Is Limón Costa Rica’s Next Investment Frontier?

October 14, 2010

While foreign investors’ checkbooks and developers’ bulldozers have long been fastened on prospects on the country’s Pacific coast, Costa Rica’s Atlantic province of Limón has gone relatively unnoticed.

Dirt roads outnumber paved strips and rustic hideaways are far more common than ritzy hotels, and one can still find good price tags on properties with an ocean view. However, because of historical neglect by the central government, a lack of land titles or easy access to building permits, and an inflated perception of crime, there’s lingering doubt about whether any investment on the “right” coast is the right choice.

Limonenses, as residents are known, are quick to defend their lush tropical enclave, saying there’s embedded racism and conscious disinterest on the part of the county’s control room in the Central Valley that has held the region back.

“It’s an area with a lot of promise; with beautiful beaches and a high level of safety,” said Leda Villa, who served as vice president of the Commercial and Tourism Chamber of the Southern Caribbean and now works for the local development association. “But it has also been plagued by limited resources and a lack of investment from the central government.”

In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to channel more investment toward the Caribbean coast. The province’s capital, the port city of Limón, is waiting on a $72.5 million loan from the World Bank, which will eventually contribute to a makeover of the city. Government officials are wrestling with local workers over a possible concession of the port to private interests aimed at creating a more efficient and productive port. And security forces have intensified efforts to crack down on organized crime.

“We have come far, but we have a long way to go,” said Limón Mayor Eduardo Barboza. “(Our hope) is that we can attract businesses to a zone that has all the ingredients to develop.

Leaders in central government have acknowledged the features of the region that make it attractive to the overall development of the country such as the high number of English speaker, its location as a gateway to North American and European markets and its natural resources, which have already proven a draw to tourism.

However, many share the feelings of Steve Aronson, former president of leading coffee exporter Café Britt, who says, “the government, in my view, is long on rhetoric but short on support for the Limón area.” A recent initiative by the company to create a tour by train of a cacao plantation near the port for inbound cruise ships was rejected by government officials.

For more on this story, see the Oct. 15 print or digital edition of The Tico Times.

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