San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Commission Focuses on Tourism, Border

MANAGUA – In the spirit of neighborly cooperation, the Nicaraguan government is proposing a measure to eliminate reciprocal visa charges for Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans traveling to one another’s countries for business or tourism.

Nicaragua first started charging Costa Rican tourists a $20 visa in 2006, as a tit-fortat move in response Costa Rica’s visa policy toward Nicaraguans.

The proposal to eliminate the visa charges was one of the fruits of this month’s meeting of the Binational Commission between the governments of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, during which tourism and environment officials sat down behind closed doors in Granada to lay the groundwork for opening up borders between the two countries.

“What’s important here is the will on our part so Costa Ricans can arrive smoothly in Nicaragua,” President Daniel Ortega told  reporters at a conference in Managua March 14, alongside his Costa Rican counterpart Oscar Arias.

It was the first substantive work session between the two presidents since Arias and Ortega met last year and pledged a new spirit of cooperation. Both Arias and Ortega, who have had a strained relationship in the past, have returned to the presidency after serving overlapping terms in the 1980s – a decade in which they both played protagonist roles for different reasons.

Last week’s meeting between the two marks the revival of the Bilateral Commission, a 1990s project to create a permanent dialogue to address issues of common interest between the two nations. The commission had been suspended in 1997 during an escalation of tensions over the San Juan River (TT, Aug. 24, 2007).

Despite previous appeals by Ortega, Arias has said he will not drop Costa Rica’s case over navigation rights to the San Juan River, now under consideration in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The two leaders have since agreed to shelve that issue and focus on others that are of common interest, such as tourism, development and immigration (TT, Nov 23, 2007).

Ortega said “we have to wait” for the Hague decision on the Río San Juan, a Nicaraguan river that forms part of the border between the two countries. “Meanwhile, we’re moving ahead.”

The first step in moving ahead was made in the form of both presidents signing an agreement to reconstitute a slew of binational subcommissions to address development issues such as security, labor, immigration, electricity, tourism and the environment in the next binational meeting scheduled for August.

Border Crossings & Biospheres

Since last June, Nicaraguans who have visas to enter the United States, Canada or the European Union can also enter Costa Rica without a visa. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said Costa Rica has been waiting for Nicaragua to return the favor to Costa Ricans, but so far Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Samuel Santos says “entrance of Costa Ricans can’t be subject to approval of third countries.”

Instead, Nicaragua is proposing a mutual measure to allow Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans to cross the border using free visas for tourism and business. The tourism visas would be distributed by authorized travel agencies, which would check criteria such as credit cards, disposable income, and hotel reservations to confirm intention of tourism, Santos said.

Stagno said Costa Rica will consider the counter proposal.

Estimates put as many as 1 million Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica, although many are there working as temporary labor – a number that fluctuates during crop cycles. Nicaraguan immigrants have become increasingly important amid a Costa Rican labor shortage (TT, Aug. 31, 2007).

Arias said Costa Rican immigration reform would facilitate work visa applications for Nicaraguan immigrants.

“Residency of so many working Nicaraguans is positive, constructive and necessary for Costa Rica’s economic development,” Arias said.

Meanwhile, top environmental, tourism and foreign affairs officials from both countries, as well as border town mayors, also met to discuss border crossings and environmental conservation.

Nicaragua’s minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, Juana Vicenta Argeñal, said the commission agreed to work on a binational manual to protect the region’s unique flora and fauna and redouble efforts to combat trafficking in exotic species. The commission also discussed opening the highly anticipated Pacific coast border crossing near La Cruz, as well as opening up more border crossings in expansive eastern Nicaragua, where the San Carlos-Los Chiles is the only crossing point.

“We have to evaluate the capacity we have for good border crossings,” Costa Rica Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides told The Nica Times.

Opening crossings without proper enforcement in place would be a mistake, he said. Santiago Guillon, mayor of the Costa Rican border town Los Chiles, said both central governments must invest in the border regions if it is to develop a region for jointtourism initiatives. The border sits between Costa Rica’s booming Guanacaste region –which is expecting $2 billion in at least 35 tourism projects by 2009 (TT, Dec. 1, 2006) – and Nicaragua’s southern Pacific basin, which houses the burgeoning beach town San Juan del Sur and the colonial city Granada.

Nicaragua, an up-and-coming tourist destination, is hoping its cultural and natural attractions will lure more visitors from Costa Rica, which is a much bigger tourism market.

To do so, however, there needs to be investment along the border area – a move that would help Tico border towns as well.

“Historically, there’s been very little investment in these areas,” Guillon said.


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