San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Getting Booze Permit Can Drive You to Drink

PLAYA HERMOSA, Guanacaste – When the new Luperón Supermarket in Playa Hermosa opened its doors on July 27, festive beachgoers were confused. They could not find any Imperial beer, Flor de Caña rum, Cacique Guaro or any other alcoholic beverage.

Luperón didn’t have a liquor license. Turns out the local municipality, Carrillo, hasn’t issued a new liquor license since 1967.

The number of licenses available per district is determined by population. In the case of Carrillo, “There are already too many licenses,” explains Jacky Dijeres, an exemployee of the municipality. “And they’re not going to issue anymore.”

Across the country, new restaurants, bars and supermarkets are facing the same problem, while a fringe industry is emerging that dictates the price these new businesses will have to pay in order to sell alcohol.

Maritza Barrera, the owner of Luperón, now rents a license for $600 a month, which is about the price of a local studio apartment rental. “I got lucky,” says Barrera about her situation. “Otherwise, I was looking at paying at least $50,000 to buy one.”

Liquor licenses in Costa Rica are not linked to their establishment. Instead, they are owned by individuals and can be sold and rented to the highest bidder.

On-line classified ads at match liquor license sellers with buyers. Asking prices vary by region: $32,000 in Heredia, north of San José, and up to $145,000 in Santa Ana, a wealthy western suburb of the capital.

“Until the law changes, the few liquor license owners will continue to get rich, while the municipalities are unable to do anything,” says Cyntia Avila, the liquor inspector for the municipality of Escazú, another affluent western San José suburb. “It is a typical example of supply and demand that escapes the control of the municipality.”

Costa Rica’s liquor laws were established in 1936. Although they have been amended since then, money amounts are not concurrent with today’s lucrative business. License owners pay just ¢1,200 – about $2.20 – a year in taxes, and the sale or renting of a license is untaxed.

The laws also do not take into account the influx of tourists in Costa Rica as part of an area’s population. In 2007, an estimated 405,450 tourists arrived to the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, almost double the population of this northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Some municipalities, however, are issuing new licenses. In January, San Carlos in Alajuela, northwest of San José, auctioned off 32 new licenses, raising their license count to 420. Opening bids varied by district; from about $4,500 to about $15,600. In September, the western San José suburb of Escazú, where there are currently 165 total licenses, will auction off six new licenses for the first time since 1994. Bidding will start at ¢50 million (about $90,900).

Restaurateurs who cannot afford a license are encouraging clients to bring their own beverages for consumption. Although the practice is illegal, first offense fines range from just ¢25 to ¢200.


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