QCOSTARICA – There’s no doubt that global tourism has been affected deeply by the current COVID pandemic. Outside of the entertainment industry, no other sector has taken a bigger kick in the teeth in 2020.
Costa Rica is no exception. On March 19, 2020, Costa Rica closed its borders and ports of entry to all except for returning citizens and residents. In one fell swoop, Costa Rica shut down its most important industry sector and biggest money maker.
Tourism accounts for almost 10% of Costa Rica’s GDP and, both directly and indirectly, some 20% of jobs. That’s one in five jobs. It’s no coincidence that after Costa Rica closed the borders, unemployment hit its highest peak in history.
While tourism is important for many countries, for Costa Rica it’s vital.
Costa Rica finally began opening up to tourists in August, on a country-by-country basis. As of November 1, the country is open again to tourists from all over the world.
But now it’s a different world Costa Rica is open to. In this “new normal”, things have changed and tourism will change. People have different travel priorities now. Travel is something we’re not taking for granted anymore like we used to, pre-COVID. We’ve seen how travel can just, suddenly… stop.
So in a country reliant on tourism like Costa Rica, does that mean a readjustment of how to manage the sector? What does Costa Rica have to do to stay relevant as a tourist destination during this pandemic and beyond? What’s the future of Costa Rican tourism? Does Costa Rican tourism have a future?
The easy answer to that last question is yes, Costa Rican tourism has a great future.
Costa Rica is one of those countries perfectly-placed, in tourism terms, to withstand the pandemic.
Think of it this way. Few countries have marketed themselves as a natural, healthy, wellness-focused destination as well as Costa Rica. And that was pre-COVID. Costa Rica doesn’t need to reinvent itself to attract people who’ll want to heal and relax somewhere post-pandemic. It just needs to remind them it’s still here.
Social distancing is easy in Costa Rica’s small, boutique hotels surrounded by nature. The existing structure of small scale, laid back tourism is the perfect foil for a stressed-out and jittery world that staggers, blinking, into the sunlight after COVID.
But it’s not going to be easy, either.
Costa Rica still needs to do a better job at communicating all this to the world, according to Meni Minowski, owner of the Tabacon Resort in Arenal.
Speaking to centralamerica.com in October, Minowski said, “When you read expert analysis on post-pandemic tourism, you have to believe Costa Rica’s in a real good position to come out of this. People don’t want crowds at all, they want space and nature. A place of healing.
“Costa Rica with its small hotels in nature with fresh air are perfect for post-pandemic travel. The only question is can we communicate that well enough to potential tourists?”
Richard Bexon believes that beyond the sense of healing and nature that Costa Rica exudes, a new type of tourist will come.
A tourist that will stay longer and perhaps combine their vacation with some work.
“I expect to see travelers travel for longer periods of time. I think that part of the pent-up demand and stress from a year of lockdown will be a desire to linger longer, to relive the youthful exuberance of backpacking abroad,” says Bexon, COO of Costa Rican Vacations, a San Jose-based online travel agency.
He’s not the only one thinking like this. As many other countries around the world compete to attract remote workers in the new work-from-home era caused by the pandemic, tourism insiders in Costa Rica are pushing hard to do the same.
Colin Brownlee of the Hotel Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo is one of them. His hotel is one of the first in Costa Rica to actively market “remote worker” packages for clients to come for 30-nights at a time.
“These packages are selling,” says Brownlee. “People are definitely open to this type of travel right now, and I expect it to continue. I’d love to see some official government legislation pass to attract more remote workers to Costa Rica like they’re doing in Barbados and elsewhere.”
Despite experimenting with a new, longer-stay type of tourism and doubling down on Costa Rica’s already-existing boutique-stay-in-nature model, it’s still going to take a while to get back to 2019 levels.
Jim Damalas from Greentique Hotels is realistic about this. The owner of hotel Si Como No in Manuel Antonio and Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel in San Ramon thinks it’ll take at least three years to get back to where Costa Rica used to be.
“Based on the data we’re seeing, 2021 will be 30-40% of 2019. We’re extrapolating 2022 to be 50-60%, 2023 to be 70-80%, with 2024 returning to 2019 numbers,” he says.
Costa Rican tourism has been rocked by the pandemic and is still in big trouble. There’s still a long way to go.
Opening up the country to all in November was a huge positive step, but the mandatory insurance is still prohibitive to many.
And, as COVID-19 intensifies in the North American and European winter, there’s still a chance further lockdowns abroad might nix this high season altogether.
But outside of events Costa Rica can’t control, the country has everything it needs to attract people as the pandemic starts to wane in 2021.
To summarize, the future of Costa Rica tourism looks great in the long term as long as people see this country as a place of healing and peace. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
Casey Halloran is the co-founder of the Namu Travel Group, an agency specializing in vacations to Central America. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to Costa Rica in 1998.