GUANACASTE, prepare for takeoff. This has been the year that travel soared upward for Costa Rica’s northwest province, and the consensus is that the sky is the proverbial limit.
In fairness, Guanacaste’s attractions were always well known and a frequent destination for tourists to Costa Rica. But key to taking the region’s tourism numbers to the next level of success has been maximizing the use potential of DanielOduberInternationalAirport west of Liberia.
During its early life, the often-inaugurated, many-times-named airport west of Liberia – it previously bore the monikers “Los Llanos” and “Tomás Guardia” – served a handful of seasonal charter flights, as well as those of Costa Rican domestic airlines SANSA and Nature Air.
The facility, now bearing the name of a 1970s Costa Rican president, came into its own in December 2002 with the long-awaited launching of scheduled international service. Atlanta, Georgia-based Delta Airlines blazed the trail (TT Dec. 6, 2002).
HOTELIERS and investors approached Delta about beginning a flight to the region, according to Leopoldo Hernández, Delta’s sales manager for Costa Rica. Market projections and availability of aircraft are factors any airline considers when deciding to launch service to a new destination (TT, March 5).
“This decision turned out to be a good one,” Hernández says, citing an average load factor of 75 percent on the route, which translates into some 15,000 passengers having flown on Delta during its first year of Liberia flights.
The service made Guanacaste instantly available to visitors arriving from North America, eliminating the hours spent traveling overland from San José. American and Continental Airlines saw a good thing and began their own service in January.
Rapid expansion, now 23 scheduled flights per week, has meant growing pains for the airport. A few grumbles about cramped space and the difficulty in separating arriving and departing passengers have resulted.
Alain Muquet of Hotel Villa Del Sueño in nearby Playa Hermosa takes the complaints in stride. “We’d much rather have a full small airport than an empty large one,” he says.
“This type of influx is not easy to handle in such a short period of time,” Hernández explains, admitting that the overnight transformation of a small regional airfield into an international airport was not an easy one. But he credits the public and private sectors with having responded quickly to the situation.
A soon-to-be-completed expansion of the terminal is under way, according to Gustavo González, airport coordinator for Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority. The $500,000 project will double the size of the building to 1,550 square meters, creating separate facilities for arriving and departing passengers.
Plans include further expansion, according to Roberto Kopper of Eco- Desarrollo Papagayo, the tourism and investment consortium funding the current construction project. On the drawing board are plans to increase the terminal size to 3,500 square meters encompassing 22 check-in counters. The group is exploring expanding service from other hubs by existing airlines as well as entrance into the market by new carriers.
Villa Del Sueño’s Muquet says that smaller players in Guanacaste’s tourism market have benefited too, and he sees a positive effect all around from the presence of the airport.
Muquet explains that it presents a unique opportunity for small- and mediumsize lodgings in this one region of the country to work with tour operators in Atlanta, Houston and Miami – the three North American hubs from which Liberia flights originate – to promote themselves.
PRESENTLY serving Liberia are: Delta (six flights weekly from Atlanta); American (three flights weekly from Miami); Continental (three flights weekly from Houston); SANSA (daily flights from San José); and Nature Air (daily flights from San José, with continuing service to Granada, Nicaragua).