Canatur Costa Rica / Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash

Canatur Costa Rica Urges More Government Action to Save Tourism

Costa Rica’s Chamber of Tourism (Canatur) expects visitor numbers in this December-April high season to barely reach 25% to 30% of last year. Canatur president Rubén Acón warns that this is not sustainable and urges government action to stop businesses from going under in 2021.

Despite an increase in visitors to Costa Rica in September and October, Costa Rica’s tourism sector is still nervous about the future.

The second wave of COVID-19 taking place in North America and Europe (and the corresponding restrictions in those countries) is making tourist businesses cautious about the coming holidays and the remaining 2021 high season.

Canatur president Rubén Acón is optimistic the upcoming COVID vaccines about to be released will aid recovery in the long run. But he acknowledges it’s still all speculation as to when, exactly, that will be. And he’s nervous time may be running out for many suffering businesses.

In October, Costa Rica received some 9,900 visitors; 8,500 through Juan Santamaria Airport and 1,400 through Liberia. That’s a 92% reduction from October 2019.

That said, since Costa Rica reopened in August, flights are on the increase, and the airlines say more people are traveling. 

Although no numbers for November are available yet, preliminary data suggests some 15,000 to 20,000 tourists arrived in Costa Rica last month. That fits in with what the airlines are saying, and marks an increase from October. But it’s still far lower than the 200,000 tourists who came to Costa Rica in November 2019.

“In the best scenario, we think we’ll receive between 30,000 and 35,000 tourists in December,” predicted Acón. That would mean some 10% to 15% of last year’s arrivals. Being optimistic, let’s say 20%, or about 50,000 tourists.”

Across the December-April high season, Canatur expects – in the most optimistic scenario – some 30% to 35% percent of the tourists who came in the 2019 high season.

And although this gradual increase is a good thing, it’s not enough to sustain the Costa Rican tourist sector.

“The numbers are still insufficient for the sector to operate at least with a point of equilibrium. That equilibrium will not occur, and we expect to see losses. The entire sector won’t survive. We should be expecting 250,000 tourists in the high season, and now we’re talking maybe 75,000 arrivals? It’s not enough to keep the entire business fabric in operation. So, some businesses will survive and some won’t. And of those that do survive, they’ll be trying not to operate at a loss,” says Acón.

According to consulting firm Consejeros Econónicos y Financieros S.A. (Cefsa), the Costa Rica tourism industry will lose between $2.4 billion and $2.5 billion by the end of 2020. Cefsa figures also show the growing importance of tourism to Costa Rica’s economy. In 2019, the sector accounted for some seven percent of GDP.

The industry is also shedding jobs, a large part of Costa Rica’s rocketing unemployment during the pandemic.

Tourism generated some 211,000 jobs in Costa Rica at the end of 2019. By the end of 2020, that number will be 101,200, a loss of over half the jobs in the sector.

These financial and job losses are taking their toll, and the sector is calling on the government to help.

Tourism businesses need the government to approve a loan to create a guarantee fund. This would allow companies who can’t get credit from banks to get financing during the crisis. This financing would last for a year or two while the tourism market recovers.

In September, the government signed a loan contract for $300 million with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to create such a fund. Three months later, however, this loan still has not been approved.

For Rubén Acón, a rapid approval is essential, or many tourism businesses will close forever.        

He doesn’t expect tourism numbers to go back to pre-COVID conditions for years. According to estimates, Costa Rica can expect 2021 visitor numbers to reach 25% to 30% of what there was in 2019.

In 2022, Costa Rica will receive about half of what it did in 2019, and 75% in 2023. Canatur doesn’t expect visitor numbers to reach 2019 levels until 2024.

And in the meantime, other countries will want to attract tourists too, when they have the confidence to travel again, warns Acón.

“Costa Rica has a good image in the sense that it’s managed the pandemic well, and remains a sustainable adventure destination, but our competitor markets won’t be idle. There will be a fight to the death with countries like the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Jamaica, and others.”

This article was adapted from the original in Spanish by Gerardo Ruiz in CRHoy on Sunday, December 6, 2020.

James Dyde is the editor of www.centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.