With the economic downturn taking its toll on the tourism sector, President Oscar Arias sent two bills to the legislature Monday aimed at helping one of Costa Rica’s hallmark industries rally.
The first, the General Tourism Law, would organize the country’s tourism regulations under a single law and create incentives for domestic tourism among citizens and residents of Costa Rica. The second, the Rural Community Tourism Promotion Law, would declare rural tourism to be of public interest and work to organize and promote sustainable community tourism practices.
“Combined with this, we will continue to promote our country as a tourist destination through the Promotion and Marketing Plan of Costa Rica, which we have promoted since last June both in and out of the country,” Arias said in a statement. “We will make sure our name is known in the farthest corners of the world, and our fame extends throughout the Earth as cloak of beauty, peace and liberty.”
According to Gonzalo Vargas, president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), the bills have been in the works since September and mark an important modernization of the country’s tourism laws.
“The previous law was very old,” Vargas said, referencing the 1955 law that created the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT). “That was before Costa Rica became a tourism destination.”
Since then, tourism regulation has been in the hands of ICT. With the proposed General Tourism Law, according Casa Presidencial spokeswoman Lisbeth Barboza, the legislature would have the power to regulate the ICT and streamline tourism policy.
“This would create a law for the entire country,” Barboza said. “Right now, we don’t have a tourism law.”
Along with creating a standard tourism code for Costa Rica, the General Tourism Law would further organize the industry by forming a national registry for tourismrelated businesses, establishing a list of tourist rights and responsibilities, and creating special tourism “zones of interest,” to which ICT could direct local and foreign investment in certain, high-priority regions.
Finally, the law would create incentives to stimulate tourism among citizens and residents already in Costa Rica, a market that officials said was currently an untapped resource.
“National tourism has great potential,” Vargas said. “It is a sector nearly as important as foreign tourism.”
The second bill is more specific, targeting the myriad small, rural tourism businesses that operate informally. The bill would create incentives for such small businesses to formalize legally, granting them access to ICT promotions if they agree to government regulation.
The bill would also set up procedures for ICT to work with local governments, ensuring that such tourism is sustainable and beneficial for rural communities.
“Tourism should not be a substitute for agriculture,” said Yorlenny Fontana, sustainable tourism coordinator with the Central American Association for the Economy, Health and Environment, an organization that has been promoting the bill. “Tourism activity should be complementary with the economy and agriculture. If people in the countryside depend only on tourism, that is very dangerous.”
Officials expressed hope that the legislature would act quickly to approve the bills, which come at a particularly troubling time for the tourism industry.
A recent survey by CANATUR of 66 different tour operators, hotels and travel agencies found that 30 percent of those companies had to lay off employees during the last quarter of 2008 (TT, Feb. 6). And more than 60 percent of respondents said reservations for the first quarter of 2009 were down compared to 2009, by an average of 29 percent.
Said Vargas, “We have to act.”