San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

At Expotur, Companies Vie to Gain Footing

Mirna Ipanaque grinned in front of the photographic landscape of Machu Picchu. The famous Incan ruins served as the backdrop for her booth promoting Peru’s Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel at Costa Rica’s Expotur 2010.

For the first time, countries from outside Central America were among the 350 sellers at the annual tourism showcase from May 16-23 at Hotel Ramada Plaza Herradura in San José. The hotel from Peru and a tour company from Colombia were among the dozens of businesses attending Expotur for the first time, and trying to stand out in Costa Rica’s impressive tourism market.

Ipanaque said the more than 200 buyers in attendance were excited to see tourism operators from outside the Central American region. She never expected such an influx of international buyers at her booth.

“We thought we’d find a lot of people just speaking Spanish,” Ipanaque said. “But we are seeing it’s really different. They come from the United States, Germany, Italy. So maybe next time we’re going to bring more materials in those languages.”

Russell Coleman, of Colombia57, said he ended up representing Colombia at Expotur by luck. The government of Manizales, Colombia offered to pay expenses for Expotur for a few of the town’s tourist companies. Coleman’s service, which arranges full tourism packages (itineraries, lodging, transportation, etc.) for vacationers, was asked to participate. When the other groups encountered visa problems or other setbacks, Colombia57 became the entire show.

Coleman said the fair seemed as well-organized as the ones he attends in South America. A Colombian flag and traditional Colombian dress were draped over the “destination management” company’s booth.

Although the company attracted many buyers during the course of the weeklong fair, Coleman won’t call his entry into Expotur a success yet.

“With these events you have to wait a few weeks to see which contacts are seriously interested and which ones drift away and lose enthusiasm,” Coleman said. “The initial response was very positive. But we’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.”

Arenal Natura, an ecological park located near Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano, made its first appearance at Expotur, trying to stand out in a sea of green tourist destinations.

Luis Miguel González, a tour guide for Arenal Natura, said the park tempted buyers with its proximity to the active Arenal Volcano, the option to receive guided hikes through the rainforest and exhibits like an exotic frog pond. The park opened less than a year ago, González said, and he acknowledged that it will be much easier to sell the park next year, when more exhibitions such as a serpentarium, a butterfly garden and a reptile lagoon are open.

“In our case, we are in a good position because we offer a unique ecological park,” González said of the attraction’s prospects in Costa Rica’s crowded tourism market.

Outside the hotel’s convention center, the fledgling Exporural attempted to expand its influence. The two-year-old offshoot of Expotur advertised off-the-beaten path tourist attractions.

Flor Retana and her brother, Alejandro, brought Finca Köbö to Exporural for the first time. Located on the OsaPeninsula, the main economic crop of the 44-acre farm is homemade organic chocolate.

Holding a bulbous yellow cacao fruit in her hand, Flor Retana explained to onlookers how the fruit’s seeds are transformed into the sweet pot of pure chocolate that sat on an adjacent table. Her farm offers tours that demonstrate the whole process.

“People are always surprised to see how a small and regular seed can turn into something as precious as chocolate,” Retana said.

She described Finca Köbö’s inaugural Exporural as a learning experience. The booth invited some attention. But Retana said she thought the most valuable part of the event was picking up ideas from other businesses on how to improve their booth for next year.

Kyra Cruz, president the community-based rural tourism board that organized Exporural, said the number of booths at Exporural jumped from last year’s 23 to 50 this year. Many of the new sellers were indigenous peoples promoting rural hotels and tours. Some of the groups performed indigenous dances within the Exporural pavilion.

While Exporural businesses must compete with well-established, better-known tourism sites in Costa Rica, Cruz said she’s not sure rural tourism would have found much success at Expotur in the past.

“Consumers are more and more willing to have a more authentic experience of Costa Rica and explore the country,” Cruz said. “They were really interested in this kind of experience of rural tourism.”

The country’s crowded tourism market brings in millions to the country each year, and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute invested $213,600 in this year’s Expotur.

During the fair, the newer Costa Rican-based vendors appeared to face more of an uphill battle in out-promoting their competitors as the foreign companies had an easy time infiltrating Costa Rican territory.

The Peruvian booth even received compliments from the Costa Rican sellers, who were envious of the richness of Peru’s indigenous history. Ipanaque took that as a sign of an effective debut for Aranwa Hotel at Expotur.

Said Ipanaque: “The Costa Ricans told us, ‘We don’t have what you have. You should be proud of having something like that.’”

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