QCOSTARICA – Will the current wave of covid-19 infections cost Costa Rica’s recovery of its already battered tourism?
Will the wave of infections and scarcity of hospital beds due to an oversaturation of medical services be met with tourist hesitancy as the spread of the pandemic intensifies, and likely to suffer through a second year of low visits?
Costa Rica is well known for its green escapes, its beaches, resorts, and easy access from the United States, where there seems to be light at the end of their covid tunnel.
Costa Rica’s tourism and travel sector expected increasingly vaccinated travelers from top markets in North American and Europe to inject an urgently needed infusion of cash for the industry after record-low visits last year.
But that does not seem likely anymore.
In the past two weeks, from April 22 to May 5, the country has accumulated 27,037 new cases in 14 days – a daily average of 1,934 – that is almost five times the daily average in the last couple of months.
Costa Rica’s infection rate last week surpassed even tragedy-struck India and Brazil, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“We’re anticipating a much worse year than 2020,” said Shirley Calvo, head of the tourism business chamber, told Reuters. “If there’s no government aid, we will have a cemetery of companies by the end of this year,” she added.
Costa Rica’s tourism sector in pre-pandemic 2019 was estimated at about 8.5% of country’s Gross Domestic Product (GSP).
The forecast for this year is less than 800,000 tourists visiting Costa Rica, about 20% less than in 2020, a year that saw only one-third of the tourist arrivals in 2019.
The 2020 numbers indicate about 1 million tourist arrivals for the year, the majority of those arriving in January, February and to the middle of March when the country closed it borders to all tourists.
In August, there was a gradual reopening of borders to tourists, but it wasn’t until November 1 when all tourists were welcome again.
During the first three months of this year, which is typically high season, visits were down a whopping 76% compared to the same period last year as lockdown-weary travelers with money to spend resisted the urge to vacation among the country’s vibrant wildlife and pristine beaches.
The minister of Tourism, Gustavo Segura, acknowledges a worsening scenario.
“We trust we’ll be able to control the situation for our population soon, but we can’t deny that some people will decide to postpone visits,” he told Reuters, though he stressed he did not have official figures on cancellations.
He argued the country’s famed eco-tourism naturally promotes outdoor social distancing and pitched the travel sector’s high standards for hygiene.
To bolster his point, the minister pointed to official data for the first four months of the year showing that less than 1% of tourists tested positive for COVID-19 as they exited the country.
Even so, the U.S. government issued a new travel warning for Costa Rica on April 20, citing a “very high level” of infections.
According to the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) – Tourism Board – March was the month with the highest visitation since the borders reopened, the country receiving 89,263 tourists entering by all routes (air, sea and land), making it the best figure for a year when the pandemic began and the borders were closed for almost five months.
According to data from the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería (DGME) – Costa Rica’s immigration service – 66,505 tourists (74.5%) arrived in March from North America: 62,370 from the United States, 2,706 from Mexico and 1,429 from Canada.
There were also 14,183 tourists from Europe, 3,382 from Central America, 3,881 from South America and 284 from the Caribbean. The rest from various other countries.
Arriving by air is the highest of entries, the majority by way of the Juan Santamaría International (San Jose) Airport.
But that was before the sharp increase in new cases and hospitalizations for covid-19 patients beyond the capacity of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), led to new restrictions on mobility and business activities.
At first, the vehicle restrictions applied only to weekends, alternating between odd and even plates countrywide, the quickly expanded to include weekday restrictions for the majority of the cantons in the four provinces in the Central Valley (San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago) where the majority of the new cases originate and the closure of non-essential businesses for the week between May 3 and May 9.
But at the same time exempting hotels, beaches, resorts as well as most national parks in the hopes of enticing reluctant travelers.
But several major tourism operators say that there have been cancellations, from individuals to groups, while others are postponing their travel to Costa Rica in the short term.