Text by Mónica Quesada Cordero and Katherine Stanley Obando, with additional reporting by Mayela López and Thomas Enderlin. Fourth part in our April 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,“ and part three,”When gold is green“.
Coffee in the sunshine on a mountainside patio. The contagious smiles of two former gold miners who now devote their lives to showcasing the beauty of the forest with visitors from around the world. Unexpected discoveries with guides who have grown up in the area you are exploring and devote their lives to bettering their community.
Rural tourism—especially to those of us who stumble into it from office parks or high rises, crowded city streets and late nights in front of a glowing screen—can have a dreamlike quality. It’s easy to be drawn into the poetry and purpose of the effort. In a sense, this euphoria is exactly what rural tourism experiences are designed to create: the fatigue from an early morning that begins with birdsong and insect choruses, the pleasant soreness in muscles that have hiked and worked, lungs filled with clean air, tummies filled with handmade tortillas and plantain cakes and other delicacies from ingredients harvested at arm’s length.
A day in the life of a rural tourist in Costa Rica? We know what that’s like, and it’s wonderful. But what is a day like in the life of the rural entrepreneur? What’s the reality behind the dream?
It’s not all trail walks and wildlife identification, of course. But it’s not even all physical labor and customer service, as some visitors might imagine: the chopping and washing, the response at all hours to diverse needs and unexpected situations with visitors. Even a brief conversation with rural entrepreneurs about their actual day-to-day reveals their connection to a web of bureaucratic requirements, permits, fines and laws that generally originate from offices far from their communities, but affect them in tangible ways each day. To survive, they must master a complex and changing laws and requirements, get to know individuals within local and national offices who can move things along, and find ways to adapt to procedures that are rarely designed with their daily realities in mind—such as access to internet or equipment, or their ability to close up the business for a full day for a training hours away.
Costa Rica’s tourism sector is used to riding a roller coaster in terms of occupation. The dry months from December to March are known as high season, when hotels and tourist activities can have 100% occupancy, while September and October, the low season, many operations decide to close to reduce expenses as occupation might approach zero, in some cases. But in the words of Luis Diego Madrigal, tour guide and owner of ICETOUR, an institute for guide training, Costa Rica experienced a zero season during 2020—going from full tilt in the February 2020 high season, to practically nothing in a matter of weeks. In 2021 there has only been one season: low. Very, very low.
This extraordinary situation has undoubtedly exacerbated the stress faced by rural tourism entrepreneurs in Costa Rica. But the stress did not start with COVID-19.
“Lord, you have to be patient,” says Jorge Fallas, president of the Chamber of Rural Experiences, reflecting on the reality of the rural tourism entrepreneur. Patience can’t be in short supply for those who wish to spend their days in this profession.
Sergio Arias knows the importance of starting the day with a cafecito—not only because he owns Casa Tangara Dowii, a café on the Cerro de la Muerte, but also because he is a bird watching guide and never misses first light. In recent months, Sergio has had to arm himself with patience and a lot of coffee. At the end of 2019, with many years of experience under his arm, he decided to take the next step and expand his business. The arrival of the pandemic frustrated the growth of their initiative, financed by a loan from Banca para el Desarrollo—a system through which public funds are administered by public and private banks to finance small and medium-sized enterprises, with a very competitive interest rate. But even that support couldn’t smooth the rocky road he had to climb.
“Today we need to generate quality employment that pays taxes and generates social development, but those of us who want to do things well run into a tangle of bureaucracy, which stops more than one person from moving forward,” Sergio wrote in a Facebook post. He’d just spent eight months of completing paperwork and finally entering the final stretch to obtain his operating permit. The photo he posted with his count showed one of the many cups of coffee he consumed during the process, surrounded by the various papers and forms that were part of the long, steep path.
He says his negative experience was the result of extensive misinformation and a lack of communication between the different government entities that are involved in allowing his enterprise to function.
A rural tourism entrepreneur who wants to operate under the framework of the law in Costa Rica must process different permits and documents with eight state and semi-private institutions. This starts with their municipality and moves on to national entities including the Ministry of Public Health; the Costa Rican Social Security System, or Caja; the Costa Rican National Bank; the Bank of Costa Rica; the National Insurance Institute, or another insurer; the Ministry of Finance; and, in some cases, the Ministry of Environment and Energy and the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC).
