Tourism in Costa Rica had one of those proverbial good news, bad news years in 2008.
The country set a record for visitors, with the 2 millionth tourist passing through the turnstiles last week. Costa Rica hit the 1 million mark for the first time in December 1999, so officials here rightly celebrated the doubling of that figure in a scant nine years.
But factors, both man-made and natural, conspired this year to tarnish that luster.
If ever there were an illustration that the tourism industry doesn’t entirely control its destiny, 2008 provided it, with the wettest rainy season in 64 years, high oil prices, accounts of water pollution and a worldwide economic slump suppressing visitor numbers.
This year’s visitation, though impressive, still weighs in at 6 percent below projections set at the beginning of the year. While the first quarter of the year saw a gangbuster increase of 18 percent over the same period in 2007, the year is forecast to close with an overall 7.5 percent rate of growth.
Any end-of-year retrospective of tourism can cite numerous additional international air routes to Costa Rica that were inaugurated in the previous 12 months. This year? Not so much.
TACA launched new flights to David, Panama, and Panamanian airline COPA beefed up service between San José and Panama City. Colombian airline Avianca also began a new route to Bogota from San José.
With oil nearly touching $150 per barrel in July, North American airlines took a hard look at the viability of their schedules. Costa Rican routes were mostly spared the axe.
The normal annual low-season retraction of schedules to Costa Rica took place like clockwork this year, but the jury is still out on whether all airlines will reinstate their entire high-season lineup here or stick with reduced timetables for now.
Back on the good news front, the Health Ministry served notice this year that it would not permit pollution to blemish Costa Rica’s international eco-image. It closed a large resort and investigated another in the government-planned Papagayo development in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, citing them for dumping waste into the ocean. The ministry also issued sanitary orders to 65 businesses and closed 11 others, hotels among them, in the North Pacific beach town of Tamarindo to mitigate the local sewage problem.
Lodges experienced a downturn in October and November but are reporting respectable to full occupancy rates for the busy end-of-year holiday week that begins this week. At this writing, many say bookings fall off once Jan. 5, arrives, however. Industry leaders have expressed concern at how lastminute the high-season reservations have been this year. They speculate that the economic recession has caused the traveling public to take a “wait and see” approach to arranging their vacation this season.
In the wake of welcoming Visitor No. 2 Million, “wait and see” promises to be the catch phrase of tourism in 2009.