If you’re looking for vacation inspiration for that first post-lockdown getaway, look no further than Costa Rica. This nature haven and one of the most biodiverse places on earth, is the perfect place for those craving the great outdoors and natural space from others.
But is Costa Rica ready to welcome back visitors to its eco-rich shores? We caught up with the countries Minister for Tourism, Gustavo Segura Sancho, to ask those all important questions…
Please can you briefly introduce yourself for our readers
My name is Gustavo Segura Sancho and I am the Minister of Tourism for Costa Rica, as well as an economist and business administrator with over 20 years of CEO- level experience in the tourism and hospitality industry. I was appointed Minister of Tourism in July 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has the pandemic impacted tourism in Costa Rica?
COVID-19 has severely impacted Costa Rica’s tourism-dependent economy. Our tourism industry saw 2 million fewer international visitors in 2020 than the year before.
In 2019, Costa Rica received 3,139,008 international visitors through all modes of entry, of which 1,666,571 were from North America, while in 2020, Costa Rica received 1,011,912 international visitors, of which 571,010 were from North America.
Given Costa Rica’s workforce of more than 211,000 people directly employed in tourism and an infrastructure designed to handle more than three million international visitors per year before the pandemic, this 70% drop in demand brings us back to visitation figures from the 1998s. According to data revealed by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 4.5% in 2020, being tourism the most affected economic activity, with a drop of 40.7% in hotels and restaurants.
How have local businesses and suppliers been impacted by the pandemic, and the loss of tourism?
Costa Rica’s tourism industry provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and is essential to the country’s economic growth and development. Approximately 80% of tourism in Costa Rica comes from small businesses. During the pandemic, locals have struggled to keep their businesses afloat or have had to shut down. However, tourism businesses have not wasted any time; many have worked to strengthen and establish new health and safety policies, and have implemented trainings for employees.
The Costa Rican Tourism Institute has worked closely with the government to find relief and bailout solutions for businesses in financial difficulties. A bill to create a National Guarantee Fund to support pandemic affected debtors with capital provided by a loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration is the most important initiative. The Fund is a key instrument to reactivate credit, protect employment and save businesses. It would reduce the perceived credit risk of banks in order to facilitate lending to businesses and individuals with productive activities, at better interest rates and terms.
This month the government announced 20 new measures for the relief and reactivation of the tourism sector, including loans for rural communities, investments in tourism infrastructure, boosting national tourism, and more.
Our next steps include creating a new figure to grant one-year visas for international citizens to work remotely from Costa Rica. In addition, we look forward to a bill that would promote the production of series from around the world, among other audiovisual products in Costa Rica, attracting foreign investment, generating jobs and impacting the tourism sector as part of its objectives.
How has Costa Rica handled the pandemic overall, and what is the current state of the pandemic in Costa Rica?
Our government has taken the coronavirus very seriously and reacted quickly to the pandemic from the beginning. We were able to delay community transmission of COVID-19 during the first four months, time in which we prepared our tourism industry for the reopening.
When Costa Rica’s borders closed to international tourists on March 18, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute with the support of the private sector worked together to create a phased reopening plan, with the goal of slowly recovering the tourism industry, and thus the economy, while maintaining the safety of citizens and visitors.
Upon learning about the virus, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute advised its public and private tourism partners to allow for more flexible change and cancellation policies, to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 between individuals and within the destination. The Costa Rica Tourism Institute, with the support of the private sector, also designed a set of 16 protocols to ensure the safety of both national and international tourists. The protocols, which were authorized by the Ministry of Health, outline specific processes and guidelines for tour operators, cruises, airlines, hotels and other tourism companies.
Throughout the crisis, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute has hosted over 120 employee trainings surrounding the 16 protocols, as well as the state of the industry and various tourism attractions, among other topics. The trainings have brought hope to and instilled confidence in our employees.
There is currently a 50 per cent reduction in the number of covid-19 cases compared to the first week of December. Due to the decrease in the number of people hospitalised for covid-19, the number of beds for this disease will be gradually reduced. In addition, the country is making steady progress in vaccinating its population.
How reliant is Costa Rica on tourism as part of the country’s wider economy?
Tourism makes up 8.2% percent of Costa Rica’s GDP. In 2018, the tourism sector generated 211,000 direct jobs, which is 8.8% of employment in the country. Costa Rica’s tourism industry is essential to the country’s economic growth and development.
When did tourism begin to return to Costa Rica?
The phased reactivation of the tourism industry in Costa Rica for international visitors started on August the 1st 2020, with the reopening of commercial flights from the European Union. Three months later, on the 1st of November, both the air and sea borders were opened to all countries. While in August Costa Rica saw 1,636 visitors by air, by December the country had grown to 71,000 visitors by air.
Although the number of visitors is far from what we are used to, each tourist brings us closer to the long-awaited recovery of the tourism industry, crucial to the national economy.
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Why do you think Costa Rica is seeing this rebound in tourism?
Costa Rica has maintained one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in Latin America, and has been successful in managing and containing the virus, thanks to the government’s quick actions to address the crisis, and a free and universal healthcare, which was established over 80 years ago and covers 95% of the population. Also, we are mindful of making it easier for tourists to visit in times of pandemic and to meet the requirements for their return to their country of origin at the end of their trip. We have more than 120 laboratories available throughout the country for RT-PCR and antigen testing for tourists.
Lastly, many of Costa Rica’s tourism attractions are found in nature, allowing for travellers to experience a safe and naturally physically-distanced vacation.
What is it about Costa Rica that is currently so appealing for US travellers?
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The country is home to more than 6% of the world’s known biodiversity and more than 27 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Most of our country’s tourism offerings are found in nature, which makes a physically distant and enjoyable experience in the country possible. Costa Rica is also known as a global leader in conservation and has a sustainable tourism model, which is appealing to the US traveller that seeks to minimize their impact on climate change and the environment. Just recently Costa Rica’s National Forest Financing Fund (Fonafifo) with the support of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, launched a carbon footprint calculator, the first of its kind, which encourages tourists to offset their emissions from air and land travel.
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What experiences in Costa Rica do you think visitors will most enjoy when they visit the country, after a year of being stuck at home?
After a year of being indoors, visitors will enjoy Costa Rica’s rainforests, volcanoes, beaches, mountains and anywhere they can breathe “aire puro,” or fresh air.
Our country boasts unlimited opportunities for adventure and so many nature and wildlife experiences that make physical distancing easy. Whether visitors are looking to be active or relax, Costa Rica has something for everyone.
I would advise travellers to explore Costa Rica’s nature activities and to consider traveling to more remote and secluded areas of the country that received less tourism pre-pandemic. This will not only aid local economies, but it will provide travellers with one-of-a-kind experiences and will allow them to reconnect with themselves and their travel companions.
Are locals and suppliers looking forward to welcoming tourists back to Costa Rica?
Costa Rica’s locals and suppliers are readily prepared and excited to welcome tourists back to the country and share our “pura vida” lifestyle, when they are ready.
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Anything else you would like to add?
Costa Rica holds the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Safe Travel Stamp, which recognizes governments and businesses who have adopted the WTTC’s health and hygiene protocols, backed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).