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US travel warnings could be boon to Costa Rica tourism, experts say

November 25, 2015

A group of six armed gunmen took three hostages in the French town of Roubaix Tuesday in the latest incident to rock that country following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people. Although French authorities blamed the kidnapping on “bandits,” not terrorists, continuing fear over possible global targets prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a worldwide travel alert for U.S. citizens on Monday.

The global travel warning comes as Costa Rica and many other countries are gearing up for their most important travel season. The circumstances are tragic, but Costa Rica’s tourism industry may actually end up benefitting as other countries reel from violence leading up to this holiday season and new direct flights open between the continent and Costa Rica.

Stephen Smith, a professor of tourism at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, told The Tico Times that the tourism industry is surprisingly resilient but fickle. “Attacks don’t stop travel, they change the destination,” he said.

Smith noted the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people. “That travel didn’t disappear. It went to Thailand,” he said.

In the case of Costa Rica, Smith said that European or British tourists who might have chosen a beach destination like the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – where a Russian passenger plane was downed by a suspected bomb on board – might look instead at destinations like Costa Rica.

Smith said the effects of travel warnings are subtle and they tend not to have as great an impact as press coverage, social media or word of mouth when it comes to influencing someone’s travel plans. So far there have not been any major cancelations because of the travel warning here, according to National Tourism Chamber President Pablo Abarca. He said their surveys haven’t shown any significant changes – good or bad – following the travel alerts.

Instead, Abarca said that tensions abroad could be an opportunity for travelers to get to know Costa Rica. Costa Rican tourism leaders said the Central American country of 4.8 million has long enjoyed a reputation as a relatively safe destination for travelers. That good name might help attract more tourists from the continent at a time when European travel to Costa Rica has already been on the rise.

Alberto López, general manager of the Costa Rican Tourism Board, or ICT, said that U.S. travelers are the single most important nationality for Costa Rican tourism, but European travelers are the fastest growing demographic. According to 2014 figures from ICT, 936,929 U.S. tourists came to Costa Rica last year, but the number of tourists visiting from the U.K., France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands was up 20 percent from 237,340 in 2013 to 284, 511 in 2014.

British airline Thompson Airways started weekly direct flights from London to Liberia, Guanacaste, this month, and British Airways will offer nonstop flights between Gatwick Airport in London and Juan Santamaría International Airport in Costa Rica starting in May 2016. With these new routes opening up along with existing Iberia flights from Madrid, more Europeans are likely already on the way.

Abarca said that Costa Rica is looking to have a strong high season with some parts of the country reporting 90+ percent occupancy.

Said Abarca: “The next three months look very good.”

With reporting from AFP.

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