San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Companies Criticize Airport Dispute

Two major companies in the tourism industry have criticized the situation at Costa Rica’s main international airport, saying that a years-long ongoing contract dispute between the government and the private airport administrator has prompted them to curtail expansion in the country.

One of those companies is Café Britt, a coffee and souvenir vendor that holds retail concessions at the JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport west of San José. The contract dispute between the government and Alterra Partners has killed the possibility of further expansion there, according to the company.

Meanwhile, TACA airlines CEO Roberto Kriete called the state of the airport “deplorable,” and said the airline would suspend expansion in Costa Rica.

TACA, a Salvadoran company, operates 40% of the flights to and from the airport. The airport dispute started in 2003, when the Comptroller General’s Office questioned a fee hike structure Alterra and government officials agreed to in 2001 (TT, March 28, 2003). Construction on the airport expansion, part of Alterra’s 20-year contract with the government, then stalled for three years. It restarted again in 2006 in what Alterra called a measure of good faith, but has since stalled again as international lending institutions backing the airport modernization project negotiate with the government terms that would allow Alterra to remain financially stable.

TACA head Kriete blamed the bad condition of Juan Santamaría on the dispute. “I think it’s time the government of Costa Rica and the people at Alterra make a decision for the good of the country. They’ve already been at this for four years, and the airport continues to be a disaster,”Kriete told the daily La República.

More directly, Kriete criticized the “stubbornness” of Alterra, as well as the unusually high rates Alterra charges airlines to use the airport, the daily La Nación reported.

Kriete met with President Oscar Arias to air his grievances as well. He emphasized that airports in Panama and El Salvador have 28 and 19 boarding gates, respectively. Juan Santamaría has four, and the construction that was supposed to increase that number has been delayed for years.

TACA has opened only two new flights to Juan Santamaría over the past two years. Café Britt, a mainstay of the Costa Rican tourism industry, has also expressed exasperation, and not just at the airport conflict, but at Costa Rica in general.

General Manager Pablo Vargas said the airport dispute has kept Britt from opening more stores in the yet-to-be-constructed areas of the airport.

Broadening his criticism, Vargas said in e-mailed comments that the conflict is an indication of an endemic problem in Costa Rica.

“The country has decided that (public) works concessions are a good way to build infrastructure, but it doesn’t have the ability to carry out” the concessions, Vargas said.

“The country is suffering a crisis of bureaucracy. The bureaucratic rules… are what give the orders in this country,” he continued.

Café Britt was founded in Costa Rica in 1985 as a coffee exporter and, later, a souvenir and retail company. During the past five years, however, it has turned its expansion efforts toward other countries.

Britt now operates stores in Peru, Curaçao, and the island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Last month, Britt opened three stores in Chile, and is working on opening a distribution center in Miami.


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