From a health point of view, Costa Rica has been one of the countries in the world that have best dealt with the Coronavirus Pandemic. Particularly noteworthy is the robust network of hospitals and clinics throughout the country, added to a historical institutionality, with public leadership that, in general, is prepared and serious-minded.
Unfortunately, we will not be able to avoid the devastating effect of recessions and depressions like in most countries of the world. Although there are things that are beyond our control, we must prepare ourselves as best we can to face the economic tsunami that will follow the Pandemic.
For Costa Rica, this crisis can represent a pit stop: a unique opportunity to stop and make strategic changes to face the new world that is to come. Starting from the premise that “perfection is the enemy of the possible”. Focusing on a goal: job creation as a starting point for poverty reduction.
Tourism as a way forward
Costa Rica has been quite successful in attracting tourists: 3.1 million in 2019. Growth was 4.1% compared to 2018. In 2019 tourism generated almost $ 4 billion revenue, 219 thousand direct jobs, and more than 400 thousand indirect ones. It represents 13% of the gross domestic product.
It is the economic engine with the highest production chain, and wide distribution of income (more than 90% of the hotels are SMEs or mini-SMEs, with 40 rooms or less). For comparison, Coffee exports in 2019 generated $ 276.2 million, pineapple exports $ 976.5 million, and banana exports $ 997.6 million.
In general, Costa Rica has positioned itself as a relatively expensive destination. In a new normal in which the cost of air tickets is likely to increase significantly, this is not a bad thing. We have sought to attract travelers with a high educational level, good employment, and economic situation, with an interest in mobilizing to the different regions of the country. We have focused on tourists who value Costa Rica for its nature, for its human well-being and the friendly reception from locals.
In the forced stop by the Coronavirus, Costa Rica has some opportunities to reinvent itself and adapt its offer to the new demands of international tourism:
A more specific positioning: we must avoid generality and try to attract tourists in specific segments that fit the country’s excellent reputation:
(i) Rest and well-being: yoga, meditation, rehabilitation, alternative medicine, organic gastronomy;
(ii) Adventure tourism: surfing, canopy, sport fishing, rapids, hiking, and mountaineering;
(iii) Family tourism with a special interest in flora and fauna and outdoor spaces.
These 3 segments attract audiences of all ages. We are already known for being a green country, respectful of nature and human rights, peaceful, and with one of the five “blue zones” of health and longevity in the world.
Safe and comfortable destination: Tourists will want to vacation in safe destinations, in every way, and comfortable. They will want to avoid destinations or massive attractions and they will prefer what we are very competitive: exclusivity with low density, open-air and pure, idyllic beaches with few people. Forget about beaches full of bathers or conglomerate theaters or amusement parks without social distancing.
To position ourselves as a comfortable destination we have to take advantage of many of the strengths that our country offers to tourists: an educated, friendly population with a good level of English; an excellent and proven sanitary system; a high penetration of Internet and mobile telephony; high banking access with easy access to credit card and ATM payments and excellent aeronautical connectivity: many daily direct flights to many key destinations. Also, hotels for all tastes.
Medical tourism: now, more than ever, we must take advantage of the international prestige of our health system to promote medical tourism, which already generates about $ 500 million a year. Dental procedures and cosmetic surgeries are the most attractive and those in the comfort zone. We can attract many others, such as cancer therapy, stem cell, orthopedics, dermatology, and psychiatry treatments. While the lower cost in these medical services is key, so is hospital safety and a pleasant place to recover from surgery.
Orange economy: the orange economy comprises the sectors in which the value of goods and services is based on creativity and intellectual property: from crafts and architecture to film and fashion production. Costa Rica can position itself to attract video production companies for movies, series and videos, digital animation, and high technology.
Further, we must facilitate film production in our country to promote more visits, in the style of what has been “Game of Thrones” for Croatia or “Lord of the Rings” for New Zealand. The number of tourists who want to see sites promoted by movies would probably increase as it does in those countries.
National tourism: part of the reinventing strategy must include an action plan to promote local tourism. Our country offers a huge variety of destinations, which unfortunately are not known to many Costa Ricans. In addition to making attractive and realistic economic offers for the local market, you must add value to the destination such as adding cultural, gastronomic, family, or sports activities. Likewise, travel facilitation should be promoted: coordinate so that traffic flows better: operational and one-way clearance; and dates: all holidays must be moved to a Friday or a Monday so that we always have prolonged weekends for workers and their families.
In conclusion, we must take advantage of this crisis to generate new opportunities for the tourism business, nationally and internationally. Costa Rica must offer not only a trip and a destination, but a life-transforming experience.