PUERTO LIMÓN – The Caribbean port city of Limón is betting on tourism from cruise ships to jumpstart its struggling economy and create much-needed jobs for local residents.
During the current Caribbean cruise season, which started in October and runs until May, 175 cruise ships, carrying approximately 350,000 foreign tourists with money to spend, will arrive at Limón’s docks.
Each tourist will spend an average of $110 during a short one-day visit to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT).
AS soon as they set foot on the docks, visitors are greeted by smiling tour operators and cabbies offering to take them on tours of the city, the Tortuguero canals to the north, the beaches of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita to the south and rafting expeditions on the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers to the west.
An artisan market awaits tourists just steps from the docks. There, limonenses offer foreigners everything from “Pura Vida!” Imperial beer T-shirts and bags of Costa Rican coffee to handmade arts and crafts. Traditional Caribbean hair braiding also is on offer.
Local and national government officials say they are convinced tourism is the key to a prosperous future in Limón.
“We have opened our hands and our hearts to tourists,” Limón Mayor Roger Rivera told The Tico Times last Friday.
“There are many beautiful things here. We’re betting on tourism – a great generator of opportunity and distributor of wealth.”
ONE of the largest cruise ships to ever dock in Limón, Royal Caribbean International’s Brilliance of the Seas – a 293-meter-long, 14-story-high, 9,900-ton German-built vessel – visited Costa Rica last Friday.
The Brilliance carried 2,501 tourists, most whom got off the ship and proceeded to explore what Limón and the country’s Caribbean coast have to offer.
The number of cruise ships arriving at Limón has been increasing steadily each season. Cruise ship arrivals are expected to increase by 32% this season compared to last, from 118 to 175.
“Cruise ships bring many tourists,” said Raymond Tang, Royal Caribbean’s General Manager of Central American Operations. “They benefit the entire country.
They create jobs for those who provide transportation, artisans, small businesses and restaurants. Many passengers get off the boat and take day trips around the area and all over the region.”
Gloria Gart, who works at the dockside artisan market, agreed.
“They come and they buy,” she said. “They create more jobs for people. We’re doing better than before. When the cruises come, there are more jobs. When they leave, there’s nothing to do. When the season ends, we sit and wait until October.
Unemployment is still the biggest problem here.”
UNEMPLOYMENT has long troubled the Caribbean coastal region of Costa Rica. According the most recent Household Survey, released in November by the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), 7.9% of the region’s residents are unemployed, compared to 6.7% nationwide.
The Caribbean’s economy continues to be greatly dependent on the banana export sector, which employs 91% of the workforce in Limón province, according to President Abel Pacheco’s Economic Council (TT, March 26).
One in five limonenses (19.4%) lives below the poverty line, earning less than ¢30,828 ($72.50) per person per month, according to INEC (TT, Nov. 18, 2003). Although it is a growing industry, tourism in the Caribbean region remains limited.
The region’s infrastructure – roads, airports, hotels and attractions – is decades behind that of the Pacific coast.
NOWHERE is this lack of infrastructure more evident than in the city of Limón.
Mayor Rivera believes part of the problem is people have the wrong idea about Limón.
“People have a bad image of Limón. There are many beautiful things here,” he said. “The crime problem is greatly exaggerated.
Many people don’t visit us because of these false stereotypes. I’d like to invite all Costa Rican and foreigners to visit the country.”
Guillermo Alvarado, General Manager of the ICT, hopes tourism from cruise ships will jump-start the city’s tourism industry and the local economy.
“Cruise ships provide Limón with a tourism product that stands to strengthen the local hotel and restaurant business,” Alvarado explained. “If better hotels and restaurants can open, they will make the city more attractive to a larger number of local and foreign tourists, which generally stay in the city much longer than tourists from cruise ships. The benefits will spread and a strong and thriving tourism industry will develop.”
THE ICT, the Municipality of Limón and the Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA) say they are working hard to make the city more attractive to tourists.
ICT promotes Limón at Seatrade, a yearly maritime trade show attended by all the major cruise lines, and at other conventions around the world, Alvarado said.
The Municipality has worked to improve garbage pickup, increase public street lighting, repair sidewalks and aqueducts and repave rural roads. It has worked with tour operators, cab drivers and business owners to promote a customer service-oriented culture toward tourists, Rivera said.
JAPDEVA, which built the city’s cruise ship dock and operates the artisan market, has plans to transfer all cargo vessels to nearby Port Moín so that Limón’s docks can be used solely by cruise ships.
Port managers also aim to make the port capable of handling up to four cruise ships at once.
By 2012, officials hope to double the number of cruise ships that visit Limón each year.
THE Executive Branch also has plans big plans for Limón. Last September, President Abel Pacheco announced his government would develop an eight-year urban-renewal plan aimed at creating new jobs, attracting tourism and improving the quality of life in Limón.
In February, the President announced that the port city would have its first soccer stadium – an approximately $1 million project that will seat about 4,000 – by year’s end. He also said the government has allocated about $190,000 to repair Limón’s Big Boy baseball stadium.
Additionally, the government has plans to repair and expand Limón’s airport, according to Labor Minister Ovidio Pacheco.
“For Costa Rica it’s basic – it’s fundamental– to develop Limón,” Minister Pacheco said. “We’re working hard to turn Limón into the city we all want it to be.”
Héctor Marín, who plays the marimba on the docks for tourists, said he is in favor of anything that will bring more ships to Limón.
“I think it’s good,” Marín said. “More cruise ships is a good thing. They bring us more job opportunities. Our wages come from tips. We have no salaries.”