Any port in a storm? Maybe not in Costa Rica

September 5, 2008

 

Costa Rican customs officials have sent foreign seafarers packing this hurricane season, denying the three-month temporary import permit extensions that used to make the country’s Pacific Coast one of the best storm refuges in the world.
“In the last 10 days, three boats have left,” Tim Leachman, the co-owner of Land Sea Marina Services in Golfito, in Puntarenas province, where he rents dock space to international boats, said last week. “There was no grace period, and some boats were forced to leave within a matter of hours without adequate time to pack the necessary provisions.”
 
Pancho, a small sailboat from Chile that was moored at Land Sea until about two week ago is now on its way home during the most treacherous open-water travel season, Leachman said.
 
National customs laws tie boats’ temporary import permits to their owners’ “migratory status.”  Most tourists are granted a 90-day tourist visa upon entering Costa Rica; their boats would be issued an initial three-month temporary import permit accordingly.
 
In the past, owners renewed their tourist visas with Immigration by leaving the country for at least 72 hours, while the Finance Ministry issued a second, three-month temporary import permit, which allowed boats to stay in Costa Rican waters for a total of six months, the girth of the hurricane season.
 
Now, in a reinterpretation of the customs laws – the laws have not been amended since 2000 – that also regulates on-land motor vehicles, customs officials are not issuing second temporary import permits, forcing boats to leave Costa Rica, or face monetary fines and penalties.
 
Some boat owners are placing their craft under bond, which allows the boats to stay in Costa Rica for up to nine more months. Once under bond, however, the boats cannot be used.
 
“We make a lot more money when a boat is being used,” says a spokesman from Banana Bay Marina, one of three marinas in Golfito that is endorsed by customs to keep boats under bond. 
 
For decades, Costa Rica’s unique location made it an attractive off-season rest stop for international boaters. According to Leachman, thalassic globetrotters plan their Costa Rican stop months, sometimes years, in advance.
 
Costa Rica‘s Pacific Coast is usually safe from the hurricane corridor in the Caribbean, though this year it has been battered by tropical storms Alma and Hanna.
 
“Sail families are some of the best tourists,” says Leachman. “They buy groceries. They fly down friends and families. They hire mechanics and electricians to make repairs.”
 
Here, they can tour tropical waters while much of the rest of the maritime world hunkers down to wait out the hurricanes. Their activity also creates economic stimulus during Costa Rica’s rainy season, which is generally slow for tourism. But the new customs measure threatens to impede this symbiotic situation.
 
“Without the return to the six-month cruising permit as a minimum, any small marina – any business like ours – will be difficult to sustain economically,” says Katie Duncan, Leachman’s partner at Land Sea.
 
According to Banana Bay Marina, the new interpretation of customs laws is a measure to control foreign overland traffic from places like Panama, Costa Rica’s southern neighbor.
 
“I don’t think they want to harm the sailors,” says Leachman. “I don’t think they’re aware of what they’re doing.”
 
Golfito customs officials would not comment publicly on the issue.
 
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