For many tourism outlets throughout the country, Semana Santa, or Easter week, is traditionally a final shot at full hotel rooms and busy restaurants, before the heavy rains of the green season wash away the crowds. Most years, San José turns into a ghost town as Ticos head to the beach for a final dose of sun and summer.
This year, however, the economic slump has hit the tourism industry hard. With an eye on their wallets, many travelers have elected to stay home in order to save a couple of bucks, and Easter Week is shaping up to be no exception.
According to the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), 71.2 percent of tourism-related businesses report that reservations are down compared to last year’s Semana Santa.
The chamber, which surveyed 52 tourism outlets, said 19.2 percent of businesses reported similar numbers as last year, while 3.8 have seen reservations rise.
Those that reported a decrease saw reservations decline by an average of 38.1 percent compared with last year. Hardest hit were tour guides, car rental agencies and hotels, the chamber said.
Sue Kalmbach, owner of La Paloma Lodge in Drake Bay, on the Southern Zone’s Osa Peninsula, says reservations are down 50 percent compared to last year’s Easter week.
More and more tourists are waiting later to make reservations, however, so she hopes that things will pick up over the next week.
“We are exceptionally slow this year,” Kalmbach said. “I think people are waiting, and I hope that, little by little, they keep coming.”
The numbers aren’t all doom and gloom, however. Alexi Huntley, commercial director for NatureAir, said Tuesday flight reservations were running about even with last year’s Easter week, and projected final numbers exceed last year’s mark.
“It’s going to be the best week of the year for us,” he said, citing NatureAir’s steep discounts offered in recent weeks.
Such numbers would be an important boost for the country’s airlines, as the number of tourists arriving in Costa Rica’s two primary airports – Juan Santamaría International Airport, west of San José, and Daniel Oduber International Airport, in Liberia, capital city of the northwestern province of Guanacaste – declined by 46,000, or 13 percent, in January and February compared to last year, the business daily La República reported last week.
The paper projected that the decline in tourist arrivals would amount to a $56 million loss in revenue for the country’s tourism industry.
As a response, CANATUR has stressed to tourism businesses that they get creative in offering discounts and package deals to attract customers.
James Jiménez, director of Hotel & Villas Nacazcol in Guanacaste, said his hotel’s efforts to market and offer discounts online were paying off, despite the economic crisis. He expects a 70 percent occupancy rate this year, compared with 85 percent last Easter week.
“It’s not like last year, but it’s a good number for us,” Jimenez said.
With tourism traffic from outside the country down, and spring break for many colleges and universities falling before Easter Week, many outlets are turning toward local markets.
The government chipped in last week as well, enacting a law that removed the 3 percent tax on hotel rooms and replacing it with a $15 fee for tourists entering the country by air, providing a financial incentive for local tourism.
Hotel Arenal Manoa, in Arenal, is offering special packages for Costa Rican nationals and residents. Alexandra Saborio, assistant to the manager, said the packages had been generating interest, but not many reservations.
“They have been successful,” Saborio said, however.
Whether for foreign or local oriented tourism outlets, Semana Santa can be a make or break time for one of Costa Rica’s most important industries.n