Many tourists to Costa Rica experience the thrill of gliding through treetops on a canopy zipline or rafting through river rapids, but how many stop to worry about their safety while partaking in these adventurous activities?
The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) and Public Health Ministry require that adventure companies follow extensive safety standards to obtain a permit; however, officials say many function without one.
“It’s a problem in the country that many companies are operating without a permit from the Health Ministry,” said Xinia Arias, from the ministry’s Department of the Human Environment.
Like all businesses, adventure companies must obtain an operating permit from the Health Ministry and renew it every two years, Arias explained. To get the permit, they must first comply with a long list of standards established by ICT in its manual, “Guide to Evaluate Maintenance and Security Procedures.”
The manual spells out general standards for adventure companies in the areas of human resources, maintenance and security and also states specific guidelines for hanging bridges, canopy tours, river rafting, hiking and canyoneering.
ICT published the manual in 2003, the same year a canopy tour operator was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the death of a German tour guide, Patricia Baron, who fell from a zipline at Valle Escondido Hotel in San Ramón in 2000 (TT, Oct. 24, 2003). Before ICT established the standards found in the guide, the adventure tourism industry was self-regulated.
Pablo Valverde, ICT advisor of tourism services, described the 81-page manual as “extensive.” Each company must use it to develop its own safety manual and present it to ICT, he explained.
“The objective is for the country to offer equipment and services that give security,” Valverde said.“We can’t aspire to have no accidents, but we can try to minimize accidents.”
Though ICT does not measure how many accidents occur with adventure companies, Valverde said the institute can gauge accidents by looking at whether adventure companies are receiving payments from their policies with the National Insurance Institute (INS), the state-run insurance monopoly.
“We have no reason to believe there are a lot of accidents,” Villalobos said. “If there were, we would see the companies using their policies.”
In addition to presenting a satisfactory safety manual, adventure companies’ guides must also meet ICT requirements, including attending courses at the National Training Institute (INA) and having two years experience.
While in training, guides receive a provisional, two-year permit to gain on-the-job experience, Valverde explained.
Since ICT published the guide, adventure companies have expressed that complying with these standards is no easy (or cheap) task.
“We’ve worked hard to develop river and canyoneering evacuation plans, make sure our guides have their INA safety courses and we’ve even brought in outside consultants to make sure our equipment and vehicles are in good working condition,” said Suresh Krishnan, owner of Desafío Adventure Company in the Northern Zone town of La Fortuna, which offers rafting, kayak, horseback, mountain biking and hiking trips.
Yency Cabrera, Director of Operations for Exploradores Outdoors, a rafting company with offices in San José, Puerto Viejo and La Fortuna, said the certification process is lengthy and time-consuming. Nevertheless, Cabrera, like Krishnan, has made sure her company complies with ICT standards.
Not All Comply
The two industry insiders pointed out that not all companies go to these lengths to comply with government standards – instead, they said, some take the easy route of operating without a permit.
“I know many companies that operate without a permit and some that don’t even have insurance,” Cabrera said.
Krishnan recently became vocal about companies that “consistently play with people’s lives in this country and refuse to abide by the rules resulting in accidents and even several deaths,” he said in a statement Desafío sent out after an incident on the Río Toro, near La Fortuna, Feb. 14.
The incident, which involved a rafting trip led by Rios Arenal (also known as Flow), a franchise of Rios Tropicales company, has resulted in a series of argumentative e-mails back and forth between Ríos Tropicales and Desafío concerning ICT certification, among other issues. The dispute could escalate into a legal matter – Ríos Tropicales president Rafael Gallo said he plans to sue Desafío for defamation and unfair competition within the next couple of weeks. Krishna told The Tico Times he has heard nothing of the lawsuits.
Rios Arenal was taking a raft of four people down Río Toro, outside La Fortuna, which has Class III and IV rapids. The raft overturned, and Ríos Tropicales called another company in Sarapiquí, in north-central Costa Rica, to aid in rescue efforts, in accordance with its emergency plan, Gallo said. For “unknown reasons,” the company in Sarapiquí then called nearby Desafío to help, Gallo said.
Three of the rafters were quickly pulled out of the water, but Gerald Brown, from Canada, was helped by a rescue kayak onto a high rock, where he waited as long as five hours until guides and the Red Cross were able to assist him, according to the Red Cross spokeswoman Carmen Porra.
In a letter to ICT, Brown said he felt Ríos Tropicales guides acted “promptly” and did everything they could “to ensure our safety… given the nature of the sport.”
However, Krishnan, who said Rios Tropicales was rafting in dangerously high waters that day without an emergency plan, called the incident an example of why “this country needs new leadership in the adventure tourism industry.”
“We don’t need defiant, unprepared adventure companies that go against government regulations and cause accidents that could seriously harm Costa Rica’s image as a safe, professional adventure destination,” he said in a statement sent out three days after the incident.
However, Gallo disagrees that complying with ICT standards is the best way to ensure safety in adventure activities. Though Ríos Arenal, the company running the Feb. 14 trip, is certified by ICT, Rios Tropicales is not, he said.
Gallo, president of Costa Rica’s 65-member Association of Adventure Operators (AOA), has spoken out against ICT’s standards since they were first published three years ago, claiming the institute knows nothing about rafting (TT, July 2, 2004).
“We haven’t gone to the lengths to get it because I’m against the ICT decree,” Gallo said. “Most of the best companies are not certified.”
Gallo said ICT’s standards are not sufficient to prevent accidents. Instead, he abides International Rafting Federation standards, under which his company is certified.
“The guide certification (required by ICT) is ridiculous,” Gallo said. “I have found so many inadequate guide certificates.”
Rios Tropicales has complained to ICT about substandard certification requirements, and Villalobos said ICT has agreed to look at proposed changes the company plans to submit next month.
Meanwhile, enforcing the policy that companies must have an operational permit has become a priority for the Health Ministry, Arias said.
The ministry is trying to track down companies that are operating without a permit by checking out businesses that advertise in newspapers and other media, she said. The Health Ministry can close any business discovered to be operating without a permit, she added, though it may give them the chance to comply with guidelines and reopen.
Because many adventure companies operate in a clandestine manner, without signs posted or a phone number, it’s difficult for the ministry to discover them.
For example, “a hotel owner may just call a friend to take some clients out hiking or rafting, and that friend may not be certified,” Arias said.
When choosing an adventure activity, including hiking, boating and horseback riding, tourists should ask to see the company’s operating permit, Arias said, and should report to the Health Ministry any company they discover operating without one.