The entrepreneurs we interviewed said they believe the intervention of all these entities is justifiable for the most part: the problem is that they do not communicate with each other, or make enough of their processes virtual. That is to say: these entrepreneurs sometimes drink their first morning coffee in the week hours, not because they have to milk the cows or launch an early tour, but because they have to travel long hours to towns or cities where they can carry out their procedures in person.
“You have to bring all the printed documents,” says Sergio about one of his visits, explaining that scanned documents are not accepted, “and you get to the official on the municipal platform and they scan them and they give them right back to you. And you can’t have documents with staples! They’ll scold you.” (This comment elicits a groan of agreement from the others on our group Zoom call.)
“Now I start to think about the many entrepreneurs, the women and men of this country who want to open a cafeteria, who want to open a souvenir shop, who want to open a restaurant, who do not even understand the technical terms that they give you in that pile of papers and documents ”, says Sergio. He says these type of obstacles only encourage informality, tiny enterprises that end up working outside the system. “The issue is not to stop complying, it is to make it easier.”
“I am a frequent client of the ICT services comptroller, INA services comptroller, SINAC services comptroller, everyone,” says Luis Diego, adding that he puts his foot down when he thinks officials aren’t treating him fairly. ”If you don’t get angry, then the next process will be the same.” Luis Diego has become an expert in telling functionaries about Law 8220 for the Simplification of Procedures, which indicates that citizens do not have to engage in procedures that the institutions can carry out internally.
“I am also a frequent client of the service comptroller,” says Margarita Bottazzi, owner of Posada Rural Monserrat. “It’s the only way to do it: wearing out your shoe leather.”
“My time in front of the window is worth nothing,” says Donald Varela, co-owner of Casitas Tenorio B&B and the Tapir Valley Reserve, both in Bijagua (full disclosure: the co-founder of El Colectivo 506, Pippa Kelly, is his wife and co-owner) and the president of the Río Celeste Chamber of Tourism, CATURI.
Sergio, Luis Diego, Margarita and Donald all say that the willingness of public officials to serve tourism entrepreneurs is key.
Donald and Sergio tell the stories of many hours in public offices, explaining the reality of their economic activity to bank managers and officials at service windows.
In one recent patent renewal, after religiously obtaining all the requested documents, Donald showed up to perform the last step and the person indicated that he could not complete the process there. “I have been with you, processing this for a month, and you never said anything to me,” Donald recalls telling him.
This scenario is not new for any of them.
They say that their solution has been to identify those officials who are not only well informed, but also have an interest in getting the entrepreneur’s paperwork out.
Law 8220 for the Protection of Citizens from Excessive Requirements and Administrative Processes was introduced in 2002. In 2011, Law 8990 included some modifcations. While the last modfications to the implementating regulations for that law were signed in 2017, the law itself has been in effect since 2012, establishing obligations for state institutions towards people who use their services. Among these is Article 6, Principles of institutional and inter-institutional coordination,which obliges public institutions to communicate with each other to obtain the necessary information for a procedure, and Article 8, paragraph c, which exempts a user from delivering a document that is already within the institution’s system because it was used in another procedure or a previous step of the same procedure.
This legislation also created the System for the Simplification of Procedures and Regulatory Improvement, under the leadership of the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, which since 2017 has not published any update on its website on improved Procedures by the Institutions of Public Administration according to the query made by El Colectivo 506 on April 21, 2021.
In the end, Laws 8220 and 8990 establish that the simplification of procedures of the institutions is limited by what all the laws of the republic allow. A tourism entrepreneur might face not only civil servants who do not know or do not understand their functions, but also laws that are not created with them in mind.
“The laws are restrictive and protective for the forest and for the animals, but they do not contemplate anything related to the people of the community,” said Enoc Espinoza, owner of Sierpe Azul Exclusive Tours and member of the Caminos de Osa project, who states that although the management plan of the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve permits agricultural activity in areas that have previously been used for such activities, they do not allow for any type of institutional support to allow for their implementation.
For Jorge, one of the solutions to this “Frankenstein,” as he calls the complex mishmash of laws governing and affecting rural tourism, would be the creation of “a general tourism law that packages all laws, decrees, and into a single law.”
That law that Jorge imagines would have specific chapters for each kind of tourism, generated with the participation of individuals and companies belonging to them. “With the experiences that the pandemic has left us,” he says, “we can create the vision to do something very good.”
