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Costa Rica Shines

October 2, 2006 By: Travel Agent Central Contributor Travel Agent

is a tourism success story and a model
of level-headed development. Neighboring countries are loath to come right out
and admit it, but they study Costa
's accomplishments as they plan their
own tourism initiatives. Costa
's primary appeal is its natural beauty
and attractions, although this very appeal could be threatened if full-tilt
development becomes the order of the day.

"The main challenge facing Costa
tourism is to become a sustainable industry,"
says Ricardo Benavides, Costa
's minister of tourism. "This means
protecting our natural resources while still being a profitable industry that
brings opportunities to our people."

He says tourism initiatives will be country wide, focusing
on the destination's multifaceted appeal, promoting its bird watching, rafting,
fishing, scuba diving, culture and music. In 2005, Costa
received 1.7 million visitors; 633,640 of those were
from the U.S.

The patio area of the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica

One of Costa
's shortcomings is its road system. What
may look to be a 30-minute jaunt on a map can be in reality a six-hour journey.
"Instead of the government being in charge of the roads, we are
implementing a new sub-contracting system," says Benavides. "The main
roads are planned to be re-covered or redone depending on their actual stage of
damage." Benavides adds that the country will also initiate improvements
to both airports, the International Juan Santamaría Airport in the Central Valley and the International Daniel Oduber Quiros Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste.

When asked if there was sufficient airlift to Costa Rica,
Benavides answers with a resounding, "No, not enough! We are having
conversations with main air carriers to increase frequency, as well as to
introduce new flights and new routes to increase the capacity of airlift to Costa Rica."
Benavides also notes that improving the infrastructure at the Juan Santamaría International Airport
in San José is
key to attracting more flights.

Benavides will devote additional dollars to promote the
country in the U.S. Part of this plan includes shifting the 3 percent hotel tax
visitors pay to a $15 tax included in the airline ticket. The taxes will be
approximately the same amount as those previously collected on the hotel bill,
but it will make the tax easier to collect, he says. "ICT (the Costa Rica
Tourist Board) will advocate investment in security and infrastructure, as well
as making efforts to cut the amount of red tape for development and investment
in the country," says Benavides. "We will also demand that the
country's major cruise companies, JAPDEVA on the Caribbean
coast, and INCOP on the Pacific side, coordinate their efforts." By 2008, Costa Rica is
on track to have five new marinas; all of these will include hotel development.
One marina will be located in Golfito, two in the Central Pacific and two in
northern Guanacaste. Each marina will have 200 to 300 slips.

Benavides also notes that the country will continue its
initiatives to promote sustainable and responsible tourism, as well as rural
tourism. "These are the target markets we are trying to reach," he
says. "We are reaching out to the tourist who is more educated, aware of
global problems, and who is interested in cultural tourism." He projects
that over the next four years, Costa
will see 20,000 new jobs as a result of
tourism growth. Benavides was forthright about the importance of the country's
relationship with travel agents. "They were the ones who made the biggest
effort," he says. "They were pioneers in their enthusiasm for Costa Rica—without
them we couldn't have been successful."

Nature is the number-one thing visitors are interested in

is definitely going in the right
direction; it's going more upscale and there are more openings for smaller
boutique hotels," says Marc Ahumada, president of California-based
TourTech International. "Many existing hotels are upgrading and looking
for their fifth star." Ahumada notes that the opening of the Four Seasons
Resort Costa Rica raised the bar for the country's lodging industry. "They
brought well-heeled travelers to the destination, and more and more upscale
companies are coming on board," he says.

Local Tours and Eco-Attractions

Ahumada observes that local tour operators outside of San Jose are going strong
and creating a better mix of tour programs. "They're doing their
homework," he says.

"They're adding more day tours, stand-alone tours and
more cultural options, and adding to existing tours." Guanacaste is a
region to watch, according to Ahumada."Guanacaste is cattle country and
many of the elements associated with cattle country in the U.S. and Mexico can be found here, such as
unique clothing, music, dances and barbecues," he says. "Things to be
improved include the country's road system; it's an uphill battle," says
Ahumada. "We also need more rooms in some popular areas of the country.
It's a balancing act—as a commercial enterprise you want more rooms, but you
also want the areas to remain pristine, which was a big part of the appeal in
the first place."

