Text by Mónica Quesada Cordero and Katherine Stanley Obando, with additional reporting by Mayela López and Thomas Enderlin. Sixth part in our series on rural community tourism in Costa Rica. Read Part One, “The wisdom that comes from a life on the river,” Part Two “One step at a time,“ Part Three, “When gold is green,“, Part Four, “The stones in their shoes,” and Part Five, “¿What would Costa Rica be like without rural tourism?“
Gustavo Segura is thinking small, in a good way.
The Costa Rican Tourism Minister took office in July 2020 after the resignation of María Amalia Revelo for health reasons, facing what was surely the worst outlook of any new tourism minister in history. Today, he sees a possible solution for rural tourism because of the type of travel that international travelers are seeking.
“The revival is starting with families and small groups, not with large groups,” says Gustavo energetically. “For small boutique businesses … the market that is being reactivated is the relevant one.”
But he says he knows that to keep businesses open long enough to welcome those groups, the institution he directs, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), must also think small in terms of recognizing the great diversity of needs in the sector.
“In order to really understand what is happening, you have to go to the field,” he says. “What’s happening in Nosara is not the same compared to when I go to Los Chiles or the area of Caño Negro or Tempisque, where the Palo Verde Refuge was the main source for many entrepreneurs.”
Several business owners we consulted noted the Minister’s efforts to visit various regions, but complained about the general lack of ICT presence and lack of consultation with rural entrepreneurs.
On April 13th, the minister and ten different tourism chambers met to discuss the situation. The summary of the meeting shows that tourism entrepreneurs consider, in order of priority, that they need help with banking, the Social Security System (CCSS), public services (electricity and water), municipal patents, operating permits from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance.
They also described a need to create legislation that protects the economic sector—not only during the pandemic, but also afterwards.
In terms of concrete solutions to keep the rural tourism sector afloat, Gustavo, during an April 19th interview with El Colectivo 506, rattles off a list of efforts—all in different stages of implementation, many with limitations. A new rural tourism rescue program from the public Rural Development Institute (INDER) can fund only nonprofit organizations, due to internal limitations, leaving businesses out of the running. New low-interest loans for the Development Banking system (Banca de Desarrollo) will be announced at any time, he tells us. The week before our conversation, he met with representatives from the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS), the Aqueduct and Sewerage Institute, or AyA, and the Public Services Regulatory Agency, or ARESEP, to request cost reductions for the small tourism businesses. He says these requests have been received with a receptive attitude, but will require greater coordination to carry out. In February, he coordinated with the Ministry of Health to reduce the cost of operational health permits for the sector.
What’s more, a fleet of bills now await attention in the Legislative Assembly, in line behind a complex and controversial law on public employment that must be passed before other bills can be considered. These aims to address the problem in various ways: the bills include incentives for film production (Bill 22304), foreign investors and retired residents (Bill 22156) and digital nomads (Bill 22215). Even more important is a series of laws that can alleviate the financial burden for tourism businesses. These include a measure to allow employers to reach payment agreements with the tax system when they cannot pay their value added tax, or VAT (Bill 22434); a law that allows companies to reduce the working hours of their employees without having to pay severance pay (Bill 22405); and the creation of a special financing project called the Guarantee and Guarantee Fund that will allow companies and individuals to obtain credit even if they have lost income due to COVID, as long as they commit to maintaining or increasing their payroll (Bill 22041).
Why are such measures still up in the air, more than a year after the pandemic began? How is this possible when the consequences for the tourism sector of the border closure in March 2020 were so immediately apparent?
The Tourism Minister gives the same answer to that question as he does when asked why frontline tourism workers are not given priority to vaccines: the trickle of resources, whether vaccines or money, is too slow. Every sector has to argue why it should get the support and benefits first. The government also has to think about teachers, transportation, agriculture.
“[Costa Rica] is a country with a very complicated fiscal context at the moment,” he adds, when summing up the list of difficulties faced by the ICT.
When we ask him about how the ICT can help simplify municipal procedures for rural entrepreneurs—for example, by asking municipalities to designate a staff member with expertise in this topic to working with area businesses, one idea proposed during our group interview with entrepreneurs—he says that it is a complex issue.
“We have to remember that the municipalities are autonomous governments,” he explains. “This means that each municipality defines the way in which it manages its relationship with entrepreneurs and residents. In addition, many of these municipalities depend on income from taxes and operating permits to cover their own expenses and are therefore reluctant to give tourism companies any relief on their payments… What other sources of income do munis have on hand?”
However, he adds that some local governments, such as the municipalities of Osa or San Carlos, see the lack of cash flow for their tourism businesses and take a practical approach. “They say, ‘I do not gain anything by not making payment plans with tourism companies, because they are not going to pay me anyway.’”
According to the minister, the Municipal Development and Advisory Institute (IFAM) is trying to influence this process, and Gustavo is in constant communication with IFAM leaders.