The midday meal
That first cup of coffee is a distant memory. The midday sun is shining, and it is time for the most important meal of the day in Costa Rica: lunch. Any tourist, even on the shortest visit to Costa Rica, learns that you have to eat a proper casado. For an entrepreneur in food service, lunch is rush hour; for a guide, it could be a time to breathe and strategize for the afternoon hike; for hoteliers, it is usually a time to handle checkouts and get rooms ready for new arrivals.
Each of those processes—serving meals, changing sheets, checking in, managing a group on tour—was incredibly transformed by the bitter meal that COVID-19 served up for the sector.
On March 18, 2020, the government of Costa Rica was forced to close borders to control the spread of the disease, a measure followed by additional restrictions on operation and mobility within the country. This meant a blow to the tourist activity that today, in April 2021, has already caused the closure of many enterprises. Despite the reopening of air borders in August 2020 and maritime borders in November, the entry of tourists to Costa Rica in 2020, according to data from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), decreased by almost 70% compared to 2019, with a cumulative total of 1,011,912 visitors. For January and February 2021, the percentage of variation in the entry of tourists to Costa Rica is even more alarming: entries are 83% lower, compared to the same period in 2020 when the borders were still open.
An ICT reportprojects “greater recovery towards the end of 2021 and a number of tourists that could approach 600,000,” even lower than 2020 and its two full months of normal operations.
The World Tourism Organization, as cited by the ICT, presents several scenarios of recovery projections for the tourist economy. The most conservative one talks about recovery towards the end of 2024; the most hopeful one talks about mid-2023. How is Costa Rica facing this reality? How can this country prepare for the years to come?
“I have not felt support from the ICT,” says Margarita. In addition to her rural inn, she has a tourist bus and is a tourist guide. For her, the support has come from her colleagues and the rural tourism chamber to which she belongs. However, she says that despite the work and effort, not enough has been achieved. “We entrepreneurs need immediate solutions,” she adds.
“Many of us have survived with savings during the two zero seasons that we have had, but today, there are only three coins left at the bottom of the bag,” says Sergio. “There have been no comprehensive solutions, only patches and palliative things, and the body’s still there.”
Margarita says that an entrepreneur in San José at the beginning of the pandemic had to direct all her savings to fix a water tank that broke in her property. Margarita had to do the same when a tree fell on a structure in her hotel.
“We entrepreneurs need cash flow to solve the immediate problems we have,” she says. “[At this moment] we have two options: either we abandon our project or we continue to stick with it, and here there are no financial facilities.”
“For small entrepreneurs with small projects, they are not forgiving anything,” says Luis Diego, referring to one controversial debt forgiveness act that the government provided for the rice industry for more than six billion colones ($9.77 million). This forgiveness, granted by the Development Banking System, applied even to businessmen who were delinquent before COVID-19, according to the newspaper La Nación.
“The words Banking for Development should be changed to Banking for Rescue,” says Luis Diego. “What this country needs is a law to rescue tourist activity, with economic content… a law that has a way to help us. If there is no debt forgiveness, there should be an extension of at least 24 months for people to start paying. People need to be rescued.”
“I don’t want them to give me gifts, to give me forgiveness,” says Sergio, who is a client of Banca para el Desarrollo. “I want them to give me a loan and give me 1-2 years to pay, and thus continue to operate and maintain the chain of active suppliers.”
Sergio recently had to explain to an official of the bank where he manages his Development Banking loans how tourism activity works, discovering together that the country’s financial system is not set up to attend to rural entrepreneurs, and even less in post-pandemic times.
“[In Development Banking] they can lend you money, but it has to show cash flow,” said Sergio. “How are you going to tell a guide to show his cash flow for the last year if you have zero income, if there have been no tourists in a year? How are you going to say that to a hotel, to a tour operator, to a carrier that has all its units suspended?”
“The biggest fight we have,” says Donald, “is to get the state bank to produce a product that solves the problems we have. It would have to be at a maximum of 2% of the basic rate, and with variable grace periods depending on the activity.”
When you combine the panorama described by these entrepreneurs and the projections of the UNWTO, it is clear that this country’s tourism sector is in serious danger.
“A campaign like ‘Vamos a Turistear’ is useless if, in the end, you arrive and the business is closed,” said Luis Diego, referring to the ICT’s massive publicity effort focused on domestic tourists.
