The year in tourism literally began on a low note but was expected to finish on an upbeat one, in keeping with the glad tidings of the holiday season.
With 2006 proving a stagnant year for visitor numbers – figures last year remained at approximately 1.67 million, the same as for 2005 – tourism officials began this year with palpable disappointment after two previous years of double-digit growth.
But concrete figures available at this writing showed an 11% increase in air-passenger arrivals for the first nine months of this year over the same period in 2006. Less concretely, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) estimated that 2 million tourists will visit the country next year.
This year, the tourism industry’s wishes remained the same as every year, with improved infrastructure and increased security topping the list. Burgeoning tourism markets in neighboring Panama and Nicaragua competing for the same tourist dollars created worries here. A government-proposed $15 tourist tax similar to those charged in many Latin American countries, which would replace the existing hotel tax, was on hold at year’s end.
As they do every year, airlines and airports made news, both good and bad. The year has seen an impressive wave of new flights, with existing airlines increasing their services and new carriers winging their way to Costa Rica for the first time.
Discount airline Spirit Air began service from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Frontier launched flights from Denver, Colorado.
Delta augmented existing service with new flights from New York’s Kennedy airport to both San José and Liberia. TACA began flights from Havana, Cuba, and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Spain’s Iberia increased its number of direct flights from Madrid, eliminating previous changes of plane in Guatemala or Panama. Air Comet took over the routes of the late Air Madrid, whose abrupt cessation of operations at the end of last year had stranded many 2006 holiday passengers.
Later in the year, American launched flights from Fort Lauderdale, and France’s Air Caraïbes began service from Paris, with a stop in Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.
On the domestic-airline front, Sansa opened new customer service centers and check-in facilities in the Southern Zone airstrips at Puerto Jiménez, Golfito and Drake Bay, and at Tambor on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Can the country’s two international airports handle existing, let alone increased, traffic? That question continued to plague the travel industry this year.
The government and Alterra Partners remained mired in dispute over the operation of Juan Santamaría International Airport outside the western Central Valley city of Alajuela (see separate story on page Y8).
The smaller Daniel Oduber International Airport outside the northwestern hub city of Liberia, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, remained less problematic, although overheated computers wreaked havoc at times with Immigration lines there.
The Arias administration signed an agreement to move closer toward a planned Southern Zone international airport near Palmar Sur – though industry leaders there cautioned against letting a new airport spawn the same mega-resort approach to tourism seen in Guanacaste.
New developments were announced throughout the year, with the biggest buzz created by the August announcement of the planned $800 million Cacique Costa Rica complex to be built by America Online (AOL) founder Steve Case north of Playas del Coco in Guanacaste, complete with hotels, villas, golf course and fitness center.
The project’s environmental-impact study, already rejected once, had yet to be approved at year’s end, however.
Positive tourism development took place locally, in smaller, less-noticed ways.
The central Pacific port city of Puntarenas made plans to spruce up its beaches and boardwalk with a $5 million project to be financed through bonds issued by the state-run Banco Nacional.
On the other side of the country, the Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA) and ICT teamed up for a $5.7 million project to improve infrastructure in the Caribbean port city of Limón. The city gained notoriety in February after a group of cruise ship passengers killed an assailant during an attempted robbery of their tour bus. The Public Security Ministry soon beefed up security for the port city, which continued to see a growing number of visitors despite a couple of cruise ship cancellations after the fatal robbery incident.
With “green” and “carbon-neutral” the buzzwords in much of the world these days, Costa Rica’s National Fund for Forest Financing (FONAFIFO) launched the “Clean Trip” program this year. Tourists can finance the planting of trees to offset carbon emissions generated by various activities connected with their trips here.
Domestic airline NatureAir signed an agreement with FONAFIFO in February to contribute to forest generation, billing itself as “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline.” Its competitor, Sansa, signed on to the program in September.