EXPOTUR 2011: Costa Rica Aims to Bolster Tourism

Having rebounded from a drop in tourism during the financial crisis, Costa Rica is aiming to increase the number of international visitors that it welcomes by five percent a year through 2016. Speaking at EXPOTUR 2011, held May 11-12 in San José for the twenty-seventh consecutive year, Allan Flores, Costa Rica’s tourism minister, said the Central American nation will continue to invest in infrastructure to bolster international tourism from its current level of 2.1 million annual visitors to 2.7 million over the next five years.

Part of that investment includes a new $30 million convention center in Barreal de Heredia, near San José, announced by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla at the opening ceremony of EXPOTUR, which attracted 300 sellers and 200 buyers. Due for completion in 2014, the center will host 3,000 people.

“We have a clear vision of what we want,” Flores told Travel World News, which is to continue to emphasize sustainable eco-, rural, and adventure tourism, while promoting its growing medical tourism product and encouraging cultural visits.

The strategy builds on what turned out to be a shrewd move by the ministry, before the recent recession took hold, to more than double its promotional budget to keep Costa Rica in the forefront in world tourism. During the first quarter of 2011, international arrivals in Costa Rica grew by 7.8%, compared to last year, faster than the 5% increase that the Americas as a whole posted for the same period.

Among those attending EXPOTUR who recently discovered Costa Rica, were CiCi Baker, principal with Sierra Event Company in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Robert Harris, of Team USA, based near Boston. Baker, whose company does $10 million a year servicing what she described as “a demanding clientele,” said she decided to attend EXPOTUR this year after visiting Costa Rica on her own 12 months ago: “I found Costa Rica to be a fantastic destination, offering exceptional products and a high service level. The people are very appreciative of tourists, not jaded, and eager to work with the U.S. market.”

Speaking of his second visit to EXPOTUR, Harris, who manages 30–40 international cultural and athletic exchanges each year, said, “It’s an excellent show where I can meet new people and learn about new hotels and options, including community service and volunteer activities.”

To help promote the country in North America, the Costa Rica Tourist Board earlier this year signed up an Atlanta-based advertising agency, the first time it has hired a firm located in its largest tourism market.

To ensure the health of its natural offerings, the country in the late 1970s set aside 25 percent of its land for conservation, inventing ecotourism in the process. Since then, sustainability has been the operative word behind tourism development in Costa Rica.

Example: The Tourist Board has developed and continues to roll out its Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program as a way to differentiate itself from other destinations.

Cited by the World Tourism Organization as one of the programs that is changing tourism, CST specifies criteria that a property or operation must meet in order to receive the coveted designation. The program rates sustainability on a five-point scale, with higher ratings yielding increasingly greater benefits to participants. Today, 154 hotels in Costa Rica are CST designated.

Earlier this year, Costa Rica, which co-leads the newly formed U.N. Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism, hosted the partnership’s first annual meeting to help governments and businesses everywhere make tourism more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.

Medical tourism in Costa Rica got a boost in 2006 with the formation of PROMED, a public-private effort that sets standards and certifies service providers. The country now welcomes more than 35,000 people annually who seek inexpensive, high quality medical treatment, mostly dental, plastic surgery, and orthopedic services. Ninety-five percent of them hail from the U.S. and Canada and have been driving annual growth in this segment by 15% to 20% during the last five years.

Looking to diversify its tourist product, Costa Rica’s new strategic plan calls for more emphasis on cultural tourism. While the country does not possess the Mayan ruins of Guatemala and Honduras, it offers 30 museums, including five in San José, which Flores said “can compete with high quality museums in Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere,” as well as excavations of the Boruca people.

Costa Rica is served by direct flights from 16 U.S. and Canadian cities, with San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport being the main entry point for North Americans. For those staying in San José, the four-star, CST-certified Balmoral Hotel, which recently completed a major renovation, offers 112 rooms with complimentary breakfast and is located downtown near museums and the National Theatre.

EXPOTUR, www.expotur.com; Costa Rica Tourism, www.visitcostarica.com

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