LIMON – While the checkbooks of foreign investors and the bulldozers of developers have long been focused on prospects on the country’s Pacific coast, Costa Rica’s Atlantic province of Limón has gone unnoticed.
In Limón, dirt roads outnumber paved strips, rustic hideaways are far more common than ritzy hotels and one can still find good price tags on properties with an ocean view. However, because of historical neglect by the central government, a lack of land titles or easy access to building permits, as well as an inflated perception of crime, there’s lingering doubt about whether any investment on the “right” coast is the right choice.
Limonenses, as its residents are known, are quick to defend their lush tropical enclave, saying that embedded racism and lack of interest on the part of the county’s San José control room has held the region back.
“It’s an area with a lot of promise; with beautiful beaches and a high level of safety,” said Leda Villa, former vice president of the Southern Caribbean Commerce and Tourism Chamber who now works for the local development association. “But it has also been plagued by limited resources and a lack of investment from the central government.”
In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to channel more investment toward the Caribbean coast. The province’s capital, the port city of Limón, is awaiting the government’s delivery of a $72.5 million loan from the World Bank, which will eventually contribute to a makeover of the city. Central government officials are wrestling with local workers over a possible concession of the port to private interests aimed at creating a more efficient and productive port. A free-trade zone has recently been established to attract foreign companies. And security forces have intensified efforts to crack down on organized crime.
“We have come far, but we have a long way to go,” said Limón Mayor Eduardo Barboza (see related story, P. 6). “(Our hope) is that we can attract businesses to a zone that has all the ingredients to develop.”
Leaders in central government have acknowledged the features of the region that make it an important ingredient for the country’s overall development, such as the high number of English speakers (provided by generations of Afro-Caribbean residents), its location as a gateway to North American and European markets, and its natural resources, which have already proven to be a draw for tourism.
However, many share the feelings of Steve Aronson, former president of leading coffee exporter Café Britt, who says, “the government, in my view, is long on rhetoric but short on support for the Limón area.” A recent initiative by the company to create a tour by train of a cacao plantation near the port for inbound cruise ship passengers was rejected by government officials.
The region of the Caribbean coast most trampled by people seeking real estate deals are the beach communities of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita in the southern part of the province. While the tourism and real estate industries in the rest of the country are suffering, these quiet tourist destinations are seeing more and more traffic.
Manuel Pinto, owner of Caribe Sur Real Estate, says he gives tours to three to four clients a day, and receives eight to 10 e-mails from people interested in homes or land. Whereas most buyers used to be the “hippie crowd,” he’s seeing a shift to a growing Tico market and higher-income clientele.
“There’s been a fear about the Caribbean coast, especially among Costa Ricans from the Central Valley,” Pinto said. “They’ve been scared off by the idea there’s a lot of black people, too many drugs and too much rain. But Costa Ricans are rediscovering the Caribbean.
“They all say that the Pacific has been overdeveloped,” he continued. “What they like about here is that it is still authentic.”
The main difference between the two coasts is that the Pacific beaches have a “grandeur,” which has traditionally attracted the “yuppie crowd,” Pinto said. Pacific properties tend to have more beachfront and breathtaking views.
“We don’t have that ‘wow’ effect here,” Pinto said. “But the nature and the lifestyle is what attract most of our clients.”
Pinto said the risk to investors is the same that they’d find on the Pacific Coast, except for lack of clarity about building regulations. In the past, the local municipality has approved constructions that were later prohibited by central government authorities. Pinto steers his clients away from beach property, he says, as some landowners have been prodded to leave after building too close to the shore. (Costa Rica’s coasts are protected by a no-building buffer zone of 50 meters from the mean high tide.)
More than 50 cruise ships dock in Limón each year, flooding the zone with Hawaiian shirt-wearing, picture-snapping tourists.
For Limón city leaders, the challenge has always been how to keep the dollars these tourists spend within the community. In this, they are up against the well-established tour companies of the Central Valley, which tend to whisk any potential business away to full-day canopy tours and boat trips through the canals of Tortugero, north of the city.
The city’s Limón Port City Project, a $72.5 million makeover, will fund building restoration, improve sanitation, and might encourage other opportunities, but there’s a hunger for more.
The Limón region suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in the country with a 7.9 percent rate in 2009, according to the latest statistics from the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC).
Grettel Buitrago, a manager at Park Hotel, one of only a few more upscale hotels in the city, said there needs to be more done to attract land-based tourists to the city of Limón. The best beaches and national parks are far away, and there is no draw to “el centro.”
“There’s not much offering,” said Buitrago, whose hotel tends to cater to traveling businessmen. “We need to do more to attract the tourists.”
Limonenses are quick to note that 80 percent of the country’s commerce passes through Limón. The thriving shipping industry is evident in the stacks of shipping containers that line the highway leading into the city like pyramids, denoting hidden wealth.
But as with tourism, the money from the booming shipping industry largely bypasses the region. The Atlantic zone has a higher rate of poverty than the rest of the country at 27 percent; the dropout rate in local high schools is topped only by the Pacific cantons of Aguirre and Liberia, and the city ranks dead last out of 81 municipalities in quality of life, according to a cantonal competitiveness report published by the University of Costa Rica.
María Moya, the director at Limón’s Rafael Iglesias Castro primary school, said that lack of opportunity has undermined the city’s educational system.
“Few see the benefit of staying in high school or going to university because there are limited high-skilled jobs available,” said Moya, who not only worries about the 700 students who pass through the school’s doors every day, but also about her three children. “In Limón, unemployment and underemployment is a huge issue.”
She estimates that only 15 percent of high school graduates pursue a university degree at the local campuses of public or private institutions such as the University of Costa Rica, the State University at a Distance (UNED) and Universidad Latina.
Costa Rican trade promoters are negotiating with several companies to invest in a recently established free-trade zone “to create new employment opportunities,” according to the Foreign Trade Ministry. One company, Guanazul JRV, is drawing up plans for an office park with a total investment of $5 million. The minimum investment for companies interested in locating operations within the zone is $100,000 (TT Online, Sept. 29).
“The benefit of investing in a free-trade zone here is that you are minutes from the port,” said Luis Guillermo, who is running for vice mayor of Limón on the Citizen Action Party ticket. “There’s none of this trucking supplies back and forth to the Central Valley.”
The idea of relocating call centers to Limón, with its highly-bilingual population, has also been broached, but apparently not seriously pursued. According to Guillermo, there is one call center in operation.
Former legislator Yalele Esna, who now heads up the local welfare office – IMAS – knows it will take a lot more than the Limón Port City Project to revitalize the area. The region needs greater employment, better coordination and improved security, she said. But no region has greater potential than Limón.
“We are the entrance and exit point of the country … we have the greatest percentage of protected areas … we have the most diversity,” she said, adding that the only thing the region is missing is faith on the part of people from the outside.
“If only more people are willing to invest and to believe, then we can grow,” Esna said, explaining that the first deterrent to investment were the region’s labor troubles, and now, outsiders are turned off because of security issues.
“There is only potential,” she said.
For Leda Villa, it’s something that can’t be put on hold much longer.
“We need to develop the area. We can’t stop,” she said. “There is so much to do.”