Tourism is undoubtedly down at the Classic Maya archaeological site, one of the main engines of this sector of the Honduran economy: from 200,000 in 2007 to 110,000 in 2010.
Disentangling the contributions of the world economic crisis and the coup d'etat of 2009 to this drop in visitation is tricky.
A global decline in tourism began in 2008. Central America was hit hard, with a 10% decrease in the first six months of 2009, reflecting fears of the H1N1 virus on top of the economic downturn.
Then came the coup d'etat. Honduras ended 2009 with a total of fewer than 100,000 visitors to Copán, a 50% decrease from 2006-2007. (We have not found data for 2008.)
The 10% increase in visitors to Copan in 2010, to 110,000 visitors, is right in line with the recovery rate of Central America as a whole for that year reported by the World Tourism Barometer.
But Copan hotel owners and tourism operators aren't happy with that. They blame their government for not doing enough to promote Copan.
Udo van der Waag, owner of Don Udo's in Copan, is quoted by La Prensa as saying
"They are not promoting Copan for the world. The occupancy rate has not gone above 42 percent..."
In fact, Nelly Jerez, the Minister of Tourism, has been promoting Copan: most recently, with tie-ins to the supposed Maya end of the world prophecy for 2012. So why the sense from the business community in Copan that the government isn't doing enough?
Copan businessmen have submitted a 2 million lempira proposal for events in Copan, with the expectation that the Tourism Ministry would fund it. Jerez is looking for them to commit capital to this project.
Meanwhile, Jerez has been promoting tourism to other areas of the country, through the Ruta Colonial and Ruta Lenca. She told La Prensa
"We have met with various publicity agencies with whom we work and their consultants to bring about a better strategy, so that people come not only for what Copan and the archaeological sites signify, but also to the other touristic sites of the country."
Copan businessmen, who see tourism lagging, must feel this is happening at their expense: if the ministry of tourism spends money promoting something other than Copan, it's not doing enough for Copan. This kind of Copan-centrism notoriously figured in the illegal dismissal of the former director of the Institute of Anthropology and History, Darío Euraque, discussed in his recent book about cultural policy and the coup d'etat.
So why is tourism recovering so slowly at Copan?
A critical study of the social impacts of Central America tourism by Ernest Cañada, published in April of 2010, suggests that tourists to Central America increasingly focus on "sun and sand". Cañada notes that tourists, especially from North America, are taking shorter vacations, spending less on food and drink, and buying fewer things to take home. None of this is good news for Copan tourism operators.
Are Copan businessmen justified to expect that tourism will recover to pre-2009 levels ?
A reading of the World Tourism Barometer suggests they should expect growth in 2011 of only 4 percent over last year's numbers; that would mean a rise to around 115,000 visitors, far below pre-2009 numbers.
It may be that the old days were truly the heydey of Copan tourism.