San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Biz owners challenge Costa Rican Tourism Board

From the print edition

The Association to Protect Tourism (PROTUR) held a forum Monday in the Legislative Assembly to discuss the state of the tourism industry with lawmakers and members of the small and medium-sized tourism sector.

The forum, co-organized by Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE) lawmaker Rita Chaves, featured presentations on tourism-related topics including exchange rates, sportfishing and the Costa Rican Tourism Board’s (ICT) recent “Costa Rica’s Million Dollar Gift of Happiness” advertising campaign.

ICT, whose general manager, Juan Carlos Borbón, declined an invitation to attend, took a lot of verbal abuse from the 15 presenters and a crowd of some 150 people jammed into an assembly salon.

“We believe that ICT does some good things,” said Chaves, who is on the assembly’s Tourism Commission. “But it has completely turned its back on one sector in particular, and we know what sector that is.”

And that was about the nicest thing anybody said about the ICT all day.

Among other comments, PROTUR members and tourism industry representatives in attendance called for the creation of a commission to evaluate and investigate ICT’s alleged lack of attention to the small-business tourism sector. The groups represented on

Monday are also pushing for a reform to Costa Rica’s Tourism Law, which was established in 1955, to include more representation at regional levels and more representation of the small and medium-sized business sector.

It is the same argument made by PROTUR President Boris Marchegiani in March before a meeting of the same commission. In that meeting, Marchegiani questioned statistics released by ICT regarding the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica annually, as well as hotel occupancy rates released by the board. The crux of the argument is that ICT’s record-keeping, with numbers provided by the Immigration Administration, does not differentiate between tourists who visit the country for vacation and individuals who enter Costa Rica on tourist visas to visit family or to work, and who would not engage in other tourism activities, particularly spending nights in hotels. 

According to PROTUR’s calculations, approximately 1.1 million tourists visited Costa Rica in 2011, about 1 million less than the 2.1 million that ICT reported (TT, March 9).

“We’re going to talk of how some actions of ICT are going to continue to do grave damage to the tourism sector if there are not great changes made in the way of organizing national tourism,” Marchegiani said on Monday.

Marchegiani cited a lawsuit recently filed by a group of tourism-business owners, including Marchegiani, for “damages as a result of the premeditated inflation of numbers in the quantity of tourist arrivals in the country and hotel occupancy rates.”

ICT, which did not have any representatives present at Monday’s forum, has defended its statistics by saying that 2011’s reported numbers represent a “general increase” of about 4 percent in tourism activity over 2010, and that distribution of the increase might not be distributed evenly throughout the country. 

In response to Marchegiani’s assertions in March that the board overestimated hotel occupancy rates by almost half their actual number – ICT reported 64 percent occupancy in 2011, while PROTUR countered with an estimate closer to 31 percent – Borbón said in an email that the tourism businesses were to blame if hotel occupancy rates released by ICT were unreliable, citing “limited response in the business sector to provide sufficient reliable information on hotel occupancy to let us know the real situation in the country” (TT, March 16).

Reached via email this week, Borbón responded to criticism of the board’s alleged “inattention” to small businesses, saying that “complete attention based on support and accompaniment of the small and medium-sized businesses has been a priority for the [ICT]. … We have developed many projects to benefit [small and medium-sized businesses], so we don’t know what the basic underpinning of that statement is.”

In a presentation on tourist safety in Costa Rica, Isabel Garbanzo, director of Costa Rica Expeditions, called for the creation of a commission to oversee ICT’s activities.

“I have worked in tourism for 25 years,” Garbanzo said. “If I didn’t think this commission was necessary, I could have stayed sitting in my office working.”

Borbón did respond directly in his email to the idea of a commission to oversee ICT’s work.

“It is important to indicate that [the ICT] has a series of projects available that were developed across the country to attend to potential small and medium-sized tourism businesses interested in starting their businesses and improving their levels of management and competitiveness, for which actions are developed directly by the ICT or through the development of alliances with other entities (such as the National Training Institute, universities and the National Tourism Chamber, among others) to support this sector,” Borbón wrote.

Borbón mentioned recent ICT programs aimed at small businesses including a workshop on rural-tourism development and marketing in Costa Rica led by a group of Israeli experts earlier this month. Borbón also pointed out the Artisanal Products With Identity Program, which, he said, is an effort to support local artists who create products specific to their regions and loaded with local history.

The ICT official also mentioned some 13 different projects and lectures offered to the small-business sector on a variety of topics geared toward improving competitiveness and efficiency.

Michael Kaye, founder of Costa Rica Expeditions and a 35-year veteran of the Costa Rican tourism industry, criticized the ICT’s recent “Costa Rica’s Million Dollar Gift of Happiness” marketing campaign, which featured a talking cartoon sloth and the giveaway of vacation packages to Costa Rica. 

Borbón wrote that Costa Rica’s Million Dollar Gift of Happiness campaign’s “principal objective was to generate conversations about Costa Rica and to facilitate the exchange of experiences through social networks with the goal of positioning Costa Rica as a tourist destination and to increase recommendations of the destination and revisiting.”

He added that the campaign generated thousands of conversations on the ICT’s Facebook page and substantially increased the percentage of Facebook fans in Costa Rica’s principal tourism markets, the United States and Canada.

But Kaye said the largest problem facing the industry now is disparity between the actual number of tourists visiting the country and the number of beds built to accommodate them. He and other attendees of the forum agreed that an excess of beds is attributable to years of overly optimistic statistics by ICT.

“The major problem is the ICT exists, basically, to get more power over all of tourism,” Kaye said. “Their goal is political power, and it’s not to improve tourism in any particular areas. So they do damage, and you can see that if you just watch the various things they do.”

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