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Costa Rica's Tourism Outlook? Depends on Who You Ask

By Adam Williams, The Tico Times, San Jose, Costa RicaMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 5, 2010--Chip Bramen says he goes to the beaches of Manuel Antonio in Quepos, on the central Pacific coast, nearly every day. He says the beaches are beautiful and calm and sunny. He also says they're vacant.

"It's beautiful weather -- no clouds in the sky, beautiful sunsets, beautiful weather, the works. And there is so little tourism, you can't believe it."

Bramen, owner of the Blue Monkey Hotel and the Blue Banyan Inn, both in Quepos, said he is "not expecting any gain at all" in the number of tourists visiting his hotels.

"Let me put it this way," he said. "Last year was really difficult. Really difficult. And I don't expect this year to be much better."

Though it's only February, tourism numbers for the Costa Rican "high season," which runs from December to April, are varied across the country. While Bramen reports that tourism in Quepos has plummeted, hotel owners and members of the tourism industry in other regions of the country have seen more promising results, either with steady occupancies or even increases in tourist numbers compared to last year.

"We are a pretty good bellwether for tourism within Costa Rica because we're not just one hotel in one destination," said Alexi Huntley, commercial director at the private airline Nature Air. "We've got 16 destinations in Costa Rica we fly to, so we can even tell the hotels, for example, not only what we're currently seeing but up to three months in advance. So, we kind of know what is happening all across the area."

Huntley revealed some of the first positive figures attached to national tourism in a little over a year.

"If you look countrywide, we've seen about a 5 percent increase (in tourism) in the early part of the year, and that just started happening in December," he said."It was the first growth we had seen in about 12 months...December was about 3 points higher and January was about 5 points higher. It looks to be better going forward across all routes."

The increase in the number of tourists flying Nature Air is in line with the predictions of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), which in December announced tourism was expected to rebound 3 to 5 percent in 2010, due in large part to the anticipated recovery of the worldwide economy.

"The tourism businesses are fighting to reactivate the industry to increase visitation by both foreign and national tourists," said Juan Carlos Ramos, president of CANATUR. "They are offering promotions to attract a larger share of the market ... As the economic situation improves, we expect tourism to recover some from 2009."

According to figures released by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), the number of tourists who visited Costa Rica in 2009 fell 8 percent from 2008. In total, over 166,000 fewer tourists came to the country in 2009 than in the previous year.

But December brought the first signs of a rebound.

Compared to the corresponding months of 2008, each of the first 11 months in 2009 saw decreases in the number of tourists coming to Costa Rica, including nearly a 42,000-visitor drop for March. But December reversed the trend. In that month, more than 186,000 tourists visited Costa Rica, an improvement of about 3,000 tourists from December of 2008.

"We have 30 rooms and we were almost completely full throughout December and January," said Vinicio Hidalgo, general manager at Hotel Capitan Suizo in Tamarindo, in the Guanacaste province. "I think it will be similar to last year, but perhaps a little better. Tourism in Tamarindo continues to be very good, and I think we will remain occupied."

Other hotel owners said they have seen a similar stability in visitors over the past two months.

"This is the beginning of our third year here and, for us, visitors have remained very steady. It seems to be getting better and better and exceeding our expectations," said Jim Bubaloni, owner of Casa MarBella at Santa Teresa, on the Pacific side of the Nicoya Pennisula. "This is a smaller, trendy area and the tourist flow is pretty constant. When it does seem to slowdown, all of a sudden it seems like someone turns the floodgates on and, boom, one week to the next, the town is full and business is good."

While some members of the tourism industry have reported a steady or improved flow of guests, the proof will be in the numbers when the ICT releases figures from January next week. In the month of January in 2008 and 2009, more than 222,000 tourists came to Costa Rica. Results for the first month of this year will serve as some indication for the shape of tourism in 2010.

But many believe the year is off to a promising start.

"The biggest thing I've noticed is the European market," said Brad Johnson, owner of the Aguila de Osa Inn, at Drake Bay on the Osa Pennisula. "I think it has something to do with the value of the euro against the dollar. European tourism has increased from about 10 percent of my guests to about 40 to 50 percent ... As for a projection for the year, I'm getting reservations left and right, so things look good for me."

Not everyone is as sunny with their projections as is Johnson, but, when compared to a bleak 2009, tourism does appear to be looking up in many areas of the country.

"December was good, and January was full as well," said Lino Gonzalez, manager at Hotel Yare in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean. "I think this year will be similar to last year, but a little bit improved. The United States economy is starting to recover and people will begin traveling again. We expect to see a little bit of improvement."

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To see more of The Tico Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.nicatimes.net/.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Tico Times, San Jose, Costa Rica

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