GARABITO, Puntarenas – The economic crisis of the United States – now spread around the globe – is beginning to take its toll on Costa Rica’s vital tourism market.
The business daily La República reported this week that arrivals of both foreigners and Costa Ricans to the country’s two international airports in the first two months of the year were down 13 percent from the year before.
In Jacó, one of the most popular towns on the Pacific coast, informal local estimates say tourism is down by as much as 20 percent. But as businesses brace for the start of a daunting low season with fewer dollars in their pockets, they are cutting costs and looking to the upcoming Billabong 2009 World Surfing Games, set to take place in neighboring Playa Hermosa July 31 through Aug. 9.
The event, expected to draw as many as 10,000 visitors to town, is being seen as a possible savior for the business community in the region as it enters the rainy season
“I think it’s going to be one of the biggest international tourist events in our country’s history,” said Phillip Edwardes, owner of the Club del Mar hotel. “The surfing fraternity are not poor people.”
Edwardes, a British citizen who has been in Costa Rica for 30 years and owned the Club del Mar hotel at the southern end of Jacó’s beach for 20 years, estimates his sales could be down by as much as 20 percent by the end of the high season.
“And the people that do come, I think they are spending less on things like tours. People are not going horseback riding or on zip lines,” he said.
Despite the downturn, Edwardes says he has yet to cut any staff positions. Jerry Halstrom, who runs sport fishing tours and a fish taco stand in Jacó called Bubba’s Fish Tacos, said the sport fishing industry has been hit hard.
“Everybody is saying 50 percent down,” Hallstrom said. “Two or three years ago, I never had anyone ask me about sharing a boat with other people. Now, it’s a good 30 percent or 40 percent of people where that’s the first thing they ask.”
Many companies are beginning to cut costs as they look to survive the upcoming low season.
At the Bagelmen’s franchise in Jacó, an administrative position was cut, and the number of employees has gone from 10 to four, said Mónica Alfaro, the store’s manager.
Electricity costs have been continually increasing, say many business owners, so at Bagelmen’s, shades are drawn, lights are turned off and the two air conditioners may soon be replaced by fans.
At Caliche’s Wishbone, a popular restaurant in Jacó’s center, owner Carlos Alfaro has replaced his standard light bulbs with energy-efficient flourescents. He is also keeping his inventory low and making sure his kitchen wastes as little as possible.
“We’re being more careful,” he said. “It has helped.”
Alfaro, known best as Caliche, says that despite fewer customers, he had nearly the same amount in sales in January and February this year as he did last year, and believes his clients are spending more.
On the other side of town, at the Soda Jacó Rústico, a traditional cafeteria-style soda that caters mostly to locals, owner Kathya Salas says her business is up as people who live in town look to spend less on their meals.
“It’s better for me during the week than on the weekend,” she said.
According to Christina Truitt, the co-coordinator of the Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce, the business community is weathering the downturn well.
“We’ve seen more businesses open than close,” Truitt said.