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Are Costa Rican Tourism Board numbers inflated?

From the print edition

The Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) may have overestimated the number of tourists who traveled to Costa Rica in 2011 by almost 1 million visitors, according to a report by the Association for the Protection of Tourism (PROTUR).

The report, recently presented before a legislative commission on tourism by PROTUR President and Manuel Antonio hotelier Boris Marchegiani, claims that Costa Rica’s tourism industry is losing competiveness and contests ICT’s cheery statistics in recent years.

 PROTUR isn’t just nitpicking about ICT’s data – the organization wants to change the law governing the development of tourism in Costa Rica to include more representation for regional interests and the small- and medium-business (PYME) sector.

“The law is extremely old,” Marchegiani said in an interview Monday. “It is based on a model from when tourism was worth $4 million a year; now it’s worth $1.7 billion.”


“An in-depth study isn’t necessary for all of us to be very clear on the point that the number of entries into the country is not the same as the number of tourists,” said Rita Chaves, a lawmaker in the Access Without Exclusion Party and a member of the Legislative Assembly’s Tourism Commission.

Statistics released by ICT earlier this year indicate 2.2 million tourists visited Costa Rica in 2011 – a figure that represents a 4 percent increase over 2010 numbers. ICT’s 2010-2016 National Sustainable Tourism Plan has a goal of increasing the number of tourist visits to the country 5 percent annually over 2010 numbers (TT, Dec. 23, 2011).

PROTUR, however, says that 2011 statistics don’t reflect the actual number of tourists who visited Costa Rica that year. The 2.2 million visitor count includes all air, land and sea entries into the country through Costa Rican immigration checkpoints. Of those, approximately 1.4 million arrived in the country by air.  

Ground crossings at border stations accounted for some 27 percent of visits in 2011, or about 594,000, Marchegiani said. Most of those visits aren’t tourists, but people from other countries – predominantly Nicaragua – who come to Costa Rica to work or renew visas every three months, he said. Immigration records show that from June 2010 to May 2011, 659,562 people entered Costa Rica more than once.

Marchegiani wants to know how many actual tourists visit Costa Rica more than once a year. 

At press time the ICT press office had not responded to numerous emails and phone calls seeking comment on its statistics and PROTUR’s criticisms.

PROTUR used a 2011 base number of 2.1 million rather than 2.2 million in its calculations. (The exact number reported by ICT for 2011 is 2,183,815. The Tico Times rounded up to 2.2 million when reporting ICT’s end-of-the-year statistics in December.) PROTUR claims that if the number of people visiting Costa Rica for family, business or other non-tourism reasons is deducted from the 1.4 million air arrivals, the actual number of tourist visits to the country could be less than 1.1 million for 2011.

Based on those calculations, PROTUR questioned more of ICT’s statistics, including the 63 percent average hotel occupancy rate the board reported for 2010. PROTUR suggested that the 2011 average occupancy could be as low as 35 percent.

“If you say to the world that we have 2.1 million tourists,” Marchegiani said, “you build for 2.1 million tourists, which means that when we don’t have 2.1 million tourists, we have all these rooms sitting empty.”


“Things aren’t good right now for PYME,” Marchegiani said. 

Data from Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja) indicate that as of May 2011, 39 percent of businesses in the restaurant and hotel sector were late in paying government-mandated employee insurance policies to the Caja. In some cases, businesses were closed for non-payment.

Numbers from the state-owned Banco Nacional show that from 2008 to 2011, the bank extended 1,144 loans to tourism PYME for a total of 340 projects with 6,593 rooms – an average of 19 rooms per project. Of those projects, 74 percent increased debt by 25.8 percent over a period of three years.

Marchegiani said that Costa Rican small-  and medium-sized businesses, which account for some 80 percent of the hospitality industry, are losing out because ICT’s policies have been designed to attract large-scale investments in geographically specific areas, such as mega-hotels and resorts. 

Large-scale developments, Marchegiani said, generally do a good job of developing their own internal businesses and profits, but that rarely extends to the rest of the surrounding community. 

Chaves agreed, saying it is time for a new model of tourism development in Costa Rica. 

“It should be a more inclusive model that brings together local residents or property owners of [tourist] regions with developers on important issues like security,” Chaves said. “There are many important issues that should be viewed together by locals and developers to be able to truly find long-term solutions for making tourism sustainable.”

In the past, Chaves and Marchegiani noted, Costa Rica’s PYME have driven tourism development, not just in isolated areas for mega-developments, but also across the country. The country’s biodiversity and many unique environmental attractions are spread throughout all of Costa Rica. 

Small- and medium-sized businesses, Marchegiani indicated in his report, are usually owned by Ticos and rely on an interconnecting web of local products and services that benefit entire communities.


“One has to remember, in terms of tourism, we haven’t had any kind of renovation of our law for 57 years. The difference between today and 57 years ago is pretty distinct,” Marchegiani said.

The law Chaves spoke about is the Organic Law of the Costa Rican Tourism Board, No. 1917, which created the ICT in 1955. 

Marchegiani said that today, as in 1955, there is no representation of outside voices in the ICT – the National Tourism Chamber can opine to ICT, but any decision-making power resides in the tourism board.

“What I’m suggesting is a democratization of the tourism industry through a component of mixed public and private enterprises comprised of three segments: the government, representatives of the vertical sector, which is to say hotels and restaurants, and representatives of regional tourism chambers,” he said.

Since 1982, Marchegiani said, ICT policy has been to grant large concessions to big developers in four or five geographically specific areas and spur development there. It is a strategy that worked in those areas, said Marchegiani, but meanwhile in other parts of the country something else was happening.

“The whole rest of the country developed 35 other tourist destinations, mostly through small- and medium-sized businesses built with Tico capital,” Marchegiani said. “Why shouldn’t 80 percent or 90 percent of the tourism industry be represented on the board?”

Chaves said she supports Marchegiani’s proposal to reform ICT – part of which includes the creation of a database generated by tourism businesses in the country to better track industry statistics – but she said the suggestions will need to be considered and thoroughly discussed before any changes are made to the existing law.


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