Q EXPAT FOCUS – Most of us “know” about much of the world through impressions gained from others. Today, the reputation of a country spreads like wildfire via social media.
Those of us who have lived in Costa Rica for some years may have very different perceptions from those who have never been. What do those who have not visited Costa Rica “know” about our home? To answer this question, I decided to ask anyone I met during a long trip to Europe about their images of Costa Rica, and how they formed them. I spoke to people from eight European countries as well as a sprinkling of visiting North Americans.
Costa Rica’s population and area are tiny, relative to the world as a whole, so unsurprisingly many, and maybe even most, have never heard of the place. “I’m thinking it’s a Carribean Island.” “Near Cuba?” “Is it in Mexico?” “Sounds like the coast of Spain” and “No Idea” were common answers. Any random selection of those in a street or bar is unlikely to yield anyone who has ever been to Costa Rica, and they may never visit. (I admit to sample bias, in that much of my research is done in bars).
Those aware of Costa Rica may receive input from many potential sources. In Europe, public relations and advertising by the major airlines flying there promote an exciting vacation image. Cruise lines, hotel chains and package tour operators add their messages.
Collectively, the international tourist industry offers a mixture of wonderful beaches, adventure pursuits and accessible ecology. The collective promise is, ‘Whatever paradise you seek is here.’ Now that more tourists are making the long flights from Europe, those returning share their experiences with friends.
TV shows that allow viewers to vicariously enjoy property buying in winter-sun locations like Costa Rica are very popular. The producers fly in a couple and show them various dwellings in the country and a little of the local life and culture. Costa Rica has been featured in a few of these.
Those interested in nature, often become aware of the diverse ecology here through coverage in specialist media, such as National Geographic. There is a new government initiative to promote bird watching to tourists. Part of the propaganda ensures that they learn something of government attempts to protect animals and the environment.
European bars are common places to observe soccer culture, so it is no surprise that Costa Rica’s World Cup exploits raised awareness. “Oh, they did well in the world cup.” “Some great players have come to Europe. Is Suarez from there?” Well, no, actually.
Sometimes, Costa Rica features in the world’s news media, if not prominently. Stories covered include any deaths of US or foreign nationals, comments on the war on drugs; the almost unique lack of an army and the administration’s attempts to promote trade, peace and human rights in international conferences. So what impressions do people have? Some seem strange to those of us who are residents. The overall image is positive:
“The weather is always perfect.”
“The government is so green and wild-life friendly.” (No mention of shark-finning, bull- baiting or illegal mining, logging and hunting.)
“It’s very peaceful and safe. There’s no army.”
“We were told it was very expensive compared to closer places.”
“Our friends were robbed at gunpoint.”
“I heard it’s the gay and sex center of Latin America.”
“The roads sound a bit difficult.”
“Maybe I’ll go someday, but it’s a twelve-hour flight.”
“Many people seem to be moving there” “Moving must be easy.”
“Wasn’t there a guy whose property was stolen by his lawyers?”
“House purchasing must be incredibly simple. I watched House-hunters International”
“It seems to be the most ecologically friendly place on earth, with incredible diversity.”
Perception may not always be reality. Maybe some will be motivated to come and find out for themselves that though a wonderfully interesting place to live, there is no paradise on earth.