Costa Rica Shines

Costa Rica 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 Rica's accomplishments as they plan their own tourism initiatives. Costa Rica'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 Rica tourism is to become a sustainable industry," says Ricardo Benavides, Costa Rica'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 Rica 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 Rica'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 InternationalJuanSantamaríaAirport in the Central Valley and the InternationalDanielOduberQuirosAirport 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 JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport 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 Rica 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

"Costa Rica 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 Rica 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 OsaPeninsula 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 (liz.speichinger@fourseasons.com) and Meredith Tyrrell, travel industry sales manager for the west coast (meredithtyrell@fourseasons.com).

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 ManuelAntonioNational Park. "The stars have lined up for Costa Rica," 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 (valeria@puntadominical.com), 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."

Costa Rica Tourist Board: 800-343-6332, www.visitcostarica.com