Why Costa Rica Could Become another Loser and Not a Winner

Why Costa Rica Could Become another Loser and Not a Winner and how YOU can help….

As discussed in a previous post, friends Marco and Eytan of ISeeiTravel are trying to raise money to finish a documentary about the choices facing one of Costa Rica’s last standing areas of pristine rainforest on the Pacific Coast of Latin America – The Osa Peninsula, home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity and  50% of Costa Rica’s native species. The National Geographic has called the region “the most biologically intense place on earth.”

Costa Rica has worked hard to develop a reputation for being one of the most powerful eco tourism brands in all of South America. In terms of brand strength and appeal,  Future Brands placed Costa Rica in 24th position globally and ahead of all other South American countries. According to FutureBrand, they assess the strength of a country brand in terms of:

awareness, familiarity, preference, consideration, advocacy and active decisions to visit or interact with a place. But the most important factors—the aspects that truly differentiate a country brand—are its associations and attributes across five key dimensions: Value System, Quality of Life, Good for Business, Heritage and Culture and Tourism….A strong country brand is more than the sum of its attributes: in total, it must make people’s lives better.

Sunset in Corcovado National Park

But that last ambitious statement begs the question “whose lives?” The lives of the 4 million or so people who call Costa Rica home or the million wealthy middle class Americans and Canadians who make up half the visitor arrivals at present?

As far as I can understand, ISeeiTravel are not suggesting any form of moratorium. They are simply trying to  help the people of Costa Rica make conscious decisions that work for the people of the country as a whole. That means making sure that mistakes made in the past are not repeated in the future.

As illustrated in a video they made earlier, the locals to the north of the country,  where development first started,  haven’t benefited from tourism as much as they had hoped or been promised.

But history looks doomed to be forgotten and, without careful planning and yes some controls, it will take less than 30 years to create the same set of problems. And here’s why….. it’s not that the leaders of Costa Rica are deliberately destructive, or that the existing industry is necessarily more greedy than most, it’s simply that this is what happens when you embrace a model of development without being conscious of the consequences and allow the industrial model to run its course. It’s simply because so so many of us could benefit from making the wrong decisions.

Frankly, I am at that stage in my life where I would love to retire and live near a pristine beach and rainforest with a few historic ruins thrown in for good measure.  And it looks like that I might even be able to afford it – if I go to Costa Rica’s South Pacific. A mere US$40,000 would buy me beachfront property adjacent to one of the world’s richest natural areas of biodiversity on the planet. (Right now that wouldn’t buy me a garage in a suburban town in the UK).

But let me quote form the enticing sales blog that wasn’t written by environmentalists but by real estate developers and retailers.  You can read the entire blog here and I have paraphrased:

“Costa Rica’s South Pacific rates as our most popular chill weekend destination. Trips here book up quickly, and sell out months in advance. Now, that demand is partly down to the beauty of this area. It’s a rich, lush wonderland of dizzying mountain peaks, virgin forest, and a sandy coastline. But there’s another reason why this place is becoming so popular. This location is poised…on the edge of a major boom. 

Corcovado Beach

The Boom is Just Beginning – You see, until 2010, this place was almost impossible to get to…unless you were adventurous (some would say foolhardy). It’s not that you didn’t have a choice of route. You did…but none of them classed as even vaguely comfortable or easy. …But thankfully, that’s all changing. A new coastal road opened in January 2010. It’s a joy…smooth, easy to drive, nicely surfaced…and it cuts the drive time from San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital) to the South Pacific in half…to just over three hours.

So getting to the South Pacific is now quicker, and more relaxed. And government plans call for an international airport. And we know what that means for property values…

History Repeats Itself – Back in the 1980s, Guanacaste was a tough five-hour drive from San Jose on rough, potholed roads. Backpackers and surfers braved those roads, but mainstream tourists, retirees and second-home buyers stayed away. The local airport at Liberia only offered occasional international flights. Then, the road was re-paved…and Delta started regular international flights to Liberia in 2002. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. In 2003, 50,000 visitors used Liberia airport. In January alone this year, more than 31,000 visitors used Liberia airport.

More tourists traveling here meant that more tourists fell in love with the area…and wanted to rent or own a piece of it. Resort and residential developers snapped up land for hotels and private communities. The inevitable happened. Prime property in Guanacaste quadrupled in value in the three years after the direct flights started. Today, an ocean-view condo can set you back $1.4 million dollars…and an ocean view lot $550,000.

Costa Rica’s South Pacific is following the same path to success. It’s now open to mainstream tourism. More tourists means:

  • More demand for accommodation.
  • Business opportunities to cater to growing tourist numbers. Today, new commercial plazas are springing up in the Southern Zone to cater to increased tourist traffic and the growing number of expats, retirees and second-home owners.
  • Resort and residential developers chasing beachfront and ocean-view land to build hotels, tourist amenities and subdivisions. This is exactly the reason why property prices rose quickly in Guanacaste.
  • This is like turning the clock back ten years. If you missed out on your chance in Guanacaste, you need to pay attention to the South Pacific.”

Dear reader, it is not my intent to point an accusing finger when four are pointing back at me. I’ll be honest, I am sorely tempted to sell my one remaining asset here in cool and rain soaked Britain and get in quick. I love the South Pacific ……. but I cannot see that I would be benfitting anyone other than myself; some land developers, construction companies, and other “ex pats” who can afford the investment and potentially reap a 400% return.

Conscious tourism is not anti tourism or anti the economic benefits associated with sharing places with people from afar. On the contrary – all we’re working towards is a form of tourism that benefits all stakeholders and is developed by and for communities who are fully awake, aware and alert and making decisions that deliver the highest and best return over the long run. As recently as January of 2011, the Huffington Post in article titled Why Costa Rica is a Winning Brand urged leaders there to guard against “too much of a good thing” and pointed to water shortages in Guanacaste where the intense developments, complete with their normal share of “water sucking championship golf courses” could experience problems.All we want, as do the founders of Iseeitravel is to encourage Costa Ricans to develop a tourism economy that is “environmentally sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling” as we know that will bring the greatest net benefit.

If Costa Rica wants to live up to its brand image and not forfeit any of its hard-earned Brand equity, it will work with these young film makers to ensure all the issues are investigated and discussed – consciously. There are somewhere between 300 and 800 accommodation properties in Costa Rica all benefitting from the annual 2.1 million visitors. These are the hosts whom we believe have the greatest responsibility for being caretakers of the natural resource on which they depend. A mere $25 donation from each property would be enough to fund the film – a small price to pay, don’t you think?

Please support ISeeitravel  – one of the first film making companies to actively support conscious travel by visiting their fund raising site and at least buying a t-shirt.They are short $11,000 of their $25,000 goal….Here’s their video:

2 Responses to “Why Costa Rica Could Become another Loser and Not a Winner”

  1. Thanks Kevin for your contribution. South America is such an exciting destination and has the opportunity to avoid many of the pitfalls experienced elsewhere. I think your idea has great merit. I’ll be in touch by email.


  2. Interesting article, Anna, as our focus (my wife and I, that is) has turned to that area of the world. Our preference, though, is Nicaragua where we enjoyed some time in May and saw the potential. We’re thinking of going back at Christmas time, partly for vacation of course, but also to explore the possibility of setting up an employee training scheme. This would bring their young people to BC in their off season when we need help, give them job skills and language enhancement, and send them back for Nica’s high season.


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