San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Visitor data reliable, says tourism official

From the print edition

When is a tourist not a tourist? In a country where the visa run is a working expatriate’s rite of passage, that question isn’t quite as solipsistic as it seems at first blush. 

The Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and the Association for the Protection of Tourism (PROTUR) can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on the proper way to tally up the number of international visitors to Costa Rica.

In recent weeks, PROTUR President Boris Marchegiani – also president of the Gaia Hotel and Reserve in Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast – accused the tourism board of inflating the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica, and claimed that the country’s tourism industry is losing competiveness. ICT policies, Marchegiani said, have favored investment in large-scale tourism development led by multinational corporations to the exclusion of Costa Rica’s small- and medium-sized businesses.

PROTUR was formed in 2010 to address issues facing the tourism industry, including a low exchange rate, increased costs for electricity and water, and employee payments into the Social Security System. The organization counts as members the owners of more than 500 tourism businesses across Costa Rica’s seven provinces (TT, April 15, 2011).

Marchegiani leveled his accusations at the board in a presentation before the Legislative Assembly’s Tourism Commission on March 1, in which he questioned ICT’s statistics and suggested reforming the board to include more representation from regional tourism chambers (TT, March 9).

“What I’m suggesting is a democratization of the tourism industry through a component of mixed public and private enterprises comprised of three segments: the government, representatives of the vertical sector, which is to say hotels and restaurants, and representatives of regional tourism chambers,” Marchegiani said. 

ICT, he said, has focused on investing in large-scale tourism developments, which are less integrated into local webs of goods and services than smaller tourism businesses. Marchegiani said large-scale investments are funneled into three or four geographically specific tourist hubs.

“The whole rest of the country developed 35 other tourist destinations, mostly through small- and medium-sized businesses built with Tico capital,” Marchegiani said. “Why shouldn’t 80 percent or 90 percent of the tourism industry be represented on the board?” 

ICT General Manager Juan Carlos Borbón responded to the PROTUR president’s accusations via email, saying, “ICT sees this regularly and as no more than a way of using the information provided by ICT [to promote] the interests of a particular business group.”

The crux of PROTUR’s complaint about tourism board statistics is that of the 2.1 million visitors ICT reported for 2011, 659,562 entered the country more than once during the year. Additionally, some 594,000 visitors entered Costa Rica in 2011 via border crossings. PROTUR suggested those visitors are incorrectly categorized by ICT as tourists when travel is more likely work-related.

Borbón did not directly address the issue of separating out Costa Rica’s “perpetual tourists” – foreigners who live and work in the country and make periodic visa runs every three months – but he defended ICT’s statistics.

“The ICT provides a wealth of information generated from Immigration Administration data,” Borbón wrote. 

“General indicators are calculated to measure the level of growth or decline in tourism to the country as a whole, but beyond this, the objective of a figure of this nature is to establish a measurement of tourism for the country based on ways of measuring tourism that are standard at international and inter-annual comparisons, in a series beginning almost in 1950,” Borbón stated in the email. “Additionally, it is a number that allows comparison with other destinations and regions, and even global data provided by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.”

The U.N.’s World Tourism Organization defines visitors and tourism in the following manner: “A visitor is a traveler taking a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited. These trips taken by visitors qualify as tourism trips. Tourism refers to the activity of visitors.”

That is from the 2008 International Recommendations for Tourism Statistics published by the U.N. agency.

John Kester, program manager for tourism trends and marketing strategies at the U.N. tourism organization, said the number of times people enter the country in a given year doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t fit the definition of tourists.

“It isn’t a unique number of people [measured by the U.N.’s recommended ways of keeping statistics], it’s what we call visitor arrivals,” said Kester. 

The agency indicated that almost any reason a person has for travelling outside of an area of residence constitutes tourism. The one main exception to that rule is travelling for work.

“If [travelers] are Nicaraguans coming to work in Costa Rica, then in principle they should be out,” Kester said when asked about PROTUR’s objections to the ICT numbers. “If you are a Costa Rican living in Nicaragua and you come to Costa Rica to visit your family and friends, even if it is multiple times in a year, then you should be counted in the visitor count. But coming for work, normally not.”

Kester and Borbón both indicated that tourism statistics are largely generated to facilitate analyses by businesses in the industry (see Letters, Page 11).

“Everyone is responsible for making their calculations from the data provided,” Borbón wrote. “What data show for a particular private-sector group comes from [the group’s] own business analysis and is particular to that reality. ICT data are generated under quality standards, but it should be understood that they require interpretation by private actors.”

But Borbón also noted that 4 percent growth in the tourism industry that the board reported for 2011 is “a general indicator of the tourism activity and does not necessarily mean its distribution is uniform throughout the country.”

In terms of hotel occupancy rates – another data point Marchegiani questioned in his presentation to lawmakers – Borbón said ICT’s numbers are only “general and serve as indicators at the national level” because of “limited response in the business sector to provide sufficient reliable information on hotel occupancy to let us know the real situation in the country.”

Looking over ICT data provided to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, Kester said he didn’t “really have much indication to doubt [the] data too much.”

“With this data it always depends on what angle you want, what point you want to make with it,” he added.

ICT’s numbers indicate almost 437,000 international arrivals to Costa Rica from Nicaragua in 2011. Kester said it is important to remember that number represents any Ticos living in Nicaragua travelling back to Costa Rica to visit friends and family, activities that constitute tourist visits.

In response to PROTUR’s other allegations against the ICT, Borbón said the board has specific policies geared to helping small businesses. Proof of this, he indicated, is in the fact that 2,427 hotels in the country, or 98 percent of hotels, have less than 100 rooms and an average size of 14.6 rooms per hotel. Borbón said that between 2000 and 2010, the number of “hosting businesses” in Costa Rica grew by 48.2 percent, and the average number of rooms per hotel during the period was roughly 16 rooms per hotel.

Asked about reforms to the tourism board, Borbón said, “The ICT is an institution that works and has always worked with chambers, municipalities and other organizations that are an important part of the model of sustainable tourism development in the country.”

He said ICT programs collaborate with more than 70 tourism chambers throughout the country, and many focus on increasing “local participation in the development of industry and strengthening local capacities.”

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