Happy hours and sleepless nights
As we have already seen, the rural entrepreneur’s day is a long one. But let’s imagine that on this fictional day, the arrival of happy hour gives our entrepreneurs a chance to take a break. Tourists are settled in rocking chairs with ice-cold bottles of Imperial, or taking a shower after hours on the trail, or dealing with the emotions of tired children before dinner. Entrepreneurs, if they are lucky, have a chance to catch up with their own families, check their accounts, plan a little for the next day.
Talking like this, openly, figurative beer in hand, we ask the entrepreneurs who have participated in our interviews: Diay, what can be done to improve this situation?
It is difficult for the group to come up with solutions. There is a lot of frustration.
“The tourism sector—especially rural tourism and ecotourism—we have been the Sunday handkerchief of this country,” says Donald, using an expression, pañuelito de dominguear, that refers to the pride and joy, the show horse. ”But the value they assign to us is nothing, and I mean nothing… That is an huge emotional blow.”
That fancy handkerchief is also a very strong engine. Part of the frustration that entrepreneurs express comes from their understanding of the importance that their economic activity has for the country. Between 2012 and 2017, the contribution of tourism activity to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as reported in 2018 by the Central Bank of Costa Rica (BCCR), has shown a constant increase. In 2016, 5% of Costa Rica’s GDP was generated directly by tourism activity. For 2017, calculations made with raw data by El Colectivo 506 show that the direct impact of this economic activity was 5.9% of GDP.
Also in 2016, the BCCR reported that considering the direct and indirect effects on the economy, tourism activity helped to generate 8.2% of GDP, surpassed only by the manufacturing industry (boosted significantly by the numbers from Intel), mines and quarries, and well above the agricultural industry in general.
In terms of employment, tourism activity represented 8.8% of jobs in the country for 2016, with 211,213 jobs. For 2017, in just one year, a total of 308,057 jobs were recorded, an increase of 45% in the total number of jobs within the tourism activity, now representing 13.5% of the total jobs in the country.
More recent data would probably only show how the economic impact of tourism activity continued to grow between 2017 and 2019, considering that international tourist arrivals increased by almost 10% in that time range.
How is it possible then, say entrepreneurs, that despite the economic importance of their activity, so little attention is devoted to analyzing and responding to the economic needs of the sector? Not only to address the impact of COVID, but also to improve that rocky road they have to walk to formalize and maintain their businesses.
Luis Diego attributes part of the problem, especially in the post-pandemic context, to a lack of interaction between the state and the sector.
“Let the 125 ICT employees come out and ask Sergio, ‘What do you need?'” says Luis Diego, proposing much more significant efforts to survey and understand urgent needs.
He says another part of the answer is to have entrepreneurs well informed about their rights, with respect to the procedures, so that they can advocate for themselves.
Donald says that after much interaction between CATURI and the mayor of Upala, the conclusion they have reached is that the municipality must have a person dedicated to serving tourism entrepreneurs.
“You need an office operated by a person with knowledge of the sector within the municipality, and to oblige the municipality to obtain the resources for that,” he says. “This would guarantee that the person who is operating that office has the knowledge of the paperwork that this requires, and we are not jumping from one place to another…. It cannot be that our time has no value.
“We have no other option to survive in rural communities,” he concludes. “We are entrepreneurs because we love what we do, we love our community, and we have decided to fight tooth and nail to be able to make a business work.”
In the end, that long day ends in a sleepless night. The sector is waiting: not only to see how quickly the country can be vaccinated against COVID-19, and in what quantities tourists will return to tread the streets and trails of Costa Rica, but also how well the country’s leaders will be able to create solutions that allow them to stay alive, keep working.
After spending a day with these entrepreneurs, focused on the institutional framework surrounding them, the overwhelming sensation is one of disappointment and deep worry. There’s a lot of darkness. Of course, just as in the forests of Costa Rica at night—when the darkness hits extraordinary levels of activity, drama and noise among the fauna—there are many people working in one way or another to try to avoid the collapse of small enterprises. We spoke with Tourism Minister Gustavo Segura about the actions he and his team are trying to promote for business relief. We looked back at the hope our reporters chronicled on the Pacuare River, on more than 200 km of the Camino de Costa Rica, and in the forests of the Osa Peninsula, to see how it might translate into practical options for a hard-hit sector. Next week, the journey ends with those ideas.
Meanwhile, sooner or later—in many cases, very late—the rural entrepreneurs find a bed. But if their rest is deep, it is only from exhaustion from the hard work of the day. It is not from tranquility with regards to the future. That, for now, does not exist.