San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism Minister Ready for Round 2

Benavides Outlines 2nd-Term Goals The first months of 2010 have been good to Costa Rican Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides. In addition to an 11.5 percent increase in tourists in the first quarter, Benavides last month was appointed by President Laura Chinchilla to serve his second term as tourism minister.

Benavides, 40, said familiarity with the position he has held since 2006 will allow him to hit the ground running to achieve the primary objectives of the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), which include promoting Costa Rica to broader international audiences, continuing to develop sustainable tourism and promoting the country as a destination for conventions and conferences.

A native of the Pacific port city of Puntarenas and a University of Costa Rica graduate, Benavides said he has seen “almost all” of the country since becoming minister, though he said there are still parts of the country he intends to visit for the first time during the next four years.

Benavides sat down with The Tico Times at ICT headquarters in the northwestern San José district of La Uruca to discuss his plans for the next four years, what he has learned thus far and his favorite places to travel in Costa Rica.

TT: What are your goals and agenda for the incoming administration?

CB: I think it is always important to establish very general objectives to accomplish.

The first is to increase the amount of visitors as well as the quality of services offered to tourists who come to Costa Rica. It is important that tourism provide a benefit to tourists visiting the country as well as for Costa Ricans. These are the fundamental objectives.

This has been a difficult time for tourism due to the international economic crisis, but we are beginning to see an improvement in the number of visitors. It is clear that in order for tourism to continue to improve, we are going to have to continue to improve our marketing and promotion efforts to key markets, such as the United States, which is our principal market. We are also going to continue our efforts to attract tourists from Europe and continue to establish relationships there to promote Costa Rica as a tourist destination.

The promotion of new airline carriers and routes will be an important push during this administration. It will be important to try to establish new routes to new markets, and one we consider to be very important is South America. We also would like to promote a larger amount of destinations for tourists from the U.S. and Canada. In addition to that, we would like to try to establish more direct flights from Costa Rica to Europe. Currently, the only direct flight to Europe is from San José to Madrid, Spain, on Iberia Airlines. We think we can possibly open more direct flights if we improve our relationships with European countries.

Another strategy we are hoping to develop during this administration, which we feel is very important, is the need for the country to become an international destination for conventions and conferences. This is a very big market that, at present, we are not taking advantage of as well as we could.

This administration has to make it one of its goals to create the country as a destination for conferences and conventions. We hope the development will be led by private companies and entrepreneurs. In the last few years, some businesses have increased efforts to market themselves as conference destinations, but there is much more potential for this niche than is currently being utilized. (See related story on Page S8.)

What are the ICT’s plans to continue to support and develop sustainable tourism?

We have been continuing to assess the theme of sustainability, which for us is a fundamental theme during the new administration. We believe Costa Rica must emphasize it is a location that prides itself on sustainable tourism. One of the principal strengths of the ICT has been the creation of a sustainable tourism certification process. We think this will propel us to a higher level of sustainable tourism and will help us improve education about the importance of developing environmentally conscious tourism. In the next two years, we hope to double the number of businesses currently certified.

One thing the country is doing to encourage sustainable tourism is the push to be a carbon-neutral country by 2021. This is a very favorable plan for the tourism sector. The private sector considers the development of sustainable tourism to be vital for carbon neutrality, and the appointment of the new vice president, Alfio Piva, who is an expert in sustainable development, will assist us in our efforts.

One of the most important efforts will be to ensure sustainable developments on the coasts. We hope to establish contracts with companies that focus more on protection and limiting environmental impact in order to generate more confidence across the sectors of the country. The country has been working with tourism developments to ensure they are being constructed in the right way.

Recently, there has been scrutiny of certain new developments that have caused environmental damage. When there is a new development on one of the coasts, how do you and the ICT ensure it is sustainable or environmentally safe?

The rules for a new development are complex. In the case of some of the bigger developments, before existing, they have to pass various examinations to assure they are safe. This is applied to construction and the process of developments. As far as the ICT, especially if it is a maritime zone, we have applied rules to legalize the processes done on the coasts. About a year ago, we applied a new ruling that restricts some types of developments created in the past and outlines very clearly what is expected for new coastal developments.

New large and small developments in this country have to abide by not only the rules of the ICT, but also by the rules established by the municipalities and the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry, which closely monitors new developments across the country.

In reference to the developments mentioned that have caused environmental damage, at this time the investigations are not yet complete. We will have to wait until they are done and have to know with certainty they did indeed cause environmental damage. What I do want to clarify is that the ministry does not support anyone that behaves in a manner that causes environmental damage. This is something we have established in the past that we will uphold in the future.

Is it true the ICT is considering changing the “No Artificial Ingredients” slogan?

Really, no. The studies we have done at ICT indicate the slogan is continuing to provide very good results. It is working well and is a slogan that represents the country well and represents Costa Rica’s commitment to nature.

Your job is to bring tourists to Costa Rica, but where do you go when you travel?

(Laughs.) I have to confess that I travel a lot for work. When I have time to relax, I travel within Costa Rica. I would say that 99 percent of the time I use a plane is for work, not to relax. But, when I do get time to travel, I stay in Costa Rica.

Do you have a favorite part of the country to visit?

Before I became tourism minister, I spent a lot of time in two or three places. Since becoming minister, I have grown to love other parts of the country more and more. Sometimes I enjoy spending time on the beach, sometimes the mountains, sometimes the cloud forests. Lately I have also spent a lot more time on the Caribbean, which is beautiful as well. I can’t say that I have one place in particular I can select as my favorite.

What have you learned in your first four years as tourism minister that you will apply to your next four years?

I think I have learned how to have patience. I think now I am more patient than when I first entered office, including the mentality to change and generate change very quickly. Good businesses and developments require patience, and I think that, with this mentality, we will move toward accomplishing our objectives on a day-to-day basis.

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