This week, controversy erupted in Costa Rica when La Nación reported that the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT), with approval from the National Institute for Women (INAMU), released guidelines for tourists months before that recommended that women visiting Costa Rica take actions to avoid violence including “maintaining control” when drinking, not sending friendly messages that could be misinterpreted, and dressing like locals to avoid attracting attention. In the face of widespread public disapproval, the ICT yanked the guide from its website and the government announced it would come up with something better.
Here’s a starting point for a second draft.
Welcome to Costa Rica. We’re glad you’re here. You don’t even know how glad. Or maybe you do: it’s been a long pandemic, for everyone.
As you’re aware, you’ve just entered a country that is world-famous for its beauty. The accomplishments of our people in conservation, health care, education, and, of course, the promotion of peace, are also renowned. You might be embarking on a trip that will shape and enrich your view of the world, or even affect the course of your life. At the very least, you are about to have an opportunity to relax, to disconnect, and to marvel.
Like any country, Costa Rica also has its own problems, from headaches to nightmares. One of ours is violence against women. Sexual harassment, assault, and other crimes against women in our country are rooted in a culture of machismo and sexism that hurts everyone, women and men—including, sometimes, tourists. Many people in all levels of our society, including our government, organizations and communities, are working hard to address this serious issue and make Costa Rica a better and safer place for everyone.
Ours is not the only country in the world with this problem. However, we do strive to climb to the top of the charts in another way: we want to set ourselves apart by being one of the countries that is working the hardest to eliminate it. We don’t want to be a country that hides this problem away, a shameful non-secret that continues to grow in the dark. Rather, we want to put it right under the spotlight so we can start to shrink it.
We ask one thing of you to help us in this effort. It’s just one ask, but it’s a big ask, because this isn’t easy: during your visit, raise your voice. If you are mistreated or made to feel unsafe, please report it immediately here. [Authorities, please insert the emergency phone numbers of a dedicated, well-staffed and efficient team of multilingual people trained and equipped to handle travelers’ reports, thus generating data and connecting them to emergency, medical, legal, or other services as needed. There is money for this: it is an investment that will have a more significant impact than any public relations campaign or brochure. It should, of course, takes its place alongside many efforts to make it easier for anyone in Costa Rica, not just travelers, to denounce hate crimes or speech, discrimination, harassment, and assault.]
What do we mean by “you”? Who are we speaking to here? Any visitor, of any gender, of any race, of any sexual orientation. We understand that violence against women is a component and a symptom of a complex and multifaceted disease. At its root, it is about contempt for people who are different from us, and that contempt can also manifest itself in racism, homophobia, or any other form of discrimination. From crimes to casual comments, hateful acts towards any group of people spring from a common well.
Will your reports be addressed with ruthless efficiency and the full force of a justice system that is laser-focused on ending oppression? Well, we just can’t promise that, not if you’re reading this in 2022. But that’s our goal. We need to get to a point where anyone in our country, of any economic level or social background, of any gender or race, feels empowered and comfortable in denouncing mistreatment of any kind—and knows that their complaints will result in action and improvement. Travelers, who wield considerable power in countries like Costa Rica, can play a huge role in that process.
Getting there will take time, and we’ll make mistakes. We’ve made some already. Big ones. Sometimes we get caught up in the age-old trap of telling women travelers to stay inside at night and not drink too much and not smile too wide and not look too good. Sometimes we forget that our job as a society is to protect your rights to do all those things (although, of course, we encourage all travelers, regardless of who they are, to listen to their intuition and to the safety recommendations of their travel providers and community members). Sometimes we forget that travelers, particularly women, are not potential emergencies to contain, but rather powerful allies in generating data, calling out wrongdoing, and effecting change.
Oftentimes, tourists don’t report harassment or even assault when they are in another country because they feel that they don’t belong. Hear us now: you are in Costa Rica. You belong. You matter deeply to us, and your safety is paramount.
That’s all you need to know.