Rural tourism continues gaining popularity with the Costa Rican government, but advocates say more work needs to be done to establish it as an industry in the country.
Since President Óscar Arias signed a decree in 2006 declaring rural tourism a national interest, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has begun creating a network and surveying dozens of establishments around the country that offer this type of recreation.
This month, ICT reported that 14 establishments will fall under the Tourism Declaration, meaning those places will be able to benefit from services provided by the institute. Another 14 will soon follow, according to a press release by ICT.
But Kyra Cruz, director of the Costa Rican Association for Rural Community Tourism (ACTUAR), said some of the regulations that the ICT requires establishments to meet to get the tourism declaration and the subsequent tourism contract must be altered for rural tourism.
For example, she said, to get the declaration, an establishment must have at least seven rooms.
But many places involved in rural tourism don’t have the capital to start big, usually only offering three to four rooms, and only expanding if more income comes in. Also, in order for an establishment to be awarded the construction incentives, it must have at least 10 rooms Cruz said.
Inherently, rural tourism has less capital than other kinds of tourism. It’s anchored by families and communities in rural places, offering visitors a sample of what many say is a more authentic taste of the country.
“Rural tourism is not based on luxurious rooms or buildings,” Cruz said. “From our viewpoint, we offer the luxury of visiting communities, for example, indigenous communities or walk on rural hillsides.”
Cruz applauded the ICT for visiting many sites that offer rural tourism, and said that those places with the tourist declaration will benefit from having the ICT stamp.
“I think that the ICT has given its first efforts to organize rural tourism,” Cruz said.
“It’s an important first step.”
She added that the ICT has long been a supporter of the annual Rural Community Tourism fair, which took place this past weekend.
More than 50 organizations participated in the fair. It’s the biggest promotional vehicle these establishments have to promote themselves. Of the three days the fair lasts, one day is solely dedicated for tour operators to learn about rates and possibilities with rural tourism organizations, Cruz said.
The ICT’s efforts come as the government begins to analyze the impact rural tourism has on the country’s tourist industry.
In 2006, surveys of departing tourists showed that 8 percent of the more than 1.6 million foreign visitors to Costa Rica declared rural tourism as their main activity, said Marcela Villalobos, an ICT spokeswoman.
Worldwide, rural tourism grew by 50 percent in one year, said Villalobos, citing a report by the United Nations.
ICT also found that tourists visiting rural tourism sites spent two to six days in the country and spent around $99 per day.
“The government has given rural community tourism more importance,” Villalobos said.
Rural tourism, she said, is becoming the fourth “macro-product of the tourism industry.” The other three sectors are traditional tourism, like a visit to a sunny beach, eco-tourism, and adventure tourism.
The government has recognized that rural tourism is a means for impoverished regions in the country to supplement their economies, officials said. It’s a “form of boosting local economies, improve income of families in rural zones, work towards sustainable tourism and develop the communities that have enormous potential and currently are considered impoverished areas of the country,” according to Allan Flores, general manager at ICT. But Cruz said that if the government wants to truly make rural tourism its fourth tourism macro-sector, a more aggressive marketing campaign is needed.
She hopes to have talks with ICT on the issue next year.