Taxi drivers, orphans, hoteliers are sad as reporters leave Salvador

For over two weeks, San Salvador has been besieged by hundreds of camera, tripod, and typewriter-toting foreign journalists covering El Salvador's March 28 election.

With the vote behind them, however, many -- if not most -- camera crews and journalists are beating a hasty retreat. But not without leaving behind a noticeable and appreciable impact on the city and its economy.

The most obvious effect of the nearly 800 journalists who have moved in and out of the capital since mid-March has been the capacity booking in the city's three main hotels: the Presidente, San Salvador Sheraton, and especially the Camino Real, headquarters for most of the press here.

With an average of 250 rooms in each of the three hotels, two weeks with a full house has earned each establishment approximately $175,000 for the rooms alone. Meals and other hotel services such as $80-per-day translators for the many non-Spanish-speaking journalists might double or triple the figures.

According to Donald Critchfield of NBC News and a secretary-general of the Salvadoran Press Corps Association (SPCA), during the peak period of election coverage, ''We had 20 to 30 rooms in the Camino Real plus 10 to 15 in the Sheraton. Those who were in the Sheraton now are coming over to the Camino Real.''

One veteran Latin America correspondent recalls that ''not too long ago I was the only guest in the Camino Real, and all the floors except for one were closed. Now it's become a coed dorm.''

Indeed, the hotel has every appearance of a dormitory as men and women crowd the hallways chatting, walking in and out of each other's rooms, and watching the television monitor showing the latest video news being sent by a satellite to the United States.

One hotel employee at the San Salvador Sheraton says the influx of journalists and election observers has helped business tremendously. But she adds:

''For me, it's helped a little. Not much, but a little.'' A colleague adds, ''It's too bad we don't have elections all year-round.''

Taxi and van drivers are driving hard bargains to profit from the journalistic activity in and around the capital. Almost 150 vehicles, displaying the word ''TV'' in huge masking-tape letters and bearing fluttering white flags, have ferried reporters and camera crews for about 250 colones ($100) a day.

''With the economy in such bad shape, the chance to make extra money is great ,'' says a taxi driver. ''It's especially nice for the family. It lets us do more things and buy new clothes for the children.''

Others have directly benefited from the journalists' presence. The SPCA -- formed by a few US journalists to help the throngs of other US and foreign reporters covering Salvador news -- has donated a percentage of its 25 colones (

''Originally we asked for 10 colones to help pay for an ID laminating machine ,'' says an SPCA member, ''and the whole thing was partly tongue in cheek. Now it's become an embarrassment of riches.''

SPCA membership is not obligatory for reporters coming to El Salvador, and when Donald Critchfield came here Feb. 11, the organization registered him as member No. 87.

''We had 500 colones in the kitty'' at that time, he says. ''Now we have 9, 000 colones and 737 registered members.'' Some of that will go to orphanages, he says. ''We're taking suggestions on what to do with the rest.''

But this ''financial aid'' is drying up as the press corps makes its exodus. Seventy journalists left the Camino Real April 1 with aluminum boxes of equipment and baggage packed for the last time into the vans for the trip to the airport 40 kilometers away.

''In a way,'' Mr. Critchfield says half jokingly, ''we've had at least as much impact as US aid in terms of trickle down through society.''

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