Richard Edwards, Costa Rica
program director for Seattle-based Wildland Adventures, has been selling Costa Rica for
seven years. "I'm a little concerned about the number of large
developments going in, although it appears that the government is genuinely
concerned about protecting the environment," he says. Edwards doesn't want
to see Costa Rica lose its
appeal by turning into another Cancún or Dominican Republic. The country's
eco-attractions are the major draw for Edward's clients. "When they are
planning their trip, they tell me how they can't wait to see the howler
monkeys, turtles, to go rafting," says Edwards. "When they come back,
the main thing they talk about is the people—Ticos (Costa Ricans) are
great." In Edwards' experience, travelers are seeking interaction with
local people. Fast Facts

Although Edwards' clients are upscale, he notes that, with
the exception of the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica, Costa Rica is not positioned to
cater to the highest top end of luxury travelers. "But that's not the
typical Costa Rica
customer," he says. "Costa
has a lot to offer," says Edwards.
"My advice to travel agents thinking of selling the destination is to
depart from the standard route and get intimately acquainted with
off-the-beaten-path destinations, such as the Osa Peninsula
and Cerro de la Muerte."

The Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica has a way of popping up
in conversation when the country's tourism picture is discussed. The resort's
design was influenced by the natural beauty, flora and fauna of Costa Rica.
"The exteriors reflect the shapes and textures of leatherback sea turtles,
armadillos, iguanas, butterflies and birds, and the finished product looks as
if Mother Nature carved it out of the hillside a long time ago," says
architect Ronald Zurcher of Zurcher Arquitectos in Costa Rica. U.S. travel
agent liaisons for the resort are Liz Speichinger, travel industry sales manager
for the east coast ([email protected]) and Meredith Tyrrell,
travel industry sales manager for the west coast
([email protected]).

Exclusive to Travel Agent: The Four Seasons will
launch the Tuanis teen center in November. The center offers teens a lounge and
(nonalcoholic) bar area with a large flat-screen TV showing movies, as well as
a computer room with complimentary Internet access, so teens can keep in e-mail
contact with their friends. There is an adjoining pool table and an outdoor
entertainment area with a lounge that leads to a basketball court. Tuanis will
also have a concierge department dedicated to the needs of teen guests and
customized services and amenities designed to appeal to them with the latest
trends. All teenagers will receive a special welcome amenity (a different one
for boys and girls, such as a surfing magazine or Teen Vogue), a
disposable camera and a portable video game or small decorative mirror with
sun-protection lipstick.

New Upscale Development

Punta Dominical is a new development south of Manuel Antonio National Park. "The
stars have lined up for Costa
," says Hal Wright, developer of
Punta Dominical. "Our clients are choosing Costa Rica because it's safe, they
love the beach, the price is right and there's great access."

Wright notes that 80 percent of Punta Dominical will remain
undeveloped as a nature preserve. The development will include Kiana Resort, a
52-room hotel scheduled for completion in eight or nine months. Rooms will cost
$250 a night in the high season. Condo owners have the option of placing their
condos in a rental pool, which is commissionable to travel agents. Punta
Dominical will have a number of spas, including one in the Kiana Resort.
"We'll also be opening a Rainforest Spa in a 40-villa development in the
summer of 2007," says Wright.

Punta Dominical will be reaching out to the upscale market.
"Our buyers are surprisingly not retirees; they're high-functioning
professionals in the 35-to-55 age range," says Wright. "The
number-one thing they want to do in Costa Rica is to relax and enjoy
the nature." The travel agent liaison for Punta Dominical is Valerie
Yglesias ([email protected]), the director of marketing.

Look for Costa Rica
to partner with other countries, such as Nicaragua
and Panama, to create
multi-destination itineraries and packages, especially in long-haul markets
like Europe and Asia. "We want to support
travel agents' activities; we need to know what your needs are in order to
build a team that works together to sell Costa Rica," says Benavides.
"We believe we have so much to share," he continues. "Visitors
who truly want to explore Costa Rica will find it's many destinations in
one—they can become multi-visitors to each region in Costa Rica, instead of us
becoming part of a multi-county visit."

Tourist Board: 800-343-6332,

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