By Mike Stiles
There is nearly complete agreement that an international airport in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone is needed to remove the heavy-access and short-stay-in-region penalties paid by tourists and the tourism industry, which significantly restrict regional tourism and economic development.
The Public Works and Transport Ministry’s proposed $42 million, small, low-profile airport – which potentially could be located on a site near mangroves or via an expansion of Palmar Sur airport – does not address the regional tourism market and has environmental, land, operational and residential-proximity issues that would limit or preclude its successful financing, implementation and operation. The ministry is currently preparing to contract feasibility studies based on these potential sites and assumptions, which will incur additional costs and delays.
The current proposal for scale and location includes an airport with low volume and economically high-level tourists destined for a small portion of the southern coastal region. Alternatively, an international airport could be used as an engine of development to support all economic and geographical sectors in the entire region.
Planning analysis suggests a more feasible site may be the wide-open area south of Palmar, which includes an airport configured to address an expanded service area and growth path consistent with tourist-market evolution. This type of international airport could provide broader economic development opportunities for an expanded tourist area (nine cantons and Chiriquí province, Panama) and utilize existing infrastructure, including coastal and Pan-American highways, Río Sierpe, Golfo Dulce and Pacific Ocean waterways and the airport in David, Panama.
The hundreds of existing hotels, lodges and attractions within two hours by land or water could be accessed directly to provide tourists with the very significant, tangible and intangible benefits of “San José avoidance”: lost vacation time, higher costs and increased aggravation associated with inbound and outbound use of San José’s airport.
International and charter airlines, travel wholesalers, other segments of the tourism industry and air cargo sectors also would be able to identify sufficient “critical mass” in which to confidently invest. Tourism in the expanded tourist-destination area would be dependent upon these existing or newly dispersed centers and attractions serving “active” tourists and small groups (contrary to Guanacaste’s high-density hotels and residential complexes).
Economic development resulting from a fully capable international airport is of several types: direct new jobs and enterprises in the tourism industry resulting from increased tourist or new-cargo volume, indirect jobs and enterprises, and the standard multiplier or turnover of new or additional monies in region.
There is also an airport serving-area factor: The more diverse and numerous the number of attractions and tourist centers in a given serving area, the more probable it is tourists will spend 7-11 days within the area, and the more likely it is tourists will fly directly to the new airport. Growth creates more tourist centers, attractions and indirect enterprises. This factor would also apply to passenger and freight carriers.
The reverse is also true: A restrictive airport for a small and homogeneous serving area will decrease the likelihood of tourists or carriers flying into the new airport.
This type of project highlights the need for a regional entity to coordinate and execute regional planning, development and environmental-resource oversight for long-term integrated planning – which cannot be accomplished at a national or municipal level. For example, it would be important to independently determine the efficiency, effectiveness and environmental implications of road construction in sensitive areas versus upgrading water-transport facilities and services and other alternatives for tourist transportation.
The wide-area tourist-distribution model could also benefit from support planning – including organization of water transport services to reduce dependence on commuter flights and rental cars – which would directly reduce or eliminate resource bottlenecks and environmental stresses.
In addition, this type of regional planning could facilitate tactics to increase airport volume and distribute development opportunities by promoting a wider geographical scope and larger economic range of tourist centers and attractions. Examples could include a master regional website, marketing support for international carriers or resellers and the use of tourism accelerators to support the types of tourism that minimize start-up time, investment and ecological impact, such as campers, backpackers, birdwatchers and surfers.
The development of enterprises to promote spending on non-tourism services, in-area investment or consumption of value-added, higher-value or eco-labeled products grown, produced or captured and enhanced in the region could further leverage economic development.
The conclusion is clear: Only a fully capable and economically integrated international airport could provide broadly based economic development opportunities across the southern region, a diversified destination area for tourists and international air carriers, and a sufficiently large investment base to concurrently address environmental and social issues.
Mike Stiles, a 22-year resident of the Osa Peninsula and an experienced management consultant, is owner of Río Sierpe Lodge.