As the world looks at 2021 and the beginning of a post-COVID future, Costa Rican Vacations CEO Casey Halloran looks at how Costa Rica’s travel industry can pull itself out of the ashes and become true leaders in the next decade.
No matter which way you look at it, the old way of doing tourism is dead, at least for the time being. There might be a time, next year, post-COVID when we’re all vaccinated, that we’ll all travel again. We’ll all get back onto the merry-go-round of two one-week vacations a year to somewhere hot and sunny.
That’s fine if that happens. I’d love to see people traveling and enjoying themselves again, contributing to developing economies like ours in Costa Rica. But the pandemic has also forced the travel industry all over the world to take a look at itself and reinvent. Here in Costa Rica, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There are some things in Costa Rican tourism that could come out of this situation well and place us in a situation to secure travel leadership in the region and further afield over the next decade. Let’s take a look at some of them.
This is trending globally and is something I believe people want to reconnect with post-COVID. Costa Rica also needs to create NEW destinations to avoid over-tourism of those that already exist. Like Italy and other parts of Europe, we could create incentives to rural and agro-communities to operate guest houses. This will allow travelers an opportunity to know the off-path, “real” Costa Rica.
One great example of this in Costa Rica already is the Santa Juana Lodge outside of Quepos.
Owned and operated by the local community of Santa Juana, this hotel has turned around a community which once had zero jobs and a decreasing population.
The Envision Festival is just one example of event-based tourism that has been an enormous success in Costa Rica. Many readers have likely not even heard of it, as it caters to a very specific crowd. There’s no reason why this type of event, albeit on a smaller scale, cannot be replicated across the country.
I believe the focus should be on less-touristy destinations and primarily occurring during the low season (May-Nov). This will help generate tourism in areas that need it, when they need it most.
Spain is the perfect model, with a myriad of hyper-local festivals based on everything from tradition, culture, and food, to history, sporting events and the arts. All we need is a little organization, some investment from the Ministry of Culture and other nonprofits, and away we go.
A Tourism Cooperative
If the crisis proved nothing more, it’s that the tourism industry is woefully disorganized.
An agricultural-type cooperative or some type of guarantee fund is necessary to build a reserve of funds necessary to weather the next blight. If such a system had been in place, the cooperative could have served a role that banks and other financial institutions did not. A cooperative might also grant the industry a political voice loud enough to be heard by policy makers.
Double Down on Sustainable
Off grid, low impact, sustainable lodges are difficult to operate at a profit. That makes them exceedingly rare and something that a niche of upscale travelers are willing to pay a premium to experience.
We need incentives to promote the construction and retrofitting of more properties so that Costa Rica deepens its hard-won position as an ecotourism leader, versus slowly diluting it toward the mainstream, “big box” resort varieties.
Again, this is something Costa Rica has been doing well pre-COVID. I look at companies like the Cayuga Collection as a perfect model for what Costa Rica should double down on.
Becoming a Center for Short-Term Remote Working Travelers
COVID-19 not only changed international travel, it also changed the way we work. There’s a big chance that many of old workplace practices we took for granted won’t ever come back. Goodbye commuting, goodbye office, goodbye sitting in meetings. The new normal is working from home.
But if you’re working from home, you can work from anywhere. A lot of countries are taking advantage of this to attract remote workers to their shores. The idea is to boost the economy while not affecting local job markets.
Costa Rica is on the brink of passing legislation to attract remote workers, but like other countries, it’s focusing on those coming for a year or so. This is welcome legislation, of course. If it passes, it will provide a welcome boost for Costa Rica.
I’d like to see something else, though. I’d like to see the tourist industry take control of its own destiny by offering deals for longer stays, and incentives for people to work out of hotels and rental homes. This could attract the type of traveler who doesn’t want to move to Costa Rica for months at a time, but rather wants a longer vacation, say three or four weeks instead of a week or two.
Hotels can take a leaf out of the books of hostels, who’ve been catering to this type of traveler for years. Let’s see more hotels refurb their properties to make them attractive for a few weeks stay rather than a few nights.
Some hotels like Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo have already jumped onto this concept and I believe it will work out well for them long after COVID is a bad memory.
If Costa Rica grabbed these ideas and ran with them, it could cement its already solid reputation as a healthy, peaceful, sustainable destination people want to visit.
All we need is enough of us in the industry to get our heads together and think outside the box.
I look forward to the next chapter in Costa Rican tourism and feel confident that by sticking together, our industry can be true leaders in the region and around the world.
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.