Rushing from meeting to meeting, with millionaire investors on one hand and environmental activists on the other, Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides is a busy man.
The numbers over the past few years show that his hard work has paid off. Tourism in Costa Rica is booming like never before, with 1.9 million people visiting Costa Rica last year and the sector grossing an estimated $1.92 billion.
The Tico Times caught up with Benavides in his office in the Costa Rican Tourism Institute’s headquarters in the northwestern San José district of La Uruca to talk about challenges for the sector and the future.
Is the economic slowdown in the United States going to affect the Costa Rican tourism industry?
The recession is a fact now. Anyway, ever since it was a possibility we took it seriously and with prudence. This year the ICT (Costa Rican Tourism Institute) intends to make use of the largest advertising budget in its history, by a lot. It’s a budget of about $14 million.
Double last year’s budget?
Double last year’s. In addition (to its being spent) in our most important market, which is the United States.Now, one shouldn’t leave aside the consideration that a recession in the United States has a global effect. It doesn’t mean only keeping an eye on U.S. visitors, but also take the precaution of understanding that the market in general is going to be much more sensitive. And of course, to that you have to add the high cost of fuel, which is a factor that plays against the whole world, especially the travel industry.
What about the first quarter of last year? Airport arrivals indicate tourism is still growing strongly.
It implies that the logic of the U.S. recession isn’t simple. Just because there is a crisis of this magnitude in the United States doesn’t mean that there will be an immediate deceleration in tourism.We should consider that, from an optimistic perspective, it could turn out that U.S. citizens prefer to travel to closer destinations instead of farther ones like Europe or Asia, in a way that benefits us. Certainly, Europeans could also start to travel more.
So I think that we should follow the U.S. recession closely, day by day, to see how we’re doing, but at the beginning we’re going to apply a more aggressive promotion and marketing campaign than what we have before.
Is there growth in any particular tourism sector that you would point out as especially interesting?
Our best customer continues to be a person with a university education, conscious of the importance of natural riches, who understands global topics like climate change, who appreciate that Costa Rica has a society comparatively much better educated than in other countries.
We’ve seen a trend among those people of looking for better services. Before, people who were interested in nature and the culture of a country were comfortable staying in places of lower quality. Today they’re demanding better services. I think in that, Costa Rica has done well. A lot of the investment we have today is in hotels with very high standards. Probably in two years, we’re going to have a good number of hotels that offer the highest quality.
Right now we’re also seeing a trend to accelerate medical tourism, people coming to look for medical services or relaxation … to improve their physical or mental situations.
Likewise, rural tourism is getting more important, in two ways. In terms of supply, many communities want to join the development, and realize that where they live has incredible natural beauty and enormous cultural richness.
Is that becoming a priority for the government?
Tomorrow I have a meeting to see about speeding up the certification process, because as of this year, we are going to have a special mechanism for tourism certification that will be for rural community tourism.We’re going to make a different model, and soon we’re going to announce the granting of the first rural tourism certifications.
Other than the slowdown in the U.S. economy, is the Costa Rican tourism sector about to face any other challenges?
Our permanent challenge is to grow sustainably. Costa Rica shouldn’t be a victim of its own success. We have to address changes in a timely fashion, changes that are imposed by the very development that is good, that generates employment, that generates wealth. But those challenges have to be attended to in order to move quickly and arrive at what is sustainable development.
The decree to limit the building heights in coastal areas of the northwestern province of Guanacaste (TT, April 11) is part of that?
That decree absolutely has to do with that. And the decree we’re going to sign (to put strict limits on casinos) goes in the same direction.
There have been many incidents in the news recently of hotel closures and contaminated beaches, etc. Do you think this has damaged Costa Rica’s image abroad?
I don’t think so, especially that chapter we went through with a particular hotel (Occidental Allegro Papagayo, TT, Feb. 1).
The very idea that a country is prepared to correct and punish those who don’t behave according to what the law says … I think it’s more dangerous to hide the problems, or even more, ignore problems that are well known. Also, in subjects of environment and pollution that have to do with tourism, you have to be very careful because there are enormous ideological prejudices that go much further than healthy prevention, or a healthy complaint.
What kind of ideology?
It seems to me like an extreme left ideology that in recent months was very active in the street, very excited around the fight over the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). I think that those of us who are in public administration should distinguish between when a complaint is a proper complaint, a complaint that’s solidly based in fact, and those who are using it to promote chaos and promote undeserved punishment against certain sectors of the industry.
Are there any more important actions the government will be taking in the near future to curb destructive development?
(The Guanacaste decree) is a clear signal that the government is prepared to stop inadequate construction on our coasts. It’s so important that we’re going to do (the same thing) with the Central Pacific, the South Pacific and the Caribbean.
In a few weeks. I think within one week to two months we’ll be signing decrees for those different regions.