Sporting special uniforms and equipped with shiny new bicycles, motorcycles and four-wheelers, Tourism Police officers have been patrolling the country’s tourist destinations since the end of last year.
Costa Rica joined other Central American countries in creating this specialized force to fight crimes that leave tourists with a bad taste in their mouths and threaten the tourism industry that’s long been held up as the country’s cash cow.
Common crimes against tourists include pickpocketing, car theft and muggings, and victims tend to be from the United States, Canada, Germany, England and France (TT, Dec. 22, 2006).
The results of these officers’ efforts? So far, so good, reported Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides at the end of March during a ceremony at which he officially received 24 motorcycles and six four-wheelers donated by the government of Taiwan.
Robberies against tourists decreased during the first two months of the year to 910, down from the 1,168 reported during the same period last year, he said. Vehicle theft from tourists in January of this year was down to 99 compared to the 132 registered during the same month last year, and February also showed a decrease in auto theft to 77, down from last year’s 133.
Tourism Police Director Kattia Chavarría said her 125 officers have been successful in protecting not only tourists, but also residents.
There are 117 officers on the streets in the central Pacific areas of Jacó and Tárcoles; the north-central area surrounding Arenal Volcano; the Gulf of Papagayo vicinity in the northwestern province of Guanacaste; the Caribbean areas of Limón, Puerto Viejo, Siquirres and Guápiles; San José; the eastern province of Cartago; and Alajuela, northwest of San José. Additionally, eight officers are working on intelligence and administrative duties at the Public Security Ministry headquarters in San José.
An additional 150 officers are in training to become Tourism Police and are expected to graduate by the end of this year, which will allow for expansion to other parts of the country, including the Southern Zone town of Dominical, the Caribbean-slope town of Sarapiquí and the central Pacific town of Quepos, Chavarría said.
The Public Security Ministry has set a goal of having 600 Tourism Police officers by the end of President Oscar Arias’ term in 2010, according to Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal.
The work of these specialized officers is “nontraditional,” said Eric Contreras, a Tourism Police officer stationed in San José.
“It’s not just intervening when there are crimes. Sometimes tourists just need directions or practical advice like a restaurant recommendation,” he said, clad in his uniform consisting of a white polo shirt with a navy blue collar, blue hat with “POLICIA” across the front and navy-blue pants.
Contreras said his beginner’s level of English has been one of the main challenges he’s dealt with so far in his work.
English classes provided in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy are slowly helping him get a grasp of this tongue spoken by so many vacationers here. Other Tourism Police officers are studying French and German.
The creation of this special force, in the works since 1998, was a joint effort between the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) and the Public Security Ministry.
Benavides said he saw it as a “long overdue” opportunity to step outside the traditional box of tourism promotion, marketing, project management and planning.
“We’ve wanted to involve ourselves in related areas such as infrastructure, the environment and security,” Benavides said in a statement shortly after the officers were deployed.
Tourism businesses in the private sector also played a part in the effort to reduce the crimes they fear could drive tourists away from Costa Rica in favor of safer destinations.
A group of business owners on the northern Pacific coast called the Association of Concessionaires of the Gulf of Papagayo Tourism Project donated plans for the construction of two stations in Guanacaste’s Playa Panamá and at the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in the province’s capital city of Liberia. The Public Security Ministry is going through the processes necessary to open up public bidding for this project, Chavarría said.
Another possible initiative would involve placing Tourism Police kiosks at the country’s two main airports – Liberia’s Daniel Oduber and JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, northwest of San José – to give tourists information on staying safe during their time here.
Funds have not yet been made available for this project, Chavarría said.
For info about the Tourism Police, visit www.msp.go.cr/fuerza_publica/turistica.