“I do hope that one of the long-term effects of COVID is the simplification of procedures,” says Gustavo, mentioning trámites at the national and municipal level. “Costa Rica is very complicated with its paperwork, and what COVID did was exacerbate that. Now we have an opportunity.” He says that the ICT has already done its part, simplifying the process to achieve the Tourism Decree by using affidavits as a substitute for some documents.
Keeping Costa Rica on your mind
A visit to the ICT website makes it clear that the institution has focused its efforts for tourism development on two main areas. The first is advertising, both domestically and internationally. The second is the creation of tools that make it easier to guarantee quality and service among tourism businesses.
The most visible actions by the ICT to try to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on tourism entrepreneurs in Costa Rica have been related to advertising. These actions do not provide short-term relief, Gustavo admits, but in his opinion, they are important in generating new visits to the country to recover sustainability and growth.
“We continue on the path of reactivating air connectivity,” said the Tourism Minister. He says that the current mass vaccination efforts in the United States, the source of the majority of Costa Rica’s visitors, and the related recovery of confidence to travel must be accompanied by the reactivation of flights.
The ICT also dedicates resources to maintaining Costa Rica’s position in international markets. 2021 efforts along these lines have included easing entry requirements for visitors from China; promoting the country through influencers and television programs in other countries; the creation of a documentary series for IMAX; and the placement of advertising in strategic sites and activities in other countries. In 2020, the ICT also held a virtual version of its annual tourism expo, Expotur.
During 2020 and 2021, the ICT has also dedicated resources and strategies to promoting domestic tourism, spending more than 324 million colones (approximately $522,000) on the “Vamos a Turistear” campaign, which invited Costa Ricans to support the industry by visiting destinations around the country.
In parallel to this campaign, the ICT began the development of cultural tourism guides in collaboration with the tourism chambers of six regions of the country. Ruth Alfaro, the ICT’s head of tourism development, says these guides seek to encapsulate the national tourism offerings in a new way.
“People are very happy with these guides,” she says. “Entrepreneurs are using them to promote their own businesses.”
What is the real impact that these two efforts have had on the reactivation of the sector? The answer to this question is unclear. In response to queries from El Colectivo 506 about the results achieved by these initiatives, the ICT indicated that it does not have statistics on the number of downloads of the guides, but that “they were distributed and posted on multiple websites and social networks both of the ICT and of the respective municipalities and tourism chambers of the communities represented, as well as the Ministry of Culture.”
“Talking about the impact [of the cultural tourism guides] would be a bit daring, because these guides were recently released,” Ruth said.
Similarly, regarding the impact on reservations and visits by national visitors as a result of the Vamos a Turistear campaign, the ICT response was that “one of the ways of measuring [impact] is the scope of the campaign and its performance, mostly in digital formats.” The campaign has had a total reach of more than 62 million impressions, which were shared almost 10,000 times and received just over 50,000 likes. However, the response indicated that the ICT has no knowledge of whether the campaign is really making a difference for the sector.
As part of the actions to encourage national tourism, a bill has also been introduced to declare Father’s Day as a non-mandatory pay holiday for the year 2021 (Bill 22465).
Virtual training and support
Another effort that ICT has made during the pandemic has been to address the needs of the sector and reduce the travel burden of rural leaders—impossible, of course, during the pandemic, but a tension before COVID-19 as well—by building its training program, ICT Capacita, and its YouTube channel, so that entrepreneurs can receive training from wherever they are.
According to Ruth Alfaro, the ICT pursued this effort after seeing the need for digital options for tourism entrepreneur support during the pandemic. By May 2020, the platform was operational and at the service of all businesses, with or without a Tourism Decree.
According to data provided by the ICT, the platform offers 114 videos divided among courses, lectures, and presentations. The ICT YouTube channel had amassed a total of 44,265 views as of April 14, 2021.
The videos with the highest number of views are those related to specific operating protocols for four sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic: first aid, requirements for the entry of tourists, tax aspects, reactivation, and “The power of positive thoughts and managing emotions in uncertain situations,” all with views ranging from 1,000-2,200.
In January 2021, the ICT began an evaluation process of the training provided through user surveys. The results of the evaluations show that 98% of the participants would recommend the activity to other people; 99% responded that the training helped them improve their knowledge, and that what they learned will be useful for their business. However, there are no statistics on how useful the tool is in allowing rural businesses to continue operating during and after the crisis.
So: can the government save the rural tourism industry? And if not, what will happen now?
Current government efforts to maintain the industry are, as previously noted, complex and slow to implement. The diverse ICT efforts to promote and train the sector represent a considerable investment—although it may seem small compared to other public institutions’ budgets—but, according to the information provided to El Colectivo 506, its real impact on the health and financial sustainability of the sector is uncertain.
That’s why many of the responses that have been more immediately effective have come from the bottom up. The tourism companies and entrepreneurs themselves have had to innovate to sustain themselves over the course of the last year. These efforts have borne fruit, even if they have not been enough to fully resolve the problems at hand.
Tomorrow, in our last installment of “The trailblazers,” we will tell you about some examples of resilience and solidarity that emerged during the pandemic—especially in the countryside, where rural tourism entrepreneurs have created their own new normal, day by day.