As hundreds of Costa Rican and international tourism companies flocked to San José for the country’s largest travel fair this week, new Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides took advantage of the spotlight to call for changes to support the industry – changes without which, according to the minister, the glory days of the nation’s cash cow may come to an end.
Though tourism, Costa Rica’s number one source of income, has grown steadily and increased by 14% last year, Benavides told a crowd of tourism professionals gathered Tuesday at the inauguration of the 22nd Expotur tourism trade fair, also known as Costa Rica Travel Mart, that this growth won’t continue if the government doesn’t take steps to improve infrastructure, security and the investment climate as soon as possible.
“We must multiply our efforts in various areas,” he said in a vigorous speech that referred to the sector’s challenges as “battles” and drew spontaneous bursts of applause, as well as a standing ovation, from his listeners at the National Auditorium in San José.
Explaining that improvements in public security, education, the environment and public works are crucial to the advancement of tourism, Benavides said one important step toward ensuring growth will be strengthening the leadership of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), which he heads.
“The ICT… can’t remain isolated from decision-making” about infrastructure spending and other topics, he said.
President Oscar Arias, whose comments concluded the inaugural event, expressed his support for the minister and other tourism leaders.
“They’ve said everything we need to do. Now, we just need to do it,” he said.
Old Problems, New Energy
The problem areas Benavides outlined are hardly new ones. Pothole-filled roads, petty theft and other crimes against visitors, lack of hotel rooms during the peak of the high season, excessive paperwork for building projects and a lack of incentives for foreign investment have been the subjects of complaints from the private sector for years.
However, the promises of renewed attention and change from Benavides and Arias, both of whom took office May 8, appear to have inspired new hope among tourism leaders.
Gonzalo Vargas, the new president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) – former president Eduardo Villafranca stepped down earlier this week – said in a statement Tuesday that he supports Benavides’ comments and echoes his concerns about infrastructure, safety and other problems. The statement said that CANATUR supports the development and approval of a General Tourism Law and the creation of a Tourism Council to help advance projects in the sector.
Solutions to “all the problems we at CANATUR have been pointing out for many months have been delayed, and now the moment to make decisions and act has finally arrived,”Vargas said.
Patricia Duar, president of the Costa Rican Association of Professionals in Tourism (ACOPROT), said Wednesday that the country needs to break out of its “cortoplazismo” (“short-term-ism”) and that Costa Rica needs “a real government policy” on tourism.
While infrastructure – roads, ports, airports and hotels – topped the wish list expressed this week, Benavides focused on several other areas during his speech Tuesday. Inadequacies in the public education system, particularly in the teaching of English, mean that not enough Costa Ricans can find work in the industry, he said.
“Our primary goal… is to ensure that the fruits of our industry permeate our society,” he said, adding that because the country’s people, renowned for their kindness and friendliness, are what tourists like most about their visits, it’s crucial that Costa Ricans continue to view tourism as a source of accessible opportunities.
Tourists’ fears about their safety –though violent crime against tourists is relatively rare – might also prevent some visitors from returning, according to Benavides, who is working with the Public Security Ministry to create a Tourism Police corps (see separate story). He said fighting drug trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors is also crucial to maintaining the country’s good name.
Finally, he said it is important for the government to continue protecting the environment – though both Benavides and Arias emphasized the need for increased clarity and less bureaucracy when it comes to foreign investment and development. Benavides decried the need for investors to “wait for years for a permanent ‘maybe’,” while Arias said a reexamination of the paperwork needed for construction permits and other documents will be a “high-priority task” of his administration, as well renewing incentives for tourism businesses and foreign investment.
Arias, who was President from 1986-1990, also outlined a vision of the country’s international marketing strategy.
“A country of peace and nature – that should be our national brand,” said the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Costa Rica received approximately 1.67 million tourists last year (TT, Jan. 13), an increase of about 14%, but data from the country’s airports have shown relative decreases in the last months of 2005 and the first months of this year, according to CANATUR. A statement from ICT added that the number of cruise ships that visited the country also dropped, from 215 in the 2004-05 cruise ship season to 192 in the 2005-06 season.
Inside Expotur’s show room Wednesday, Duar said she agreed with Benavides’ comments, particularly the need to protect tourism by improving infrastructure.
“We’ve definitely been hurt because of the road conditions. People don’t want to rent cars anymore because they’re afraid to drive on the roads and it’s taking longer to get places,” said Duar, who oversaw a flurry of buyers, sellers and press at the event, which ended yesterday.
A Worthwhile Experience
In its 22nd year, Expotur attracted 245 national travel businesses and 35 from around Central America, according to ACOPROT spokesman Pablo Bulgarelli, down slightly from the 278 businesses that attended last year. Additionally, 190 representatives from 140 buyers (the same number as last year) came to the event, held at the Ramada Plaza Herradura Hotel west of San José.
“This year, we’ve had a fluid stream of appointments with buyers,” said Teresa Guerrero, marketing and sales director of Expediciones Tropicales, a tour company that has had a booth at Expotur for the past 13 years. “But it’s also a lot of PR (public relations) – reminding old clients that we’re still here and attracting the attention of new ones.”
Those who traveled from beach destinations to set up booths at Expotur for the first time told The Tico Times they found it a worthwhile experience.
Tom Nagel, owner of the new Cuna del Angel hotel in the Southern Zone’s Playa Dominical, said the fair was helping him to make contacts and added that he hopes to organize a joint booth with other hotels in the area next year to promote the entire region, not just one hotel, as a tourist destination.
Catherine Fox, a representative from the new Issimo Suites Family Resort in the central Pacific’s Manuel Antonio, said her hotel’s first Expotur was about “getting our name out there and meeting as many people as possible.”
Tico Times Online Editor Amanda Roberson contributed to this article.