Costa Rica tourism predictions

Costa Rica Tourism Predictions: What the Industry Expects in 2021

After its worst year on record, 2021 is a welcome new start for Costa Rica’s beleaguered tourism sector. But how much better will it be? What do the experts predict for this year? We asked some of them.

This time last year, Costa Rica was in the middle of its 2019/2020 peak tourist season. And what a season it would have been, too. In January 2020, Costa Rica was on track for its best peak season ever, looking forward to its most successful year ever. That virus in China we kept hearing about on the news felt very far away. 

We all know what happened next. No need to dwell on it right here.

We’ve covered Costa Rica’s tourism industry extensively over the past ten months. All the whys, the hows, and the what-the-hells. It’s been exhausting.

Now we emerge, squinting and blinking, into 2021, battered and bruised, older and wiser.

Many tourism businesses have gone for good, and many won’t survive what should be the 2020/21 high season. But hope exists. It’s out there.

As the countries where most of our tourists come from go back into lockdown, or restrict travel, they’re also vaccinating. We’ve lost this high season, but soon comes spring and things will improve. Darkest hour before dawn and all that Thomas Fuller stuff.

So let’s look forward.

We asked some of our favorite people in Costa Rica tourism what they they think the future holds in 2021. Are they hopeful? Fearful? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Realistic? Vamos a ver.

We’ll start with the hospitality manager.

Hans Pfister is the CEO of the Cayuga Collection, a hospitality management company. Cayuga manages seven hotels in total, five in Costa Rica, one in Panama, and one in Nicaragua.

The one thing you can be certain about is that uncertainty in travel will continue for the near future. Many companies will get desperate and drop prices. This race to the bottom will only hurt the industry more. We’re doing all we can to provide extra value without engaging in crazy discounting,” says Pfister.

Later in 2021, I think we’11 see the start of a “Roaring 20’s” recovery, as travelers try to make up for experiences they missed in 2020.

We also spoke to three of our favorite hotel owners in Costa Rica, people who’ve contributed to this site over the course of the pandemic.

Hotel owners have been at the forefront of the crisis in 2020. They’re the ones one the ground providing the jobs. The ones counting the empty rooms and seeing the physical impact of the crisis in the rural and beach communities where they operate.

But despite the woes of 2020, our hoteliers seem upbeat for 2021.

Jim Damalas, the founder of Greentique Hotels, explains:

Costa Rica began vaccinating against COVID on Christmas Eve. It was one of the first countries in the world to do so, and the second country in Latin America. Also, the healthcare system here has been relatively successful in coordinating nationwide protocols. Support by the private and public sectors should enable Costa Rica to vaccinate some 75% of the population, ahead of North America and Europe.

We foresee a major rebound in travel by Spring Break 2021.

Meni Mikowski cautiously agrees.

As the vaccine rollout gains traction, many of those with the means to travel, but couldn’t over the past year, will zip straight from the pharmacy to the airport,” says the owner of Preferred Costa Rica Hotels.

Honeymoons, anniversaries, milestone birthdays, and multi-generational travelers will vacation again in the second half of 2021. The term “health passport” will become part of everyday lexicon, and Costa Rica will take early steps implementing the program.

Mikowski offers a note of caution in how Costa Rica markets itself in 2021. Costa Rica can’t simply expect to pick up where it left off, it will have to make an effort to attract travelers again.

The opportunities for a strong comeback are there, but we still have work to do as a destination to prepare for the return of traveler confidence.

Colin Brownlee looks at 2021 from a wider, more pragmatic perspective.

The owner of Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo has become prominent in the past year for his initiatives to promote new ways of business for hotels. He’s been talking “new normals” for a long time.

Budget travel will suffer in 2021,” says Brownlee.

High unemployment and precarious circumstances will make younger people more cautious about international travel. Cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts will also take a hit. I foresee travelers leaning towards boutique hotels. Rural locations will do better, as many people are feeling PTSD and will be uncomfortable with crowds and confined public spaces.

Last-minute booking windows will see a dramatic increase. Travelers will take advantage of low occupancy, allowing them flexibility and access to discounts. We should brace ourselves for 50% of 2019. Anything over that is a bonus.

And what about the travel agent?

With a shortage of traveler demand, many hotels will resort to heavy discounts. This could start a price war that makes recovery even more difficult,” says Costa Rican Vacations COO Richard Bexon.

We won’t see a major uptick in arrivals until summer, as many people won’t be confident enough to travel until then. I predict peak season arrivals will be 30% of 2019, growing to 50% by July.

Visitors from from Europe to Costa Rica will be severely limited. Airlines have reduced or cancelled many routes.

Bexon also foresees the return of the travel agent. Recent years have seen the traditional travel agency decline as the internet has made it easier for travelers to book online, creating their own itineraries.

Restrictions, travel protocols, and health concerns now add a new layer of complexity to travel. More tourists will stop doing it all themselves and seek out expert advice.

Bary Roberts is a true tourism mover and shaker in Costa Rica.

An ex-president of CANATUR and ex-vice-president of the ICT, Roberts is a pioneer of ecotourism in Costa Rica. He’s why Costa Rica sells itself as an ecotourism destination in the first place.

Roberts is the president of consulting company DDD Solutions, which formatted the Clean and Safe to Visit program of health protocols used by some of Costa Rica’s most popular hotels.

We’ll be lucky to see 35% of the total visitors of 2019,” he says.

Things will continue changing fast, due to waves of the virus, political maneuvers, and vaccines. Tourism businesses will have to adapt marketing strategies on a monthly basis, as the originating markets will be ever-changing.

We’ll need to assure clients that transportation to/from the airport to all parts of Costa Rica are safe, that hotels are safe, attractions are safe, and so on.

Roberts believes one major factor of 2020 was a lack of organization in the tourism sector. He expects businesses to remedy that in 2021, or at least try to.

They need to operate more with a single voice, especially concerning cash flow, and the creating of some kind of fund or safety net for businesses within the sector.

There will be a restructuring of the ownership of a lot of tourism companies and many new players will enter the game,” he concludes.

2021 feels like a make or break year for Costa Rica tourism. It’s not going to go back to the way it was anytime soon.

But that needn’t be a bad thing. Maybe pre-COVID we were relying a little too much on these “mega development” projects springing up in Guanacaste and elsewhere as the future of tourism.

Perhaps now we can go back to our smaller, more sustainable roots that made Costa Rica so special in the first place.

Perhaps we can unify more and perhaps the powers-that-be can finally acknowledge the importance of tourism.

There’s always been a tacit whiff of snobbery among Costa Rican elites about tourism. They’ve never seen tourism as quite acceptable, never quite appreciating how it turns campesinos and beach dwellers into entrepreneurs with voices to match their own.

It would be wonderful for tourism to receive the credit it’s due. In 2021, as things get better, perhaps it will.

We’ll leave the last word to Molly McBride.

She owns Raw Botanicals, providing organic amenities to tourism companies. If you’ve stayed in a good Costa Rican hotel, chances are you’ve used a Raw Botanicals product.

2021 will be a roller coaster ride. Creative risk takers will be rewarded. Recovery depends upon those who grab the bull by the horns. I plan to befriend said bull and offer him an outlet for his stress.

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