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Total paralysis: Costa Rica, a country reliant on tourism, prepares for nearly a month without tourists

March 17, 2020

For 25 days, Costa Rica will close its doors to international tourism.

As part of Costa Rica’s declaration of a State of Emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, it will not allow foreigners or non-residents to enter the country from 11:59 p.m. Wednesday through the same time on Sunday, April 12.

The decree, paired with a strong recommendation that citizens stay home and avoid non-essential travel, means Costa Rica has effectively shuttered one of its biggest industries: tourism.

“Today is a complex day for the tourism sector. We know it,” said María Amalia Revelo, Costa Rica’s Tourism Minister, during Monday afternoon’s announcement.

Rubén Acón, president of the National Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR), was more direct: “Zero income, total cancellation. Tourism is paralyzed.”

The travel restrictions will have innumerable impacts on Costa Rica’s economy.

Tourism is one of the country’s principal economic drivers, directly or indirectly contributing to 8.2% of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product (GDP) and creating 9% of the nation’s jobs, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT).

In 2019, March was the second-busiest month for international tourism with more than 335,000 arrivals. More than 260,000 people visited Costa Rica in April 2019.

“We’re in a moment when we’re losing the high season,” Acón said. “It could be a loss of $600 million a month. Put simply, we slammed the brakes on tourist activity.”

According to ICT, foreign visitors spend an average of $1,400 during their stay in the country. The typical tourist remains in Costa Rica for about 12 days.

The downturn due to COVID-19 has been swift and far-reaching. In San José, taxi drivers reported queuing for two hours before finding a rider. Poás Volcano National Park, which requires pre-booking tours, has just seven visitors scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Nearby La Paz Waterfall Gardens has welcomed significantly smaller crowds all week.

And the panorama will almost certainly deteriorate further once the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday night.

“The tourism sector, during that period, will have zero income,” Acón said. “And here’s the worry: If a business has no income, how do you get by? How do you pay debts, pay salaries, pay into social security, pay water, keep the lights on? How do you manage when someone shuts the tap?”

CANATUR met Tuesday morning with ICT and the Labor Ministry at Casa Presidencial to discuss the tourism outlook. According to Acón, government agencies were receptive and eager to help, but the meeting “didn’t come up with a magic formula.”

“This is the reality: We don’t have a solution,” Acón said. “Zero income, how do you handle it? The solution can’t be from the business-owners alone.

“We need creative, innovative, aggressive — and maybe even a little crazy — measures. Because right now, we don’t have a solution.”

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