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Can "Survivor" redefine Nicaragua's image?

Nicaraguans like that "Survivor" is highlighting its harsh environment.

Nicaragua beach
A Nicaraguan boy runs along Majagual beach, about 98 miles south of Managua, Jan. 15, 2006. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

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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.”