Government tourism officials were clearly pleased with the figures released this week showing that the influx of international tourists into Guanacaste, Costa Rica’s northwestern province, doesn’t appear to be slowing.
“We have had wonderful growth,” Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides boasted this week.
But others wonder whether the region can sustain the growth.
“The problem is that tourism is not being planned in the region,” said Gadi Amit, of the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association, a local activist group.
According to a study by the Guanacaste Tourism Chamber (CATURGUA), tourist arrivals in the first three months of the year at the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital, increased by 13% over last year.
These figures are just the latest in what has been a constant increase in international arrivals over the last five years. As the tourists spread out through the province year after year, the accompanying boom in hotel and real estate development has caught local governments unprepared.
After San José, Guanacaste saw the most amount of new construction growth in the nation last year – 1.6 million square meters, according to the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects.
Studies by the same association also noted that nearly one in five of the region’s projects were being built illegally – either without permits or going beyond what their permits allowed.
Infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants and sewer systems are sorely lacking in some of the PacificCoast’s fastest growing communities, even as new construction projects spring up, some of them with hundreds of hotel rooms or condominiums.
Water is also scarce in some of the fastest-growing areas on the coast, such as Playas del Coco, while water pollution from untreated sewage lost Tamarindo, the most popular beach town, its ecological Blue Flag award.
In the government-planned tourism development on the Papagayo Peninsula, the five-star Allegro Papagayo, part of the Spanish-owned Occidental Hotels & Resorts, was closed by the Health Ministry on Jan. 31 after inspectors found hidden pipes were dumping wastewater into an estuary attached to Culebra Bay.
The hotel has since partially reopened with a repaired wastewater treatment plant.
President Oscar Arias’ administration has itself acknowledged the lack of planning, signing a decree for Guanacaste’s coastal municipalities that sets basic zoning regulations such as height and density limits where zoning plans do not exist. Benavides, who helped design the decree, admitted development “has gotten out of hand.”
Amit, however, said the government is not doing enough. “They recognize that it is a disaster, that there is no order.But that decree is not going to put it in order. Saying you can only build up to three stories doesn’t protect anything,” he said. This week, Benavides said that “sustainability” must be the “central axis” for tourism development.
The tourists themselves, however, seem largely unfazed by the problems, at least according to CATURGUA’s statistics. Participants in a survey, when asked what destination they liked best in Guanacaste, produced a three-way tie of Papagayo, Playas del Coco and Tamarindo.