San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism: New Opportunities, Old Problems

The more things change, the more they stay the same, goes the saying. That adage could apply to tourism in Costa Rica in 2006.

The year ushered in Carlos Benavides as new Tourism Minister in a new administration, amid heady predictions that 2006 would be an even better year for the country’s $1.6 billion tourist industry than 2005.

Yet the industry’s wish list for 2007 remains the same as last year, and every year. Deep concerns persisted about the ability of Costa Rica’s infrastructure to cope with the arrival of so many visitors, with terms such as “deplorable” being bandied about by those in the tourism sector.

With the 2006 State of the Nation pronouncing less than one-third of country’s highway system in good shape, fixing the country’s legendary potholed roads remained high on the list.

Airports remain an ongoing concern, with the government announcing at year’s end it would seek termination of its contract with Alterra Partners, the private manager of JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport outside Alajuela, after a year of unresolved contract disputes (see separate story).

DanielOduberAirport outside Liberia held better news. A mix of private and government investment was earmarked for a new boarding area for 450 passengers, scheduled to be inaugurated next year.Authorities are developing a master plan for a future Southern Zone airport between Sierpe and Palmar Sur, and $230,000 was earmarked for improvements to rural airports.

American Airlines inaugurated Dallas-Liberia flights in February; Delta began Los Angeles-Liberia service in December. New joint venture Air Panama/Air Costa Rica launched service between San José and David, Panama early this year. Limón’s airstrip finally came into its own with new flights by SANSA and Nature Air.

The year served as a reminder that outside factors, natural and human, over which the industry has little control, profoundly affect tourism.

High oil prices meant higher airfares. New carry-on regulations following the foiling of a British plot to blow up airliners bedeviled passengers. Poás Volcano erupted for the first time in 12 years in March, temporarily blocking access to the popular site.

A spate of assaults on rental cars leaving Juan Santamaría worried authorities. An October dockworkers strike in the Caribbean port of Limón cancelled arrival of a 3,000-passenger cruise ship and resulted in a more than $200,000 loss to the local economy.

The apparent demise of carrier Air Madrid in December eliminated one European air route and stranded ticket holders as the busy holiday season approached.

Final tourist-number projections for 2006 were still out at this writing. (Last year saw 1.67 million visitors pass through the turnstiles.) The National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) estimated that airport arrivals from October 2005 through September 2006 were down 75,000 from the same period the previous year. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) cautioned those figures don’t tell the entire story, and don’t account for land and sea arrivals.

The Comptroller General’s Office ordered the ICT to cancel tax incentives previously granted to hotels, a move denounced by the industry as “changing rules in the middle of the game.”

CANATUR bemoaned the insufficiency of hotel rooms during for high season, citing the need to turn away 45% of booking requests between December and May. The expected arrival of several resorts – the J.W. Marriott and the Hyatt Regency Azulera, both in Guanacaste, and Starwood’s St. Regis Resort and the Ramada Resort and Residences on the central Pacific coast – may ease that situation somewhat, at least on the upscale end.

Things moved forward on many fronts too for a country named a “rising star of tourism” by Future Brand, a travel industry research firm.

The ICT announced plans to open eight regional tourist offices in 2007, with locations to be determined, although ICT told The Tico Times the first will be at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel came to Costa Rica, as did Adventures by Disney and its family-oriented tours being operated through local firm Horizontes.

Marina projects moved forward in the northern Pacific’s Gulf of Papagayo and the south Pacific port of Golfito. Both are expected to open in 2008.

Much was accomplished at the grassroots level too. The new Costa Ballena Tourism Chamber announced measured development plans for the south Pacific coast, not wishing to adopt Guanacaste’s mega-resort approach.

Businesses in Jacó banded together to combat sex tourism, and to obtain a new fire engine. (The two developments were not related.)


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