Almost three months after a protest sparked a debate about the legality of beach camping, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has announced police will help it block campers from pitching their tents on the public zone of Playa Panamá, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Panamá beach, across the bay from the PapagayoPeninsula, has been a longtime favorite location of camping vacationers, particularly during Semana Santa (Easter Week), when Ticos from throughout the country flock to the beaches.
“They’re closing traditional access points that people have used for years,” said Gadi Amit, member of the Costa Rican Federation for the Conservation of the Environment (FECON). Indeed, people have been camping at Playa Panamá for decades.
A statement from FECON called the operation “against all rationality, against history, against the democratic system of the public ownership of the maritime zone and against the healthy leisure time and coexistence of the population.”
Amit told The Tico Times this week that the ICT already closed one road leading to Playa Panamá by obstructing it with huge boulders, and officials are constructing a guard post on another access road he claims will eventually serve to filter visitors. “It’s a form of privatization,” he said.
FECON members say ICT officials made the announcement of their intention to the community around the beach at a special meeting of the Municipality of Carrillo – where Playa Panamá is located –after local citizens voiced their concern about the blocked access.
It was a protest against blocking access to beaches – which are all public under Costa Rican law – that sparked the camping debate earlier this year.
During that protest, about 20 FECON members traveled by boat to Playa Blanca, in front of the newly constructed Four Seasons hotel on the Papagayo Peninsula, to protest restricted access to the beach, which is now accessible to non-hotel guests only via a 700-meter walkway.
When they tried to pitch their tents on the beach, visitors were prevented by a contingent of police officers, present at the request of ICT officials. The protestors sat at the beach all night (TT, Jan. 23).
AS a result of that incident, members of FECON and the Fraternal Association of Guanacaste filed an injunction Feb. 6 against the ICT and the Public Security Ministry, claiming police officers harassed them. The injunction, filed before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), also claims using officers to prevent citizens from camping is a “misappropriation of resources.”
The high court has not yet ruled on the case, and The Tico Times could find no definitive answer as to whether camping on Costa Rican beaches is legal or not.
Representatives of the Government Attorney’s Office would not comment on the matter this week, saying they cannot opine on concrete cases because that is the role of the court.
An official ICT response to the Sala IV injunction, dated Feb. 16, says the only thing the custom of beach camping has brought is “chaos and widespread contamination of the beach, as much material as visual.”
PART of the ICT plan, according to the document, is to work with police to maintain a constant presence at the beach to prevent campers from pitching tents.
The signatures of Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro and Papagayo Project Director Javier Bolaños are at the end of the document.
Bolaños called the operation one of “education.”
ICT advisor Álvaro Villalobos told The Tico Times this week that the operation is as much to prevent citizens from bringing vehicles onto the beach, as it is to keep campers off. He said vehicles speeding up and down the beach, especially four-byfours, create a situation too dangerous to be allowed.
Villalobos also said one of ICT’s main goals is environmental protection.
“WHAT they leave is an enormous dump,” he said. “They’re not interested in protecting their resources.”
Villalobos pointed out that a private company called Maná del Pacífico obtained an ICT concession and opened a campground earlier this year in Playa Panamá.
The private campground, which has room for about 200 people, offers services such as restrooms, changing rooms, a picnic area, grills and showers, for ¢1,000 ($2.34) per person per night. At press time, room remained for 50 people for the upcoming holiday week.
ICT has defended its stance that camping on the beach is illegal based on several articles of the Maritime Zone Law – the same articles FECON members point to when they argue its legality.
Article 10 of the law states “those who use in the maritime zone temporary or mobile installations, such as tents for camping or trailers, shall do so in the designated zones, when they exist; in all cases they are obligated to observe the norms established by health authorities, remaining subject to the sanctions considered in the General Health Law.”
The words in that article most hotly contested by both parties seem to be “when they exist,” especially since until this year, there were no designated camping areas in the area.
REPRESENTATIVES of the PapagayoPeninsula tourism development project used that article to defend their use of police to prevent FECON members from camping on Playa Blanca in January.
They argued that camping at Blanca was illegal since other camping zones existed within the boundaries of the project, and pointed to Playa Panamá as the place to camp.
FECON members, however, argue that the law applies to individual beaches only, so if there aren’t designated camping zones on each beach, it is legal to camp anywhere on the beach.
Project director Bolaños also pointed to Article 9 of the maritime law in his claim that camping is illegal on any beach. The article says that while using the beach, citizens must “guarantee at all times access to the zone and free transit in it for all people.”
Bolaños said in January that placing a tent on the beach would “interrupt the passage” of other citizens – something beachcamping defenders called ironic in light of the blocked access to those beaches.