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New Ties with China Expected to Bear Fruit

President Oscar Arias announced a flurry of new economic cooperation projects with China after returning from a visit to that country last month.

The President said he would use Chinese donations to build a multiuse athletic stadium and invest in an unfinished highway in Alajuela, one of the northern provinces. A regional oil refinery, financed largely by China, is also on the table, and the two countries are expected see strengthened business and tourism ties.

The Chinese government has so far promised to grant Costa Rica $48 million, according to Lisbeth Barboza at the Casa Presidencial press office. Some $20 million will go toward flood relief in regions damaged by last month’s heavy rains (TT, Oct. 26).

While the rest has not yet been earmarked, Arias said one of his “priorities” is to build an athletic stadium that could hold 40,000 people. It would be the country’s largest stadium, surpassing the Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José, which holds 21,700 people.

A Chinese company will build the stadium, but the workforce constructing it will be Costa Rican, Arias said. The Chinese government will send a technical team to evaluate Costa Rica’s needs, Arias added, then hold a public bid to select a Chinese company to direct the project.

The stadium will “make us feel proud” and “attract our youth away from drugs and such vices,” Arias said.

Costa Rica may also invest Chinese money in a highway from Naranjo, a coffee town in the northwestern Central Valley, to San Carlos, a canton in north-central Costa Rica, Arias said. A project by the Taiwanese government, the highway’s survival has been under question since Costa Rica switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China five months ago (TT, June 8).

The two countries will cooperate on oil production, too. China is considering building a $6 billion regional refinery in Costa Rica, which would process the oil China buys in other Latin American countries, Arias said. That’s in addition to an accord between the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE) and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to look into partnering up on the expansion of the RECOPE refinery in the Caribbean port of Moín (TT, Oct. 26).

China’s oil company is also looking to explore for oil in Costa Rica, RECOPE president José León Desanti told the daily La Nácion, although no formal agreements have yet been reached.

The President also said he hoped to sign a free-trade agreement with China before he leaves office in 2010.

“A country like Costa Rica, with 4.5 million people, has no option but to open markets,” Arias said. “Its important to keep signing free-trade agreements – with the whole world if we can.”

Costa Rica’s tourist industry may see a boost from Chinese travelers, too. A group of

200 Chinese travel agents plans to visit Costa Rica in the next several months to learn about the country’s tourism offerings, Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides told the daily La Nación. Last month, the Chinese government designated Costa Rica as a “recommended destination,” which makes it easier for tourist agencies to plan trips here.

While 35 milli on Chinese tourists visitneighboring countries and Europe every year, few of them come to Costa Rica. The country attracted just 1,545 Chinese tourists in 2006, according to La Nación.

Part of the problem could be that China remains on a list of countries whose citizens have highly restricted access to Costa Rica.

Tourists from China – like those from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and other states with dubious international reputations – must apply for a Costa Rican visa authorized by the Immigration Director himself. It is a tedious process that could take months (TT, June 15).

Heidy Bonilla, a spokeswoman for the Immigration authority, would not comment on whether there were plans to take China off that list, though a recent Immigration change means Chinese tourists with a U.S., European or Canadian visa can enter Costa Rica freely for up to 30 days without any other paperwork.



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