San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica: The Next Florida?

For Lou Aguilera, Costa Rica has all the makings of a retirement destination: a comfortable climate, top-notch health services, close proximity to the United States and Canada, and a stable democracy.

While the country has been successful at marketing itself as an eco-friendly destination and a go-to place for medical tourism, the retiree population persists as an untapped market.

“This represents a bigger potential for Costa Rica than recreational tourism represented 25 years ago,” said Aguilera, who moved to Costa Rica in 2006 to begin work on an over-age 55 development in Guanacaste. “The graying of America is irreversible, and Costa Rica is in a position to service this population.”

An estimated 7,918 Americans turn 60 years old daily, according to 2006 United States census statistics. They represent the age group with the greatest purchasing power and the group that spends the most on health care.

Recognizing the potential of this population for Costa Rica, Aguilera connected with several government agencies to create a nationwide initiative designed to transform the country into a retiree haven. Last week, representatives from the Competition Ministry, along with the Foreign Trade Ministry, signed a declaration of intent to further explore opportunities to cater to aging adults from the U.S.

“(Targeting retirees) is a new concept for Costa Rica,” said Minister of Competition Jorge Woodbridge. “We have to learn how to position ourselves in the market.”

Woodbridge, who proposed international marketing campaigns and streamlined processes for developers, discussed Lake Arenal, in the north central part of Costa Rica; Miramar, in the central Pacific province of Puntarenas; Cartago, east of San José; and Rincón de la Vieja, in the northern Pacific province of Guanacaste. These locations are among eight viewed as possible destinations for retirement communities, or ‘clusters.’ Plans for several senior living communities already have been drawn on paper, but the worldwide economic crisis and the shortage of capital have kept them from becoming a reality.


Pacific Plaza Enters Pipeline


One of the projects pushing through despite the recession is Aguilera’s long-anticipated PacificPlaza, the ground for which will be broken in May.

The development, nearly three years in the making, is expected to serve between 1,200 and 1,300 people on a 22-hectare property just outside of Liberia in Guanacaste.

A mix of townhouses for active adults, assisted living for those requiring minimal care and a nursing home with specialized services for seniors in fragile health, the Continuing Care Retirement Community will cater to retirees in all stages of the aging process.

For many retirees, it’s a real challenge to find alternative housing and to undertake a move as they age,” Aguilera said. “Here, residents don’t have to think about where they will go next.”

But what makes this project unique, even more so than the diversity in housing options, is its juxtaposition with a 4,650-square-meter medical facility.

The medical plaza will be the first private hospital in the area and will be equipped with an emergency room, laboratory services, operating rooms and a helicopter landing pad. As a branch of the upscale CIMAHospital in Escazú, west of San José, PacificPlaza will be able to tap into the resources of the metropolitan headquarters.

Aguilera said he expects the Liberia satellite hospital to serve three main populations: permanent residents of Guanacaste, tourists and medical tourists who visit the area for a short time, and residents of the adjacent retirement complex.

The first phase of the project, to begin in May, consists of the initial stage of the medical plaza, scheduled for completion in May 2011. Aguilera said the entire $160 million development will be finished in seven or eight years’ time.

Homes will be targeted at the U.S. middle- to upper-middle economic classes, and they will be complemented by “cruise ship-like” daily activities, such as physical therapy, yoga, bingo, and other games and entertainment options.


Pura Vida Retirement


Aguilera said there’s a great deal about Costa Rica that makes it an attractive retirement destination, but one of the most convincing factors is the cost.

Health services, home care and the general cost of living are less in Central America than in most places in the U.S. While it’s important to note that government- provided Medicare insurance doesn’t extend to U.S. residents living abroad, with Costa  Rican prices, savings last longer, Aguilera said.

“For people living on a fixed income, each day buys them less and less quality of life (in the U.S.),” he said. “Not to mention that home care is becoming tremendously more expensive.”

The benefits of opening Costa Rica to retirees extend beyond the retirees themselves.

Woodridge estimates that attracting 10,000 retirees each year could bring $340 million annually to the country, generate 40,000 jobs and indirectly benefit 30,000 other businesses.

And the gain extends beyond the dollar signs, said Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz. Retirees settling here bring their professional expertise, he said, and that could help push development in Costa Rica forward.

“The great majority of people (whom we hope to attract) are active people who look for things to do,” he said. “We want to include them in countrywide initiatives, in issues of research and development and ways in which they can collaborate with small- or medium-sized businesses … I see this as an enormous opportunity to collaborate.”

Though much of what is involved in positioning Costa Rica as a retirement destination depends on the private sector, Woodridge said he expects to work with the Immigration Administration, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute and the Health Ministry to facilitate the process from the public side.

“We have all the advantages – health, climate, natural beauty, peace,” Woodridge said. “If we don’t take advantage of them, it would be a crime.”

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