After a recent article where we gauged opinions from industry experts on what Costa Rica needs to do to boost tourism, we follow up with what the most important people think – the tourists themselves.
This week I wrote a guest post for Q Costa Rica called What are the Biggest Obstacles to Costa Rica Tourism Recovery? In the article, I asked tourism experts what they thought the biggest issues facing Costa Rican tourism were at this stage in the pandemic, and what should be done.
According to the experts, the main obstacles were financing and poor promotion, both indicating a lack of interest or sense of urgency from the government. Then came the travel insurance issue.
After posting this article on social media, it became clear from the comments, that what industry experts think and what the tourists themselves think are two different things.
So in the interests of comparison, we thought it would be a good idea to record what it is that’s stopping tourists coming to Costa Rica at the moment, based on their own comments to us, and elsewhere on social media.
What are the biggest obstacles to Costa Rica tourism recovery? https://t.co/WWr5uFYqRL
— CentralAmericaLiving (@VidaAmerica) December 8, 2020
The biggest concern for potential tourists is the mandatory health insurance to cover COVID treatment. This has been a constant source of frustration for people wanting to come.
When Costa Rica first reopened its borders in August, it mandated that tourists could only buy insurance from the INS, the state-owned insurance company.
Naturally, the INS costs were extortionate compared to other companies, and the government ended up backtracking on that policy… but not before it created a hard-to-shake-off reputation for itself as a naked money-grabber, taking advantage of the situation to line its own coffers. It’s hard to overstate how much damage Costa Rica did to its reputation over this episode.
But they did backtrack, and that’s a good thing. Now, tourists can buy insurance from their local providers, as long as they’re approved by the government. There are some good insurance deals out there, too. Trawick International is one company that stands out for selling affordable insurance to enter Costa Rica.
— Trawick International (@TrawickIntl) November 27, 2020
But, and this is a big but, Costa Rica is the only country in Central America to demand COVID insurance.
In fact, it’s one of the few countries in the world to require insurance that specifically covers treatment (and quarantine costs) for COVID-19. And it puts people off, for sure.
“Anyone who has been there will want to go back. I was there the last two weeks. The added insurance is a deterrent to families on a budget. Costa Rica is more expensive compared to its other central America counterparts. No need to add extra cost,” says Geoff Prucker on Facebook.
Since August, there have been hundreds of comments like this, across all social media platforms. Without doubt, from the tourist’s point of view, this is the biggest obstacle to visiting Costa Rica.
I confess I’m not sure how to resolve this situation. On one hand, I agree that Costa Rican shouldn’t be stuck with the bill for treating an uninsured tourist who gets hospitalized for COVID-19. But on the other, I can’t understand why Costa Rica needs this if Mexico, Belize, Panama, and the Dominican Republic don’t. What are they doing that Costa Rica can’t?
IATA criticizes Costa Rica’s mandatory INS insurance, the Caja doubles down, and the ICT chief talks of opening up to international policies. Meanwhile the first tourists arrive. Confused? Just another day of the INS debacle.https://t.co/avxfRCFF2c
— CentralAmericaLiving (@VidaAmerica) August 4, 2020
The second biggest obstacle we’re seeing from the tourist’s point of view is flights to Costa Rica, or lack of them.
Since Costa Rica reopened its borders, flights have trickled back, but they’re still nowhere near at the volume they were pre-COVID. There’s not much anyone can do about this, it’s the classic chicken and egg situation.
If there’s no, or lower, demand for flights, the airlines won’t fly so much. It’s going to take a long time for the skies to be as full as they were before March 2020. This is a global problem, not only a Costa Rican one.
More airlines have resumed flights to Costa Rica in November: https://t.co/ncCVpdZHvj
— The Tico Times (@TheTicoTimes) November 3, 2020
But still, it’s something that bothers tourists, and stops them from choosing to Costa Rica over somewhere else.
“Fewer flights and the fares are currently high. The mandatory insurance doesn’t help either. We have been to Mexico twice and Croatia since May,” says another Facebook commenter, Stephanie Vickers Cameron.
Amy Gosman Temple agrees.
“Less flights – our direct turned into a transfer,” she says. “Overall – the cost of the insurance is offset by lower hotel costs so I consider it a wash. We had a great time and got to do everything we wanted. All workers/vacationers wore masks indoors, and every place has a handwashing station before you enter. Most restaurants are open air. It’s probably the safest vacation to have!”
One of the obstacles mentioned by an industry expert was Costa Rica’s lack of promoting itself during this pandemic.
Perhaps if Costa Rica was better at this, better at creating demand in the US and elsewhere, more flights would come. Or if Costa Rica made itself more attractive by dropping the COVID insurance, that would create more demand and increase flights.
Again, this is a true chicken and egg situation. Only time solve this one (or getting rid of the insurance obligation and creating demand through promotion, of course).
— CentralAmericaLiving (@VidaAmerica) December 9, 2020
“Additional expenses and added uncertainties due to COVID.” Randy Gunter, Facebook.
There’s no doubt uncertainties around the world are affecting global travel. As the northern hemisphere enters the dead of winter, many countries are either going back into lockdown or talking about it.
And at the end of the day, nobody wants to come on vacation only to have to quarantine for two weeks when they get back home. This is something both industry experts and tourists agree on.
The good news is that vaccines have already started and will roll out rapidly over the next few weeks. Over time, this program will dispel many of the uncertainties we’re seeing and allow people to travel again.
Returning home from Central America and wondering if you face restrictions? Updated to show US states recommending quarantine (rather than mandating quarantine) plus some changes in Europe. https://t.co/rVGkjwor87
— CentralAmericaLiving (@VidaAmerica) December 8, 2020
So what to conclude?
I said at the top of this article that there were differences between what the Costa Rica travel industry think are the main obstacles to a comeback, and what tourists themselves think.
Nobody would expect a tourist to consider policy issues like guarantee funds to keep companies in business, or how the ICT is marketing the country. And that’s fine. We don’t want tourists to worry about stuff like that at all. We want them to come to Costa Rica and enjoy themselves.
But outside of these issues, maybe the differences are not so defined. Both the industry and the tourist see an obstacle when it comes to the value offered by Costa Rica at this time, compared with other destinations. That’s why the insurance issue is front and center.
It’s also why the industry, headed by tourism minister Gustavo Segura, has done so much to make travel easier since the August reopening. We just need to do a little more to bring back the good times.
This high season is most likely gone in Costa Rica. But if we can hold out, there’s every chance the next high season will be a great one. A celebratory high season where we’re all rejoicing the end of this nightmare.
James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.