San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Adventure-Tour Regulation Lags

ZIPLINE canopy tours, white-water rafting, bungeejumping… Tourists in Costa Rica will find hundreds ofadventure-tour options, all promising to get adrenalinepumping and hearts racing. Choosing a certifiably safeoperator, however, may prove a more daunting task.Government regulation of Costa Rica’s adventure tourismindustry has had negligible results since newrules were published in October of last year, according toindustry insiders.Despite extensive government requirements,tourists interested in extreme adventures will find aconfusing mess of private and public certification andalmost no industry-wide standards to guide them inchoosing a tour company.ONLY five of the more than 200 adventure-tourismcompanies in Costa Rica have fully complied with thenew regulations, according to Euclides José Arce, a representativeof the National Training Institute (INA),which oversees the certification program. The CostaRican Tourism Institute (ICT) is also involved.However, the government will not have specific guidelinesin place for three activities – mountain biking, naturehikes and horseback riding – until the end of this year.“It’s a process,” Arce explained.It appears to be a process that some of the most establishedadventure-tour operators in the country are ignoring.Some even admit they are making no effort to obtaincertification, although that doesn’t mean they’re not safety-oriented.Rafael Gallo, president of Ríos Tropicales, a river- rafting and bungee-jumping tour operator,and president of the 47-memberAssociation of Adventure Operators(AOA), is among those who criticize theregulations, saying they are unfair andunnecessary.THE government is “asking for veryridiculous requirements,” he said.“They have sent the Minister of Healthto ask for your safety records and youroperations manual, and they have no ideawhat it needs to contain. I could send themanything,” Gallo added.The government, however, sees therequirements as essential in an industrythat feeds off perceived danger.“We have to take care of the tourist, theworker, and the community,” Arce said.THE ICT announced its 80-pageGuide to Evaluate Maintenance andSecurity Procedures in October 2003,touted as the first set of legal guidelines inLatin America (TT, Oct. 24, 2003). Theguidelines were inspired by the death oftour guide Patricia Baron in September2000 after she fell from a zipline at ValleEscondido Hotel in San Ramón, in thewestern Central Valley (TT, Sept. 8, 2000;TT Daily Page, Oct. 23, 2000). Thecanopy tour operator was found guilty ofinvoluntary homicide (TT, Oct. 24, 2003).The government guide consists of a130-question checklist and technicalguidelines for adventure-tour operations.All operators that qualify as “adventuretours,” must fill out the survey, show proofof insurance, create manuals for safety,operation and maintenance and have theirequipment, guides and facilities approvedby ICT technicians. Untrained guides mustreceive courses from the INA.AFTER the ICT issues a certificate ofapproval, the guidelines say tour operatorscan then apply for licenses and permits fromthe Health Ministry and municipalities.Arce explained the certificationprocess to The Tico Times this week, notingit is a very thorough and demandingprocess for the tour operators.“We make the programs, we sendthem, they (ICT officials) look over them,and we execute them. But they are theones appointed by the law to manage this.”The final step is Ministry of Healthapproval, which is now a legal requirement.The five companies to have completedthe process, according to the ICT, areJacamar Naturalist Tours, Costa RicaArenal Canopy Tours, Arenal ParaísoCanopy Tour, Senderos Aéreos deTortuguero, and Poás Canopy Tour.Technically, according to TourismMinister Rodrigo Castro, who replied toTico Times questions through his pressadvisor Alvaro Villalobos, “the ICT’slegal powers don’t allow us to force anyoneto have a license from the ICT topractice a tourist activity.”The catch, according to Arce, is that theMinistry of Health does require certification,and the only way to obtain this isthrough the ICT process.MANY tour operators believe that insuch a large industry – according to ICTguidelines, activities from white-waterrafting to hiking are defined as “adventureactivities” – strict government regulation isimpossible and ridiculous.“The ICT doesn’t have the ability tocarry out the requirements,” said RobertoFernández, manager of rafting outfitterAventuras Naturales.According to ICT spokesman Villalobos,however, “the government has doneits homework.“For the creation of regulation, theytook into account the opinions of nationaladvisors and international experts, in eachone of the involved adventure-tourism disciplines,”he said.YET even tour operators who say theyunderstand why the government wishes toregulate the industry, such as Coast-to-CoastAdventure’s president Mike Lapcevic, saythe requirements are frustrating.“The government wants to reduce theamount of accidents, make sure that guysare qualified, that standards stay high.That’s what a company like Coast-to-Coastwants as well. What we’re questioning is,is that the only way to do it?”For Lapcevic, the answer is no. Hesaid he sees many flaws in the government’ssystem, including the government’sperceived detachment from the industry.“We shouldn’t have to go to all these(government-sponsored) courses,” he said,adding they are “the same as private ones.”He said adventure-tour operators have theirown safety standards and established system,“and now they’re almost reinventingthat with their own (government) system.”RIOS Tropicales’ Gallo took an evenharsher stance, saying the governmentmay not be qualified to teach safety andguiding courses.“All my guides are certified by theInternational Rafting Federation, but thegovernment won’t recognize that title.They have to go to their (the government’s)school, where they know nothing aboutrafting.” He referred to a requirement thatguides be trained at INA.Coast-to-Coast’s General ManagerCristina Ulate agreed.“There are some parts of the requirementsthat we think should be a little moreopen. For example, many guides have a lotof experience but don’t fulfill the requirementof a high school diploma,” Ulate said.Gallo said some of his best guides“cannot comply with guide certification. Ithink it’s ridiculous.”Arce said the government’s system isnot as inflexible as tour operators believe.Guides can take courses with the INA, takean exam to prove their knowledge, or showcertification or degrees from recognizedsources such as universities.“And if the guides are good (beforegovernment classes),” Arce said, “Theycan be excellent (after the classes).”GOVERNMENT and industry representativesboth urge tourists to researchcompany track records and check insurancepolicies before choosing a tour.

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