wiping us out.″

Honduras’ tourism industry is struggling to get the word out that the country’s biggest attractions _ the Bay Islands of Roatan and Utila and the Mayan Ruins of Copan _ were relatively unscathed by Hurricane Mitch.

But at what is normally the peak season, tourism in Honduras is down 80 percent from last year.

On Roatan, reggae music plays at empty seaside restaurants. Bored souvenir vendors nod off to sleep in the sun.

``Everyone assumes Roatan has been destroyed, but everything is fine,″ said Elizabeth Waring of Roatan Properties, which sells beachfront lots on the island. ``You can’t even tell we had a hurricane.″

With the banana and coffee industries on their knees, tourism is one of the few options Honduras has left to generate much-needed dollars, tourism Undersecretary Jacqueline Foglia Sandoval said.

The government’s Honduran Tourism Institute hired Egret Communications of Port Orford, Ore., for an aggressive promotion campaign. It sent mass mailings to travel outlets and set up the country’s first official tourism website with post-Mitch photos of picturesque beaches and reefs.

It also got the State Department to change its travel advisory warning Americans against going to Honduras to say Roatan is OK to visit.

Honduras’ congress voted this month to let foreign investors buy land on the coast and Bay Islands to develop tourism. Coastal residents, mostly Miskito Indians and Garifunas of African descent, opposed the move, fearing their businesses will be pushed out. But legislators said the law was necessary to rebuild Honduras.

Before the hurricane, tourism was steadily growing by about 25 percent a year. Americans account for more than three-fourths of the visitors. Last year, Honduras pulled in $147 million in tourism and officials had hoped to reach $180 million this year.

More than half of last year’s money came from Roatan. Ringed by coral reefs, the former pirate island is renowned for its diving. For three harrowing days, Hurricane Mitch spun 36 miles off Roatan, devastating neighboring Guanaja before it turned south and slammed into the mainland.

Flooding and high winds destroyed homes in Punta Gorda, a community about an hour north of Roatan’s tourist area. Anthony’s Key, one of Roatan’s most famous resorts, lost 14 cabins on stilts. It plans to reopen Feb. 1.

Yet except for a handful of headless palm trees and damaged docks, 90 percent of the island is back to normal.

``Someone should call us the miracle island,″ said Donna Arcaya, owner of the Inn of Last Resort, a lodge-style resort on a lush private peninsula off the Caribbean sea.

Arcaya’s resort, which is faring better than most on the island, sent customers e-mail messages to avert cancellations. Nonetheless, business is slow. Before the hurricane, veteran diver Steve Blumberg had planned to come to Roatan with a group from Baltimore, Md. After they got news from the Inn of Last Resort, they merely delayed their visit a few weeks.

``Roatan is world-class diving,″ said Blumberg, who has been on 31 dive trips to the Caribbean in the past eight years.

The tourism industry is banking on people like Blumberg to spread the news.

``Thank God for the few gringos who are still coming to see that everything is fine,″ said Ivis Yolanda Sevilla, who manages Joana’s Gift Shop. ``Because they’ll tell their friends that Roatan is still beautiful.″

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