San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism Officials Focus on Quality

IMPROVED infrastructure, more deliberate developmentand increased foreign investment – those are thegoals for Costa Rica’s tourist sector after two years ofhuge increases in the number of visitors, according toauthorities.Improving telecommunications, roadways and airportwait time are among the top priorities, along withattracting more foreign investment for new hotels,Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro said.Projected growth for 2005 remains substantial at10%, and some industry insiders say the tsunami thatdevastated southeast Asia Dec. 26 is likely to bring anunexpected increase in European tourists this year.Castro emphasized that relatively low growth expected in 2005 – down from approximately20% in 2004 and 11.3% in 2003 –offers a chance for business leaders andtourism officials to catch their collectivebreath, consolidate existing services andlay the groundwork for sustainable developmentin the future.“THE tourism development of thiscountry cannot continue to be spontaneousand disorganized,” Castro said, adding thelower projections reflect the belief that thecountry can not sustain another year of thegrowth rates it has experienced since2003. Approximately 1.5 million touristsvisited the country last year.Vice-Minister of Tourism RodolfoLizano agreed.“We are far above the world average ingrowth, far above what we had projected.It’s time we get our house in order,” he said.Castro highlighted infrastructure asone of the greatest problems facing thetourist sector. On exit surveys by the CostaRican Tourism Institute (ICT), whichCastro heads, the state of the country’shighways and roads received low marksfrom tourists here, he said. Telecommunicationsis another area that needsimprovement.ANOTHER problem area, accordingto tourism officials, is a shortage of hotelrooms. The number of new hotel roomsbuilt has consistently fallen short of projectionsin recent years, Castro said.The institute estimates there are36,766 hotel rooms nationwide, up from35,003 in 2003 but short of the institute’sprojection of 37,016. Because of ever increasingnumbers of visitors and a 30%(3-day) increase in the average length ofstay since 2001, “we need increasedinvestment, or it’s possible the demandwill exceed supply,” Castro said.One of the tourism institute’s majorgoals in 2005 will be the attraction ofsuch capital. High occupancy rates (60%on average nationwide, and much higherin areas of heavy tourist activity) shouldhelp convince national and internationalbusinesses that Costa Rica is a soundinvestment, he added.OTHER measures to create better-planned,more sustainable growth thisyear include a Certified SustainableTourism initiative offering training to 50hotels, support for rural communitytourism initiatives from the UnitedNations’ Development Program, and theongoing 10-year (2002-2012) NationalDevelopment Plan, Castro said.According to Vice-Minister Lizano, thedevelopment plan shoots for a 6.6% averageannual increase in internationaltourism by 2012 for a total of 2.3 millionvisitors annually, and for an average annualincrease of 1.8% in national tourism.The plan also involves the creation ofspecific development goals for areas withheavy tourist activity and empoweringlocal tourism chambers to meet thosegoals. Regional goals have been completedfor seven of the ten regions outlined inthe national plan, which include theCaribbean, Corcovado-Golfito in theSouthern Zone, the central Pacific coastand the northwestern province ofGuanacaste, Castro said.LONG lines at the nation’s airportsbecame a major bone of contention in2004, with tourism groups denouncing airportoperators for what they claimed was afailure to prepare adequately for theDecember-March tourism high season.Wait times of up to 60 minutes during peaktravel times caused some to predict the airportswould “collapse” when the number of visitors increased (TT, Nov. 12).The Ministry of Public Works andTransport (MOPT) is implementing measuressuch as hiring of additional personnel,expanding customs hours, and purchasingnew computers for the JuanSantamaría International Airport in theCentral Valley and the Daniel OduberInternational Airport in Liberia, capital ofthe northwestern province of Guanacaste.Vice-Minister of Transport RobertoArguedas said last month that problems atthe Liberia airport, where the number oftravelers is expected to double in 2005because of new flights, include insufficientImmigration, Public Security and Customspersonnel; insufficient hours of operation;and a shortage of computers and otherequipment for baggage inspection.At the Juan Santamaría Airport outsideSan José, congestion at X-ray machinesused to inspect baggage and delays in payingexit taxes are among the major problems,he said, adding that action is beingtaken to hire additional personnel for themachines and rearrange the equipmentchecks for greater efficiency.ADDITIONAL strain on the airportsmay result from additional tourists fromEurope and other regions who change theirplans to visit the beaches of Thailand andother countries damaged by the recenttsunamis.Fabricio Chiodini of Ecole Travel, anagency with a 95% European customer base,told The Tico Times this week that Ecole hasreceived 200 additional reservations duringthe last few days from travelers rushingto change their plans to travel to Asia.“IT will definitely continue,” he said.“Thailand was one of the classic vacationspots for Europeans.”However, ICT spokesman AlvaroVillalobos said a significant jump is notlikely to take place for a few months, sinceflights and rooms for the tourism high season,which runs December to March, arealready booked.“Also, Europeans tend to travel morein the middle of the year,” he said. “Wecan likely foresee a larger increase duringthe low season.”Milagro Cabrera, sales director for thetravel agency Destination Costa Rica,agreed, saying her agency has not seen anincrease because of the lack of room availability.The Asian disaster is more likely tocause an increase in travelers to lower-trafficLatin American destinations such asPanama, Guatemala and Belize, she said.Whether the effects of the disaster willhave an impact on tourism official’s 2005projections or prevent the recovery andorganization Castro envisioned earlier inDecember remains to be seen.ASIDE from the Asian tragedy, CostaRica may see an increase of Europeantourists this year as long as the euro soarsagainst the U.S. dollar, the NationalChamber of Tourism (CANATUR) predictedlast week.Despite the challenges facing the industry,Castro expressed great satisfaction withthe 2003-2004 boom and emphasizedtourists give high marks to the country’ssafety, beaches and national parks. In fact,more than 90% of tourists surveyed gavethose areas the highest possible rating.The Tourism Minister dismissed theidea that competition from growingtourism industries in other CentralAmerican countries may chip away at theadvantage Costa Rica has traditionallymaintained over its neighbors.“The more we strengthen the region,the more it benefits us,” he said. “We havea 20-year lead, and if we work hard, thatwill be very difficult to lose.”

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