Costa Rica’s high season officially began Tuesday, the first day of December, a date when most hotels and tourist operations throughout the country traditionally raise rates in anticipation of an influx of tourists during the December-through-April stretch. But this year might be different.
As a result of the worldwide economic crisis, the last three months – ending Nov. 30 – were particularly difficult for the Costa Rican tourism industry. In September and October, tourism numbers were the lowest in years, showing a drop of more than 12,000 tourists in October of this year compared to the same month in 2008.
In the face of the reduction in the flow of tourists and the lingering uncertainty as to what might come next, many tourism businesses say they will alter their usual strategies for the high season.
“Everybody was doing pretty well for the year until about August. During the last 90 days, the bottom dropped out,” said Harry Bodaan, owner of La Mansión Inn in Manuel Antonio and a member of that central Pacific beach town’s Chamber of Commerce. “It’s showed us we can’t rest on our laurels and expect tourism to stay up. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work hard to promote our region in markets that have not been exploited.”
Bodaan said La Mansión Inn will hold off on the shift to high season prices until Dec. 23, in hopes of attracting more guests during the first weeks of the month. Bodaan also said that the Quepos and Manuel Antonio Chambers of Commerce are promoting the region at international events, such as a boat show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the United States, last week. They also may invite international journalists to the area to write promotional reviews.
Many other hotels are floating similar promotions in attempts to attract tourists.
According to Cheryl Livingston, owner of the hillside hotel Villas Nicolas in Manuel Antonio, several area hotels are offering promotional packages or discounts to boost sales for the high season. Livingston said several hotels are offering free spa packages, free meals or discounted rates for extended stays, and some are even employing unconventional tactics such as serving pizzas to guests.
“One hotel saw that many people were choosing to order pizzas and were taking them back to their rooms,” Livingston said. “After finding pizza boxes in a lot of rooms, the hotel decided to prepare pizzas in their kitchen to try to please the guests.”
Livingston said that Villas Nicolas, which offers 19 suites overlooking the Pacific Ocean, has experienced about a 20 percent decrease in the number of guests this year. She added that the downturn was particularly evident during Thanksgiving week and the following weekend. While the hotel usually is booked six weeks in advance for the November holiday, many rooms were empty this year.
“I think we are actually going to feel the recession more this season than last,” Livingston said. “When the recession hit, a lot people had already made their plans so they were going to go through with their vacations regardless … Even though the economic status of many people might not be as grim this year, they will be watching their pennies.”
Varying High Season Predictions
According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), just over 1.59 million tourists visited the country through the first 10 months of this year. And it is widely believed that the final tally for overall tourism this year will show a significant decline from the banner year of 2008, when nearly 2.1 million tourists visited Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, remaining perpetually optimistic about the resurgence of tourism figures seems to be in the nature of Costa Rican tourism industry associations and spokespersons, even when the numbers would suggest a different outlook.
In November, Gonzalo Vargas, vice president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), announced that Costa Rican tourism could see growth of as much as 6 percent in 2010. His comments were seconded some weeks later by newly elected CANATUR President Juan Carlos Ramos who – although a little more cautious with his predictions – was still quite hopeful for a strong 2010.
“There are projections by hotel owners, tour operators and other sectors who feel the situation in 2010 will be different than last year,” said Ramos, who said he expects tourism to increase by 3 to 5 percent in 2010. “However, the growth will depend on variables such as the strength of marketing efforts promoting the country as a tourist destination.”
Others share a similar optimistic outlook.
Christina Truitt, co-director of the Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce and owner of Surf Inn Hermosa, a boutique hotel in Playa Hermosa on the central Pacific, said that attention generated by the Jacó region during the World Surfing Games in August should encourage steady tourism in the area during the high season.
“Hosting an international event (that was) broadcast to millions over the Internet brought with it a great deal of investment in local infrastructure, including paving of roads, opening of new beach accesses and increased security presence,” Truitt wrote in an e-mail to The Tico Times. “The international press generated from this event continues to benefit the central Pacific region …We are looking forward to what we hope will be a good tourism season.”
Others were not so sunny in their predictions.
Peter Van Hussen, vice president of the Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce and owner of Hotel Las Canciones Del Mar in Jacó, said he expects a typical high season but a poor low season.
“There is definitely an impact of the recession here in Jacó and (the Municipality of) Garabito. The developments are basically paralyzed because of lack of credit and competition with low prices against the hotels.
The rack rates of the hotels have been going down, and it is a lot harder to create business in a price-oriented market,” Van Hussen wrote to The Tico Times.
One factor clouding the projections for the high season is the proliferation of last-minute reservations. As opposed to previous years when reservations usually were made months in advance, the new trend has tourists booking rooms only days before arrival.
“What I am seeing is that this year people are booking at the last minute, so it’s hard to gauge what the season will be like,” Livingston said. “It seems that sometimes the high season looks like it will be strong and on track, and then sometimes not at all.”
It appears that any definitive answer about the state of tourism in the country will have to wait a while, perhaps even until the high season ends at the end of April.