Costa Rica: tourism or extinction?

 by Mac Williams, Coker University, South Carolina, USA 

Costa Rica, with its national parks, beaches, waterfalls, whitewater rivers, rain forests, and other unique natural areas, is a premiere destination for adventure-seeking tourists. 

Such visitors make an important contribution to the Costa Rican economy – or used to, before COVID-19 decimated the tourism sector, and thereby the economy as a whole. For example, in March 2019, 335,558 foreign visitors landed at Costa Rica’s two major international airports. In March 2020, that dropped to 162,994, and in March 2021 it declined even further to 89,263: a 45.2% decline between 2019 and 2020, and 73.4% from 2019 to 2021. In addition, the approximately 10,000 annual cruise ship visitors fell to around 250 people (total) for the remainder of the year after 1 April 2020. 

With each tourist spending around $1,500 per visit, and tourism accounting for more than 8% of GDP, the crisis has been devastating for the estimated 210,000 people employed directly in the sector and the estimated additional 600,000 indirectly dependent on it. While many of the large nature preserves are owned by either the national government or, in some cases, the local community (e.g. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Preserve in Monteverde), some places have been developed almost exclusively for international tourists using private funds (e.g. La Paz Waterfall Gardens & Peace Lodge). The former, absent profit motives and supported by state and local governments, do not have the same financial pressures. The private sector, however, is reeling. 

The crisis has become so bad that on 29 April 2021 Costa Rica’s most influential newspaper, La Nación, published an editorial entitled “Tourism: On a Path to Extinction”. The article called on the country’s leaders to come up with a plan to save companies involved in tourism. Earlier that same month, in an attempt to attract new kinds of sustainable tourism, the national Congress passed a law that allows foreign-flagged luxury boats (and their foreign crews) to work in Costa Rica, thereby hoping to attract wealthy visitors to rent yachts in the country’s marinas. 

Costa Rica’s medical care system is universal. In order safely to reopen to tourists, and not have foreign visitors overtaxing the system during the COVID crisis, in October 2020 the government began requiring every international visitor to demonstrate a negative COVID test conducted within 48 hours of their departure flight. They were also obliged to hold an insurance policy that would pay for $50,000 in COVID-related medical expenses, including any required hotel quaran-tine during their stay. 

Every two weeks the Costa Rican government publishes a list of countries whose nationals are allowed entry, or will be after a certain date. Foreign visitors are not required to quarantine. If you have the required insurance, proof of a negative COVID-19 test, and a passport from a coun-try that does not require a visa to enter, you can buy a ticket to Costa Rica today. (Though Brits beware: on 3 June 2021 Costa Rica was moved on to the UK ‘red’ list.) 

Costa Rica has authorized the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, but at the time of writing they are currently only available to citizens and residents of certain age categories, and not to tourists.

For some people, heading to Costa Rica is not a vacation, but a hope for a better, safer life. Many Americans and Canadians have moved there after retirement, with a large influx starting in the town of Escazú in the late 1980s due to low health-care, housing, food, and labour costs. Costa Ricans are hoping that medical tourism will soon resume: prescription medication, dental work, plastic surgery and other procedures that can cost 60-70% less than in the United States used to draw around 70,000 patients to the country each year. 

Those from developing countries are not the only arrivals. Costa Rica has a reputation for welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, and over 9% of the entire population is foreign-born. Political and economic upheavals have prompted the Costa Rican government to create a special class of visas for citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua who applied for asylum in Costa Rica and were hitherto denied. The political and economic situations in these countries have prompted a national outpouring of fraternity. The new visa gives them the right to live and work in Costa Rica for two years. 

Costa Rica used to be an almost exclusively agricultural export economy. As the economy diversifies into other sectors like electronic manufacturing, telecommunications, tourism, and a more service-oriented economy, older Costa Ricans who own land that they used to farm are having to accept that that land is not likely to be worked by their children. Young Costa Ricans are educated and moving to the larger cities in the Central Valley for better-paying jobs, with rural areas facing depopulation. As a result of this social trend, some older Costa Ricans are placing their land into ecological conservation easements with the government or non-governmental organizations (NGO) that are not-for-profit entities. This allows them to still own the land, to leave it to their heirs, and even develop it in line with ecotourism laws and guidelines. Thus, the land is protected perpetually, but the land-owners can still retain its value while protecting it permanently from destructive kinds of development. 

The commitment to protecting the environment for future generations is part of the national ethos, and has been ever since the country began shifting toward conservationist policies in the late 1960s. In spite of the shock that COVID-19 has given the tourist industry, there seems to be little interest in attempting to change the country’s focus on ecotourism. Reading the comments section of almost any newspaper article or social media posts by officials or celebrities will show that Costa Ricans, by and large, are hopeful for the return of tourists, for the preservation of their natural resources, and the resulting economic boost that those things will bring. Costa Rica’s President has even said in an official Facebook post that Costa Rica misses the tourists and “they miss us.” Costa Rica could emerge from this crisis as an even more attractive destination for tourists who have been cooped up for over a year. If, on the other hand, the reaction is too cautious, a wave of bankruptcies could constrict the options available to tourists, weakening the country’s appeal and dimming the prospects for economic recovery. 

Nevertheless, Costa Ricans are hopeful for the future. As someone who spends far too much time outdoors, looking at birds and nature, I thoroughly recommend Costa Rica as a place for you to do likewise. 

Mac Williams is Professor of Spanish at Coker University in Hartsville, South Carolina, U.S.A. He has lived around three years of his life in Costa Rica and considers it his segunda patria. He is an alumnus of Georgia Tech, BYU, and Tulane universities, has been married for twenty-three years, has three children.