Can "Survivor" redefine Nicaragua's image?

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua — "Survivor" contestants are infamous for their petty catfights, but Nicaragua's tourism industry is holding out hope for something more.

When 20 American contestants face off for the $1 million grand prize on "Survivor Nicaragua," about 13 million Americans will tune into watch — giving the country a level of pop-culture exposure like never before.

The Emmy award-winning reality TV show, which begins airing Sept. 15 on CBS, has promoted this season with a dramatic trailer highlighting Nicaragua as an exotic and untamed land of “impenetrable terrain” and “savage wildlife.”

But following Nicaragua’s only other experience on American prime time television — the brutal U.S.-funded contra war in the 1980s — a show focusing on Nicaragua’s harsh and uninviting environment is considered positive press here.

And tourism boosters are thrilled. That’s because the American audience that tunes in each Wednesday represents the otherwise “impenetrable terrain” of a mass market that Nicaragua can’t possibly tap with its own resources — a paltry $2 million in annual promotional funding.

“The country does not have enough budget for promotion and marketing to reach an audience of this magnitude. Therefore, the filming of "Survivor" in Nicaragua constitutes a huge opportunity for us,” said Javier Chamorro, executive director of the Nicaragua’s investment-promotion agency ProNicaragua, which played a key role in convincing the producers of "Survivor" to come here.

For a country whose tourism industry has yet to reach the 1 million annual visitor mark, even a relatively small boost from curious "Survivor" fans could have an enormous ripple effect on the economy here. Tourism Minister Mario Salinas notes that if only 1 percent of "Survivor" viewers decide to visit Nicaragua, it would represent a 50 percent increase in American tourists — Nicaragua’s main market.

Salinas said the government and its public-relations agency in Los Angeles are already working to answer the increasing demand for information from U.S. travel agencies that are experiencing an uptick in interest about Nicaragua as a result of the thousands of articles that have already been published to promote the new season of Survivor.

And Salinas said he’s not worried about the show labeling his country as “savage.”

“I don’t think it has a negative connotation — it’s associated with pure, virgin nature that is uncontaminated,” the tourism minister said. “In other parts of the world, nature is domesticated, designed and arranged. But people don’t want that from nature; they want it to be authentic. And that’s what we have in Nicaragua.”

Lucy Valenti, president of Nicaragua’s National Tourism Chamber, agrees that the country could use "Survivor" to spin its “savage” image into a positive catchphrase — similar to Colombia’s recent campaign to turn its perception as a violent and dangerous place into the catchy tourist slogan “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

Valenti said the reality show could also give Nicaragua a unique chance to showcase its underdevelopment as an unexplored tourism destination for adventure and nature.

The truth is Nicaragua can use all the positive spin it can get these days. Since President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, stories about Nicaragua in the international media have focused mostly on the Sandinistas’ political shenanigans, claims of electoral fraud and tiresome tales of political crisis and ungovernability. While tourism continues to grow in Nicaragua despite all that — and even during a global economic downturn — the number of American tourists coming here is showing signs of leveling off for the first time in many years.

So the dirty tricks and cutthroat politics of Survivor contestants in the reality show competition will come as a welcome distraction from the real thing in Nicaragua’s government. Plus, by becoming part of mainstream American TV culture, Nicaragua will be able to reach out the large segment of people who otherwise may never have considered this country as a place to spend a week’s vacation.

“'Survivor' is a unique opportunity for a host nation to reach out to the world,” said Leisa Francis, the show’s co-executive producer. “The show is created in a way that highlights the host nation's scenic beauty, its wildlife and its culture. Survivor delivers a video postcard of the host nation. The promotional value is extraordinary.”

That's particularly true for Nicaragua. With remote white-sand beaches and lush tropics — all within a two-hour flight from Miami — Nicaragua hopes to benefit from the "'Survivor' effect" more than previous countries that are either too large to notice any effect, such as China and Australia, or too far off the map to be helped by reality TV, such as Gabon, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Realtors — a motley group of national and international salespeople who haven’t had much to cheer about for the past three years — report that "Survivor" is both a selling point or something to refrain for mentioning, depending on the potential client.

“Most clients assume that the show will bring good publicity to the area, thus making their investment now a good idea to get ahead of the rush,” said Justin Fahey, of San Juan del Sur’s Aurora Beachfront Realty.

However, he added, “Some clients couldn't give a crap about a reality TV show that is in its millionth season, clinging to relevancy. Many people come to Nicaragua and buy land here to retire or vacation away from 24/7 news cycle and rat race. So mentioning 'Survivor' to them might be construed as a negative — they want to experience authentic Nicaragua as a contrast to life in North America.”

But for people who already bought here, Fahey said, "Survivor" has become a bragging point among their friends and family back home in the U.S.

Expats and investors now “feel legitimized” in their decision to buy here, Fahey said. “It’s like they’re saying, 'Ha! My friends back home said I was nuts to invest here, but now I tell them, ‘You can see my beach this fall on "Survivor!"' ”