PAPAGAYO PENINSULA, Guanacaste – Authorities closed the Spanish-owned Hotel Occidental Allegro Papagayo this week, forcing relocation of its 600 guests, an unprecedented move in a country booming with tourism.
Now, serious questions have surfaced at Occidental’s other nearby hotel, the Occidental Grand Papagayo.
The Tico Times this week learned the country’s environmental court, the Environmental Tribunal, is reviewing a case alleging that the Grand Papagayo, like the Allegro, had been dumping sewage illegally into ocean waters at Playa Buena, fronting one of the region’s most delicate coral reefs.
According to a formal complaint submitted in writing to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) by Luis Ricardo Charpentier on Aug. 16, the Grand Papagayo had been piping untreated wastewater since April 2007, despite a promise from hotel manager Alejandro Ramírez “that the problem had been solved.”
Charpentier, an environmental consultant and chemist representing Grand Papagayo’s neighbor – Hotel, Villas and Condominios Wafou – provided eight photographs as proof.
The case was filed at the Environmental Tribunal by the ICT, which, according to spokeswoman Marcela Villalobos, has “proceeded in a proactive manner” in pursuing such incidents.
The ICT, however, was slow to act. Charpentier filed his complaint on Aug. 17, but ICT waited until Oct. 2 to file the case with the tribunal.
During the interim, Charpentier said the “problem has not been solved, and in fact, has gotten worse,” citing an increase in “foul smelling wastewater of different colors.” All of it, he said, was dumping into the ocean. In an interview two weeks ago, Javier Bolaños, director of the Papagayo Tourism Project, insisted the Health Ministry, not the ICT, was responsible for ensuring hotels comply with the sewage treatment laws.
But Carlos Eduardo Cespedes, director of health in Carillo, where the Grand Papagayo is located, said the ICT never notified him of the complaint, neither had the Environmental Tribunal.
He said he was shocked to discover the situation had been ongoing since April and his office would begin investigating immediately.
“We have one environmental inspector covering all of Carillo, Santa Cruz and Nicoya,” Cespedes said. “We simply don’t have the personnel to inspect every hotel on a regular basis. Unless they share information with us, we have no way of knowing.” The ICT did not respond to The Tico Times’ requests for comment by presstime.
By Thursday, nearly 10 months after contamination was first detected at the Grand Papagayo, no one at the Health Ministry, the ICT, the Environmental Tribunal or the hotel would confirm whether the contamination has ceased.
The Occidental Allegro and Grand are centerpieces of the 2,000-hectare Papagayo Tourism Project, the largest such development in Central America, and one long touted by ICT as ecofriendly.
Gadi Amit, of the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association, a local activist group, said the recent revelations are characteristic of the bureaucratic chaos in the region.
“They just continually pass responsibility among institutions, and as such, the problems don’t get addressed,” he said. “In the end, it will be they that lose, because tourists will stop coming if the water is contaminated and word gets out.”
The contamination has already had an effect on water quality. A five-year study by Cindy Fernández, a marine biologist for environmental group MarViva, warned that runoff from development around Bahía Culebra, the region’s main attraction, has caused a bloom of a species of algae that is killing native corals and clouding the water.
Such scandal is not new to the government’s Papagayo Tourism Project, which has been shrouded in controversy regarding its environmental sensitivity since its inception.
As early as 1994, the Ombudsman’s Office complained, among other things, that the ICT was running the project as an “exempt zone,” where local ordinances and laws need not be followed.
On Tuesday, the day after the Health Ministry denied the Allegro Papagayo’s last appeals and called for the hotel’s final closure, the news made national headlines.
The hotel was ordered closed last week after officials discovered hidden pipes pouring sewage into an estuary – the last straw in a long list of documented environmental offenses that began in April 2007.
The Citizen Action Party (PAC), the Ombudsman’s Office, the presidential cabinet and all of the country’s environmental groups rallied around the Health Ministry’s decision to close the Allegro Papagayo.
By evening, virtually everyone had heard of the hotel’s fate.
Everyone, it seemed, but the hotel’s guests.
Along the Allegro Papagayo’s silky dark sand beach, littered only with pink shells and coconuts, The Tico Times interviewed seven guests, from Canada and the United States.
No one had heard the news.
“I had no idea the hotel was ordered closed,” said Donna Murphy, of the U.S. city of Columbia, South Carolina, who just minutes before had watched a howler monkey in a tree hanging over the beach.
“I came to Costa Rica because they do things right here,” she said.
Although her vacation at the Allegro might be cut short, she applauded the move.
“I’d be more disappointed if they weren’t going to close it down,” she said.
The ICT has assisted in relocating guests left with no place to stay.
“It’s not the tourists that should be punished,” said tourism minister Carlos Benavides.
According to Mario Calvo, director of the Health Ministry’s Liberia regional office, officials will seal the hotel before week’s end, to assure “no more guests are fooled into believing it still open.”
The closure, he said, will afford him and his inspectors time to investigate new contamination reports his office has begun to receive since the closure of the Allegro Papagayo.