San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Marinas Make Waves in Golfito

GOLFITO – On a picturesque bay within a bay, in theGolfo Dulce off the southern Pacific coast, this port town issqueezed between calm waters and the tall verdant hillsthat push tight against the shore. Golfito has also founditself squeezed between a rock and a hard place since 1985,when the United Fruit Company packed up its bananaexport business, which single-handedly supported the community,and left.The proposed construction of a new, enormous marinaon the bay is giving hope to many in the community foranother chance at their lost glory days, but the regulationsaround existing, smaller marinas are causing conflict.The only existing docking business in Golfito with aconcession on the water, King and Bartlett Marina, is cryingfoul over alleged irregularities that have allowed severalothers to remain in business without the proper permitsfor seven years.Marinas, and the tourism they support, represent prosperityto the struggling community. For that reason, accordingto government officials, the more than a dozen tourismdocks and marinas in Golfito have been allowed to continuedoing business without the concessions required by a1998 law governing marinas and docks.The government “has given priority to the economic and social development of Golfito,” saidOscar Villalobos, of the Inter-InstitutionalCommission on Marinas and TourismDocks (CIMAT), which oversees the concessions.“CIMAT does not prioritize closures.”FAMED for its bountiful sportfishingand surrounded by some of the mostuntamed and bio-diverse forests in thecountry, including the legendary CorcovadoNational Park across the gulf,Golfito’s relative remoteness is one reasonwhy the zone has not seen the samelevel of development as areas such as thecountry’s northern and central Pacificcoasts.Only two enterprises since United Fruithave given residents of Golfito any hope ofclimbing their way out of economicdepression. One is the duty-free shoppingcompound known as El Depósito Libre,which draws people from across the countryto buy inexpensive televisions, washingmachines and other duty-free imports. Theother is tourism.While the duty-free shopping areafaces an uncertain future – some say itwould be made obsolete with the passageof the Central American Free-TradeAgreement with the United States(CAFTA), since the treaty would eliminatetariffs on most U.S. exports to the region –tourism looks to get a major boost with theconstruction of the Golfito Marina, slatedto begin this year.THE first $50 million phase of the$400 million project entails the constructionof a 217-slip marina and 100-150-room hotel. The director of the project,Marvin Jaén, says the marina, which has aconcession, would provide 1,000 new jobsto the community of 36,000 (TT, June 25,2004). The owners of several other docksin Golfito told The Tico Times they lookforward to the business that could comewith the added exposure the new marina –being developed by the Costa Rican companyHacienda Dorado S.A., and potentiallyfinanced with U.S. capital – is expectedbring to the area.The 1998 Law 7744 for the Concessionand Operation of Marinas and TourismDocks, meant to regulate the industry,required all companies with docks on thewater for tourism use to get a concessionthrough a process of presenting proposalsand environmental-impact studies to differentgovernment agencies and the municipalgovernment.Regulations accompanying the lawordered all existing facilities to complywithin six months or face closure.HOWEVER, of the facilities inGolfito that were in operation when thelaw was passed, not one has received itsconcession.This infuriates Steve Leen, owner ofKing and Bartlett, a sportfishing outfit heopened three years ago.“It has been seven years that none ofthese businesses has received a concession.I got mine in less than a year, so it can bedone,” Leen said. “Why is King andBartlett the only business that has toadhere?”At the heart of Leen’s complaint is thefact that once a business has a concession,it must pay taxes and a yearly cannon,or fee, for the water and waterfrontland it is using. According to KelvinFlores, the operations manager for Kingand Bartlett, this amounts to $2,039 ayear.“This makes it more difficult to compete,”Leen said, “Our overhead goes up,while other businesses don’t have to paytheir taxes.”Banana Bay, a marina that sits a fewhundred meters north along the coast fromKing and Bartlett, is among those businesses.However, it should receive its concessionfom the municipality any day now.“I look forward to paying these taxeswhen I can complete the process,” saidBruce Blevins, who runs Banana Bay,when he spoke with The Tico Times inmid-June. “And we’re getting close tothat. I’ll be happy to pay the cannon whenthe municipality is ready to establish thatwith us.”Banana Bay had completed its concessionprocess as of June 30, according toCIMAT. It is now only a matter of timeuntil the municipality grants the concession.“We made every effort and had everythingin place within six months [of the lawcoming into effect],” Blevins said.Differing interpretations of the law, as wellas bureaucratic inefficiency, he said, arethe reasons why it has taken his business solong to get a concession.ACCORDING to CIMAT, it servedBanana Bay with an order a year ago toclose after not meeting a deadline toremove additional docks it was not permittedto build. But the municipality had previouslygiven Banana Bay an extension, soCIMAT revoked the order and Banana Bayremoved the construction.Katie Duncan, owner of the smalltourism dock Tierra Mar, neighboringBanana Bay, echoed some of Blevins’complaints. The law, she said, “was rolledout before there was the infrastructure toadminister it appropriately. We were givingthem the documents faster than they knewwhat to do with them.”Villalobos acknowledged that when thelaw was enacted and CIMAT was created,the process was still new.“In 1998, there wasn’t experience,”Villalobos said. “But after six years, nowthere is experience.”He added that because the law wasdirected toward new facilities, it has beenmore difficult to incorporate existing facilitiesinto it.THE job of enforcing the law falls onthe municipality. Golfito’s current mayor,Aída Soto, took the position three monthsago after the previous mayor was removedfrom office and briefly jailed for allegedlyfailing to comply with orders from theComptroller General’s Office. Sotoacknowledged the law has not beenenforced for seven years.“But now, all are in the process of gettingtheir concessions,” she said.According to CIMAT, this is true ofthose operating along the shoreline of thecity of Golfito, but of the 14 marinas andtourism docks in the Golfito bay, not all areon their way to legality. Tourism docksGolfito Sailfish Ranch, Siete Mares,Cabina Playa Cacao and Dock 2038 are alloperating without concessions and are notin process to receive one, according toVillalobos.Roy’s Zancudo Lodge approachedCIMAT about getting its concession,Villalobos continued, but it, along with theArena Alta tourism dock and the municipaldock of Playa Zancudo, a small coastaltown south of Golfito, all are located withinmangroves. The 1998 law prohibitsmarinas and tourism docks in mangroveareas, making it impossible for them toreceive a concession unless they move,Villalobos said.THE Isla Grande Marina and HotelGaviotas are also in the process of gettingtheir concessions. However, according toVillalobos, the process for HotelGaviotas has been stalled until it resolvesan issue of an allegedly illegal constructionwith the Government Attorney’sOffice. The owners of the Mar and Lunadock in Golfito have informed CIMATthey are not interested in getting a concessionand will not be conductingtourism business.Villalobos explained a certain “tolerance”has existed toward these businesses,in part because there is a “political pressure”to keep them open.“The spirit of CIMAT is to promote theoperation of marinas and docks in theGolfito area,” Villalobos said. “Enforcementhasn’t been strict and they havebeen given many opportunities.”

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