San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is Guanacaste economy finally bouncing back?

From the print edition

LIBERIA, Guanacaste – The 2008 implosion of the world’s markets hit the Guanacaste province in northwestern Costa Rica hard, yet mayors, tourism officials, developers and shop owners all agree that things are starting to pick up.

With 70 percent of Guanacaste’s economy based on tourism, local business owners say 2008-2009 felt as if the world briefly stopped.

Streets and bars were quiet, beaches held few sunbathers and harbors emptied, as boat owners sailed to other shores like Panama and Nicaragua. But the most recent tourism season revealed that trend might be changing, as businesses showed signs of a possible recovery.

“It’s like our heads were below water and we were slowly drowning,” said Ana Teresa Núñez, owner of Las Olas Lounge in Playas del Coco. “Now we can gasp a few breaths to keep us going.”

Núñez said the regulars who come to Playas del Coco multiple times a year pulled them through.

If the stagnation had gone another year she doubts she could have kept her restaurant open.

“A golden key was the airport,” she said. “That keeps a more steady flow of travelers, foreigners and Ticos, coming year round.”

A new terminal at the Daniel Oduber International Airport opened in January, increasing the airport’s capacity with new airlines and facilities, including a VIP lounge and a greater variety of shops. In March, the airport serviced a record 44,773 international travelers, according to the Guanacaste Tourism Chamber.

Luis Gerardo Castañeda,  mayor of  Liberia, the provincial capital and Guanacaste’s largest city, said the airport also sustains other forms of industry besides tourism. This region has almost everything, he said, including beef, pineapple, sugarcane, coffee, rice, seafood, green energy, volcanoes and beaches. 

“The new international flights allow us to bring all we have to offer to outside markets, and that makes us less dependent on tourism alone,” Castañeda said. “Though the crisis and the fall of the economy left us low, we are climbing back up.”

Castañeda said his plan for the rest of his term, which expires in 2016, is to return the region to its strength prior to 2008. He hopes that Guanacaste can return to its roots in agriculture and ranching. Prior to moving into the mayor’s office, Castañeda was a teacher, radio announcer and bull rider.

The Guanacaste Tourism Chamber estimates that by 2014 there will be 2,400 new hotel and other lodging establishments that create 6,000 new jobs. Álvaro Conejo, the chamber’s president, said his office looks to support small and mid-sized businesses. The all-inclusive resorts where travelers eat, sleep and are entertained in one facility does not provide a “genuine” Costa Rican experience, he said. He encourages people to spread their business throughout the region.

“Eat in our cafés, relax on our beaches, hike our volcanoes,” Conejo said. “We welcome you to be part of our community.”

One criticism that both locals and politicians share is that development in Guanacaste prior to 2008 was haphazard. Playa Carrillo Mayor Carlos Cantillo said when the economy in the region came to a halt everyone had to take a step back and look at what had been done. The unorganized development also had a significant impact on the environment.

“We are very focused on our environment,” Cantillo said. “There are six environmental reserves, rural tourism where people can ride horses, milk cows and learn how to make cheese, and multiple green-energy projects here that we are very proud of.”

Wind, hydro and thermal energy in Guanacaste produces 64 percent of Costa Rica’s green energy. Lake Arenal in north-central Costa Rica has been expanded to three times its original size, and is the country’s main source of hydroelectricity.

After his term as mayor, Cantillo plans to run for a legislative position representing Guanacaste in national politics. Yet, he said his footprint in his community will be establishing new regulations for how water, land and construction permits are allocated and where development happens.

Núñez said this step back and reorganization of how development occurs is good, but she said she will wait for the day she sees it in her town.

“It takes community organization to get anything done, and I think we can do that,” she said. “But it also takes support from the municipality. It’s in their hands now.”

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