The government policy that tourists and other non-residents need carry only photocopies of their passports – leaving the originals in their hotels to avoid losing their passports to petty street theft – has not changed, authorities say, despite reports from Tico Times readers that local police officers do not always honor these regulations.
The policy was implemented in late 2004 in an attempt to reduce passport theft, a common problem here. More U.S. passports are lost or stolen here than in any other U.S. consular district, and the Canadian Embassy in San José has announced that the number of passports stolen from Canadian tourists has risen in recent months.
Many passports are stolen on the street or at the beach, which is why authorities urge tourists to not carry their original documents when out and about.
However, sources have told The Tico Times they have experienced, or heard of, situations in which police in the central Pacific beach town of Jacó have attempted to detain or fine tourists carrying only photocopies of their passports.
Authorities said they have not heard such reports, however.
“I find it strange that those (reports) would be made,” Juan José Andrade, Regional Police Director for the province of Puntarenas – which includes Jacó – told The Tico Times this week. “Our police have been trained (regarding the new rules).”
Along with Andrade, Public Security Ministry spokesman Nicolás Aguilar, Immigration spokeswoman Heidy Bonilla and Costa Rican Tourist Institute (ICT) spokesman Alvaro Villalobos said they have not received any reports of police ignoring the copies-only policy. All four reiterated the policy described on the sheets incoming tourists receive at the airport: tourists should carry copies of the identification page of their passports, as well as the page stamped when they enter Costa Rica, during their daily activities – particularly at the beach, a hotspot for theft.
It’s important to note that law-enforcement authorities retain the right to accompany tourists to their hotels to verify passport originals, Andrade said, adding that some foreigners have taken advantage of the policy and shown police altered photocopies.
Passport originals are generally required for all transactions non-residents make at banks, such as exchanging currency, cashing travelers’ checks or making withdrawals.
According to Aguilar and Andrade, any foreigner who experiences problems with police officers regarding this policy should ask to be taken to the regional police headquarters, or unidad policial, or call the Internal Affairs Department of the Public Security Ministry at 227-4866, extension 309. Andrade said questions or concerns regarding police in the province of Puntarenas – which, in addition to Jacó, includes the popular tourist destinations of Quepos, Manuel Antonio and Montezuma – should also call the regional office at 661-4879.
People who have problems with Immigration police should call 299-8108, Bonilla said.
Tourists were required to carry the originals of their passports at all times until late 2004, when leaders from the tourism and public-security sectors, following lobbying efforts from various ambassadors, announced a change in the rules (TT, Nov. 5, 2004).
The 1,600 lost or stolen U.S. passports reported to that country’s embassy in 2005 exceeded the figure even for Paris, which has five million U.S. tourists per year compared to approximately 800,000 last year in Costa Rica (TT, Feb. 10).
The Canadian Foreign Affairs Office updated its online travel report last month to include a warning about passport theft, following recent increases. Lilly Edgerton, Public Affairs Official for the Canadian Embassy in San José, told The Tico Times that 16 Canadian passports were reported stolen last November, 13 in December, 49 in January, and 39 in February.
The warning, found on the Canadian Foreign Affairs Web site (www.voyage.gc.ca), also says travelers should beware of “good Samaritans” who damage tourists’ rental car tires, stop to offer help, and then rob the victims’ valuables. The report also warns of armed robberies, theft from hotel room safes, car break-ins, and carjacking at gunpoint, but states that most passport thefts involve tourists leaving their bags unattended.
“People come here to relax, and they feel comfortable because of Costa Rica’s reputation, so they bring their passports to the beach, or leave them in the car. The travel report is to let people know that thefts happen differently than at home,” Edgerton said.
The report also states that foreigners have been sexually assaulted at beach resorts and by taxi drivers in San José, and that there is concern that photography of children may result in the child being identified either for child prostitution or for snatching. Advice for recognizing and avoiding problematic situations can also be found on the Web site.
Tourists whose passports have been stolen should file a police report and contact their embassy for a replacement.
Tico Times reporter Tamara Neely contributed to this report.