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Tourism season kicks off in Costa Rica despite high costs for travelers

January 10, 2015

John Cross was enjoying his first day in Costa Rica, but the Bath, England native was already showing the early signs of a sunburn on his brow.

“We came to Costa Rica for the nature,” Cross said in the Plaza de la Cultura in downtown San José. “It’s quite popular in England right now.”

But when the conversation steered toward the costs of traveling in Costa Rica, Cross was doubtful that he would have made the same decision if he knew how expensive the country was.

“It’s similar to prices back home, so we kind of realized that it wasn’t cheap,” he said, noting that after traveling in Asia, he was surprised by the prices here.

Statements like these are what worry Tatiana Cascante, executive director of the Costa Rican National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR). Cascante told The Tico Times in a telephone interview that high operating costs, especially electricity, were a threat to Costa Rica’s reputation as an affordable tourist destination.

The high cost of doing business in Costa Rica is a national problem, Cascante said, not just something affecting the competitiveness of the tourism sector. More than 61 percent of Costa Rican businesses agree, according to the latest quarterly business confidence survey. The Union of Private-Sector Chambers and Associations’ third-quarter survey showed that 61 percent of Tico businesses surveyed saw a significant increase in their cost of doing business, especially when it came to energy prices.

Flora Ayub, executive director of the Costa Rican Chamber of Hotels, told The Tico Times that up-and-coming destinations like Nicaragua and Cuba posed a serious threat to Costa Rica’s ability to continue attracting tourists from the United States, the country’s most important market, she said.

“Costa Rica is expensive,” Ayub said in a telephone interview, but added that for the moment the country still holds an edge over its Central American competition when it comes to safety and customer service.

When The Boston Globe published a list of its top destinations for 2015 with the snarky advice to “Forget Costa Rica” in favor of Nicaragua, national media wailed that Costa Rica was on the verge of losing a chunk of its $2.2 billion tourism industry.

The Costa Rican colón has depreciated roughly 10 percent against the dollar in the last year. This news might catch the eye of some thrifty travelers trying to maximize their dollar, but Cascante noted that many tourist businesses denominate their prices in U.S. dollars, eliminating potential savings in the exchange rate.

Christoph Wolf, who had been traveling across Costa Rica with his wife and two daughters for the last three weeks, enjoyed the afternoon’s sun and breeze in Parque Morazán when he spoke with The Tico Times. Wolf said he had traveled to Belize, Honduras and Guatemala before this trip to Costa Rica and agreed the country was more expensive but still cheaper than his native Switzerland.

Backpackers and others might bemoan the rising prices, but Wolf saw a premium, especially for families: “I like that Costa Rica is a quite safe country. The standard of living is high enough that there’s not a lot of criminality, so I’d say it’s a fair tradeoff.”

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