San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Air Travel Fueled Record Tourism Numbers

COSTA Rica’s tourism industry isending its best year ever, having welcomedan estimated 1.5 million foreign tourists.Most of those travelers arrived on anever-increasing number of flights to thecountry. If tales of woe in the beleagueredairline industry fill the news, you’d neverknow it here.The big news was continued growth ofDaniel Oduber International Airport nearthe northwestern city of Liberia. InJanuary, American Airlines began offeringthree weekly flights from Miami, andContinental, three-times-per-week servicefrom Houston.Delta, which a year earlier had inauguratedAtlanta-Liberia service, added a sixthweekly flight in April.Experts credited the new service with ahuge increase in tourism to Guanacasteprovince compared the previous year.JUAN Santamaría International Airport,just outside San José in Alajuela, saw growthtoo: United Airlines added service fromWashington’s Dulles Airport to San José inFebruary and from Chicago last weekend,and American began direct flights from LosAngeles last month.Both United and U.S Airways, whichlaunched flights to Costa Rica late lastyear, continue to operate under bankruptcyprotection, but service here has notbeen affected.Spanish airline Iberia inaugurated nonstopflights from Madrid, bypassing the needto change planes in Miami, Florida. Fellowairline Air Madrid began three-times-weeklyservice from its namesake city.Central American airline consortiumTACA also got into the act, offering welcomerelief with an announcement of permanentfare cuts of up to 50% to other destinationsin the isthmus.NOT all air-travel news was rosy,however.Industry leaders questioned the abilityof both international airports to handle thecrunch of this tourism high season, nowunder way.Liberia witnessed some 180,000arrivals this year, up 100% from last year.And by the end of 2004, San José wasexpected to welcome a whopping 2.7 millionpassengers on the 300 flights into thecountry each week.Tales of long lines at Immigration,Customs and airline check-in countershave become commonplace.This all took place in the shadow ofongoing disputes between the governmentand Alterra Partners, the consortium contractedto operate and remodel the airport(see separate story).A 47-day air-traffic controllers’ strikethat began in June barely interfered withair travel. Foreign controllers were hired astemporary replacements. A two-weekseries of roadblocks in late August stemmingfrom protests over vehicle inspectionsactually caused more disruption fortourists (see separate article).Heightened security measures associatedwith air travel continued to be a concern.In January, citizens of most countries,Costa Rica included, began beingfingerprinted and photographed uponarrival in the United States under a programcalled U.S. Visit.Costa Rica remains reluctant to complywith the U.S. Department of HomelandSecurity’s requirement that armed marshalstravel on certain flights to the United States.OTHER tourism news this year wasland-based.A Four Seasons hotel on the PapagayoPeninsula in the northwestern province ofGuanacaste, the second of several megaresortsplanned for the area, opened tomuch fanfare in January, but the developmentsparked debate about access to publicbeaches and camping in the area.The Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court ruled earlier this month thatauthorities acted with too much force whenthey shut down several canopy-tour operationsaround the country last year.The closings stemmed from Canadianentrepreneur Darren Hreniuk’s claims thathe invented the zip-line concept popularwith tourists. For now, all may continue tooperate.The Caribbean port city of Limón welcomed350,000 cruise-ship passengersduring the 2003-2004 season, giving thecity a tourist vibe the likes of which it hadnever seen before.And the southern Pacific town ofGolfito continued to explore tourism alternativeswhile watching warily for theimpending closure of its Depósito Libre,the duty-free complex that may be madeobsolete with the arrival of the proposedCentral America Free-Trade Agreementwith the United States (CAFTA).IN a welcome move, the Ministry ofPublic Security announced in Octoberthat tourists may now carry copies oftheir passports while traveling around thecountry, keeping the originals locked upin a secure place. (Many had been doingso all along.)The April edition of National GeographicTraveler magazine gave CostaRica a ho-hum “Not So Bad” 64-out-of-100 score to the country on sustainabletourism, questioning if it was moving toofar from its traditional environmental focusto sports-and-leisure one.But with recent predictions that virtuallyall the hotel rooms in the country havebeen snapped up for Christmas-NewYear’s week, there appear to be enoughvisitors who approve of the country’stourism offerings.

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