OVER the next five months, tourists will arrive at theCaribbean port city of Limón and the Pacific port city ofPuntarenas by the boatload. Literally.While the two towns aren’t normally Costa Rica’shotspots for tourism, they will each see 200,000 instanttourists coming from cruise ships this cruise season,which began last month and continues through April.Although the nation offers an ample playground forthese one-day visitors, both port cities are struggling toensure some of the passengers, and the money in theirwallets, stay close to port. Meanwhile, port authorities are also struggling to ensure their facilities provide the necessary infrastructure toguarantee these ships keep coming.“Infrastructure needs to be improved,but there has been no interest, from anyadministration,” said Guido Castro of TAMTravel, which offers shore excursions to passengers.“The problems in Puntarenas arevery serious; the problems of Limón aremore serious. It is not just about receivingthe boats. We are also terrible in attention topassengers on land. The Limón cruise shipterminal is in bad condition. Within this terminal,the artisans’ market, if you can call itthat, it is nothing like what greets passengersin other destinations. It is very ThirdWorld.”IMPROVEMENTS won’t happenovernight, “nor in three months, nor in sixmonths,” according to Sharon Jones, headof promotion of tourism development forthe Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA).But they will happen, she said.This year a total of 147 cruise shipswill arrive in Limón, bringing 209,000 visitors,up from 138 ships last year. Some ofthese passengers were greeted last monthwith piles of trash, a reality that port andtourism authorities readily admit theyregret. A long-term solution is in the worksamong municipal and Public HealthMinistry officials; and in the short term,the city has implemented a program calledSeñoras Amarillas (Yellow Ladies),through which woman in need of work arepaid to keep the streets clean.But beyond offering a minimum levelof cleanliness, Limón aims to be an attraction,according to Jones.In February, construction is expected tobegin on Bayside, a pedestrian walkwayalong the Limón seawall, across the parkfrom where the cruise ships disembark. Thewood structure includes a 700-square-footlookout and a 1,000-square-foot terrace, aswell as lights, benches, and opportunities forvendors. The original budget for the project,expected to take five months to complete, is¢90 million ($184,000), although this couldchange, Jones said.The community also dreams of beingtransformed into Limón Port City with a$70 million loan from the World Bank,which still must be approved by theLegislative Assembly and may neverbecome a reality (TT, Nov. 19, 2004).JUST over half of cruise passengerstake tours, spending an average of $100 aday, according to statistics from the CostaRican Tourism Institute (ICT). They visiteverywhere from Arenal Volcano in theNorthern Zone, to banana plantations, tothe country’s famous beaches.It is the other half – passengers whostay closer to ship, as well as crew members– that the Puntarenas Chamber ofTourism is attempting to capture, accordingto president Miguel Renna. The chamberworks with the municipality and thePacific Port Authority (INCOP) to guaranteethe beach is clean enough to be awardeda coveted Blue Flag for cleanliness. Italso works with local residents and businessesto help them offer artisans and servicesto tourists – such as individualizedtours at a large discount over what isoffered aboard ship.In addition, studies have been done contemplatingthe restoration of the buildingknown as the Capitanía, where a tourist centermay be located, according to the ICT.ALTHOUGH cruise passengers stayfor only one day, most use the cruise toexplore the ports of call for possible futurevacations. Cruise passengers average atleast two other vacations a year, accordingto the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association(FCCA).This offers Costa Rica an excellentopportunity to sell itself, according toCastro of TAM Travel. But neither port hasan office to attend to cruise ship passengersto discuss future vacations.This is just another of the shortcomingsof the infrastructure for Costa Rica’s cruiseindustry, Guido Castro said.According to INCOP President PaulZúñiga, the organization is investing $2million over the next two years to improveconditions of the Puntarenas dock to betterprotect cruise ships when they arrive.This is but a fraction of the $12 millioninvestment in a new cruise ship dock andterminal the government had hoped forfive years ago, via a private concession. Noprivate companies took up the government’soffer to build the facilities. Zúñigaexplained that companies didn’t considerthe investment a good one, namely becausethe market for cruise ships in the Pacific islimited.Ninety-one ships will arrive inPuntarenas this season, considerably fewerthan Limón, although the number is alsoup from last year. Navigating theCaribbean is much easier than navigatingthe Pacific, and ports of call are much closerin the Caribbean, where stops are madeon islands along the way before shipsarrive in Costa Rica, Zúñiga said.THE Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attackshave resulted in fewer cruise ships inmore long-distance destinations, withpassengers instead preferring the shortercruises of the Caribbean, Guido Castroexplained.The number of cruise ships that arrivein Limón has steadily increased for thepast decade, particularly after Sept. 11,Jones said.During the 2002-2003 season a newcruise ship dock was constructed in Limón,allowing for two ships to berth at the sametime. However, a handful of times duringthe season, three or more ships will bearriving, forcing some to berth in the nearbyport of Moín and taking up spots normallyused for commercial ships.“Passenger ships have the priority,”explained Karl McQueen, superintendentof the port for JAPDEVA.While the berths in Moín cause delaysin cargo ships loading and unloading at thealready over-capacity port, McQueenwould not say Limón has insufficient infrastructure.“It’s complicated, because the cruiseship season is only six months long; therest of the year, the dock is unoccupied,”he pointed out.STILL, Guido Castro says if improvementsaren’t made to port infrastructureand beyond, Costa Rica’s cruise ship sectorcould be at risk, threatened by neighboringcountries. The central government hasmade it clear that infrastructure improvementsare not a priority, compared to healthand education, added McQueen.Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro, whois also head of ICT, told the Tico Times theICT has developed new policies to attractcruise ships, but he does not have theauthority to resolve infrastructure problems.Guido Castro remains unconvincedthat anything will change.“All of these problems are problems thatcome administration after administrationafter administration. Promises come,promises go, and nothing changes,” he said.
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