Capitol Alert

Surf City, El Salvador? Gavin Newsom promotes tourism to Central America

Gavin Newsom visits rural indigenous town in El Salvador

On April 8, 2019, Gov. Newsom arrived in Panchimalco, a rural indigenous town in El Salvador, the country Newsom chose for his first international trip.
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On April 8, 2019, Gov. Newsom arrived in Panchimalco, a rural indigenous town in El Salvador, the country Newsom chose for his first international trip.

Americans often associate El Salvador with gang violence and migrant caravans. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants more people to identify the country with something sunnier: surfing.

El Salvador’s beaches have some of the best waves in the world, a group of Salvadoran entrepreneurs and officials told Newsom during a round table discussion Tuesday.

They say they want to make the country a tourist destination. And Newsom told them he wants to help.

He says he wants the two countries to partner to promote tourism, and wants El Salvador to learn from California’s already flourishing travel industry.

“Clearly tourism is such a dominant industry in California. We probably do it better than any other state,” Newsom said. “It seems natural for us to engage in mutual support in terms of what’s going on down here.”

It might seem strange for Newsom, who has sought to emphasize difficult conditions in Central America as a reason immigrants are seeking American asylum, to encourage Californians and other Americans to travel there.

Newsom, who says he surfs but not enough to call himself a “surfer,” said visiting El Salvador has made him less worried about the security situation in the country. He says he’s now less concerned about recommending that Californians visit the Central American country.

He says boosting the economy in El Salvador, a country where most people who leave cite financial instability, could help stem the flow of those coming to the U.S.

Strengthening business ties with El Salvador could further intertwine two already deeply connected economies.

From the hotel where Newsom is staying in San Salvador, he can see various American fast food restaurants including McDonalds and Dominos. The electrical outlets are the same, and so is the currency: both countries use the U.S. dollar. Roughly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product is dependent on remittances, money Salvadorans living in the United States send to their families in El Salvador.

Martha Arevalo, who runs a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps Central American immigrants, says every month she sends money to her 85-year-old mother in El Salvador.

“What happens in California very much affects them directly and what happens in El Salvador affects me directly,” she told The Bee by phone. “My stability in terms of my job and my family very much affects my family in El Salvador.”

The U.S. State department advises Americans to “reconsider” travel to El Salvador because of crime, which attendees at Newsom’s roundtable event said is a huge barrier to tourism. But Newsom says he’s learned during his visit that violence against tourists is extremely rare.

“There’s no way you could have told me that 48 hours ago, and now I’m hearing it in different places and different people, and I actually believe it,” he said. “There are some legitimate concerns… as you travel through to get from point A to point B, things can obviously flare up, there’s always exceptions, but there’s a completely different story there.”

U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes said she’s working to get the advisory segmented to show some areas of the country are safer than others.

When Newsom met with El Salvador’s President-Elect Nayib Bukele for a discussion closed to press, both men said afterward they discussed surfing and building economic ties.

“We have the best surfing beaches in the world and they have the other ones,” Bukele said. “We want to work together.”

Newsom described his meetings about economic opportunity in El Salvador, where participants also discussed other tourist attractions in the country, including its mountain forests and Mayan ruins, as refreshing.

“It’s nice to have a conversation about El Salvador that’s not MS-13,” he told reporters afterward.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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