INFRASTRUCTURE (or concerns about the lack thereof) headlined the news in tourism this year.
The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) just supplied recently crunched numbers to The Tico Times and estimates the country will welcome its 1.67 millionth visitor by day’s end on Dec. 31 – another record year, although 2005’s 14% growth rate represents a slowing over 2004’s monster 20% increase.
No matter: Industry leaders welcomed the breather as an opportunity to step back and analyze the country’s needs. Some of what they saw this year concerned them.
Airports remain an ongoing anxiety.The Spanish-language press frequently uses the term colapsar (to collapse) to describe worries that Costa Rica’s two major airports cannot handle their passenger influx. Help is on the way for the small Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, in the form of a $2.2 million expansion slated for completion next month. The airport is expected to welcome 310,000 passengers this year, up from 194,000 in 2004. (A preliminary study is also under way for a future international airport to be built in the Southern Zone.) Alajuela’s Juan Santamaría International Airport sees a faint light at the end of the runway, with the government and Alterra Partners, the facility’s administrator, tentatively reachng agreement over contentious disputes that have spelled long waits for passengers (see separate story).
New flights are winging their way here: United launched weekly high-season service from Chicago to Liberia last weekend; American has announced that twice-weekly Dallas-Liberia flights will start this February; and domestic airline Nature Air will begin service from San José to Bocas del Toro, Panama, next weekend. The airline also inaugurated flights to Arenal in May. Hotel rooms are high on the industry’s wish list as well. The year saw an overall 60% nationwide hotel-room occupancy, higher in areas of popular tourist concentration.
But those figures belie the 40% of tourists who had to be turned away during the 2004-2005 high season, which runs December-May. J.W. Marriott has announced that construction will begin on a new hotel at Pinilla on the Guanacaste coast next year. Industry leaders hope to see more.
The Comptroller General’s Office this year suspended tourism tax incentives, in place since the 1980s, which had been used for import of rental cars, microbuses, and hotel fixtures and utensils. ICT and the Costa Rican Coalition of Development Initiatives (CINDE) blasted the move as hindering investment in an important industry. Several presidential candidates called for an improvement in tourism infrastructure and, surprising everyone, for an end to casino tourism.
The year served as a painful reminder that uncontrollable outside factors impact tourism: widespread January flooding in the Caribbean zone led to cancellations of reservations there, even though tourist communities such as Cahuita and Puerto Viejo were not directly affected; and a 28-hour bank hostage situation in March in northern Santa Elena, which left nine dead and 17 wounded, caused the temporary departure of many tourists who had come to visit Monteverde. It was a momentary blip in the visitor numbers, although the community’s pain over the event was profound (see separate story).
Cruise passengers represent a small, but growing, percentage of visitors to Costa Rica. The Caribbean port of Limón welcomed 147 ships and 209,000 passengers this year. Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast, hosted a smaller, but respectable, 91 ships. Both cities look for ways to improve infrastructure and keep those visitors in the community, rather than losing them to day tours taking them to farther-flung attractions. Playas del Coco in Guanacaste did itself proud hosting weekly arrivals of the Holland America’s luxury Wind Star during February and March, its first-ever call from a cruise liner.