San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism in 2009: Not Such Glad Tidings

Lift the Christmas story out of the Bible and time-transport it to 2009 Costa Rica. Mary and Joseph likely could find room at the inn tomorrow night.

This was one of those not-so-stellar years for Costa Rica’s $2 billion tourism sector. The year served as a painful reminder that the health of one of the country’s signature industries – it accounts for 7 percent of its gross domestic product – remains subject to factors outside its control. Most of these issues were human-made, with one proverbial “act of God” entering into the mix.

The year kicked off on a note of cautious optimism. Costa Rica had welcomed 2.1 million visitors through the turnstiles by the time the clock struck 12 last New Year’s Eve. The country had hit the coveted one-million tourists mark at the end of 1999, and so did itself proud by doubling visitor numbers in just nine years.

Tourism leaders looked nervously to what the year might bring, however, and that apprehension has yet to abate. The collapse of the world’s financial markets in September 2008, along with the ongoing economic slump,  spelled trouble this year for an industry that relies entirely on discretionary spending.

High-season bookings did eventually fall into place at the beginning of the year, although visitor numbers for the 2008-09 season declined 5 to 7.5 percent from the previous year. However, reservations proved to be very nail-bitingly last-minute, as foreign consumers took a wait-and-see approach to the economy. The age-old “I’d better book my hotel reservations by August if I want to find space for Christmas” cautions did not apply this year. Costa Rica became a buyers’ market for those who chose to wait, an alarming proposition for hotel owners who lacked the security of nailing down reservations weeks or months in advance.

The same scenario appears to be playing out as Costa Rica launches the 2009-2010 high season, leaving the industry unsure of what to expect. In past years, November’s Thanksgiving holiday in the United States has meant a mini-surge for hotels here as U.S. residents took advantage of the four-day weekend for quick getaways to close destinations such as Costa Rica. That boomlet barely materialized this year. Some hotels decided to delay the changeover to high-season rates that traditionally takes place Dec. 1, waiting instead until tonight to  implement them. Other lodgings are lookingto all manner of promotions to lure visitors once the holiday rush subsides in January.

This year also began on a tragic note for the country, the tourism industry included, as a 6.2 magnitude earthquake – centered in Varablanca in northern Costa Rica – struck.

Some 30 people were killed, and thousands were left homeless. Several lodgings around the nearby Poás volcano and Sarapiquí regions suffered damage. Thankfully, all were back on their feet by year’s end.

If it’s not the economy, it’s infrastructure that historically bedevils Costa Rica’s tourism sector. At the micro-level, the July implementation of the new Rural Community Tourism Promotion Law does provide incentives for investment in small community-based tourism operations. But the ongoing credit crunch has made individual investment in new tourism ventures difficult, and it has pinched investment in improvements of existing tourist attractions.

The commitment of the administration of President Oscar Arias to highway improvement has provided a beacon of hope to an industry whose attractions lie in some famously remote corners of the

country accessible by some notoriously rugged roads.

In particular, the central Pacific region eagerly awaits completion of the San José-Caldera highway next year. When completed, the new artery – more than 35 years on the drawing board – will put the Pacific port less than one hour from the capital and will make such popular destinations as JacóBeach and ManuelAntonioNational Park easier than ever to reach.

Yet the October collapse of a bridge over the TárcolesRiver in western Costa Rica, which killed five people, called attention to the shabby state of much of the country’s transportation infrastructure.

The passing of the management of JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, northwest of San José, to a consortium called Aeris Costa Rica is expected to put modernization of the facility back on track. The tourism industry hopes that the new terminal – inaugurated a decade ago, but still not finished – may finally be completed under new management.

What 2010 will bring for Costa Rican tourism relies in large part on “It depends on who you talk to” forecasts. With the world’s economic state expected to improve only marginally next year, hotel owners are guarded in their predictions. Most who have talked to The Tico Times expect the high season just might be okay, but the post-Easter low season is anybody’s guess.

As the government body charged with promoting the country as a travel destination, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has offered more rosy predictions. ICT has also launched new ad campaigns designed to distinguish Costa Rica as a destination in a world of ever-tighter tourism spending.

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