Costa Rica 2018 | TOURISM | REVIEW

Costa Rica's social stability and longstanding ties to developed markets have created one of the region's best tourism sectors, and industry leaders are working to expand transit infrastructure and form new partnerships with Asian markets to ensure it remains a strength.

Costa Rica's tourism industry has seen strong growth in recent years as international visitors have flocked to the ecotourism and medical tourism options that have distinguished Costa Rica in a crowded tourism market. The country's social stability and high levels of development mean that the security concerns present in many other regional destinations are minimal, and years of ties to the US and European markets have created a pool of more than 100,000 expats able to vouch for the pleasures of one of Latin America's most stable and prosperous countries. Today, the tourism sector is one of the most mature in the region, seeing almost 3 million visitors per year. Moving forward, government and industry leaders are focusing on expanding tourism infrastructure and solidifying their connections with European markets while drawing new visitors from Asian ones.

Costa Rica saw a record 2.92 million tourist arrivals in 2016, an increase of 260,000 over 2015. 1.5 million of these arrivals came through Juan Santamaría International Airport and Daniel Oduber Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste, the nation's two main international terminals. The remaining 30% of arrivals came via ship and land crossings. The US remained far and away the largest source of tourists, with 1.23 million—over 40% of all visitors and a 14.5% increase over the previous year. Almost 435,000 of 2016's air arrivals came from Europe, and for the first time in history, the UK accounted for the largest source of European visitors, at just under 72,000, a 50% increase over 2015. This growth, the largest of any country, was primarily attributed to new direct flights from London to Costa Rica that debuted in 2016. Germany, Spain, and France rounded out the top four from the old continent, with each sending more than 60,000 visitors. Elsewhere, South America saw arrivals increase by 16% due to strong growth in the Venezuelan and Argentinian markets as both started to emerge from difficult economic situations. Nicaragua remained the country sending the second-most visitors, and all but 15,000 of its more than 440,000 arrivals came via land crossings, indicating that most of these were work-related transits.
The health and development of Costa Rica's tourism market can be seen in the sector's contribution to the national economy; in 2016, the sector amounted to USD3.4 billion in revenues, equal to 5.1% of the nation's GDP. This was the second-highest share of GDP among all Latin American countries, trailing only Panama, which saw tourism represent 10.8% of GDP. This came largely off the strength of high levels of average spending; according to the ICT, Costa Rica's tourism board, tourists spent an average of USD1,369 in the country on their visits, among the highest in the region. Figures like these bode well for the continued growth of the sector. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Tourism's direct contribution to GDP is expected to rise by 4.7% per year through 2027, behind only Peru and Cuba for the highest rate in Latin America.
Yet Costa Rica is far from resting on its laurels. Government and industry leaders have identified several areas in which infrastructure improvements can allow for greater values and more efficient travel, and have begun several major projects aimed at solving these issues. Juan Santamaría International (SJO), the nation's largest international airport, is currently undergoing a USD100-million expansion project that will increase capacity to 6 million passengers per year by 2026. Long Central America's busiest airport, it has been surpassed by Panama's Tocumen International in recent years. This expansion will expand a taxiway and add new boarding gates, allowing for improved passenger flows. Long term, however, Costa Rican leaders know that a new primary international airport will be needed. The country recently broke ground on Orotina International Airport 60km northwest of San José; the project is expected to cost USD3.5 billion and upon its full completion in 2047 have capacity for 50 million passengers.
And where, one might ask, are those 50 million passengers going to come from? If Costa Rica has its druthers, the Asian market will become a significant source of growth going forward. Industry leaders openly concede that Asia is currently a significantly underdeveloped region; Costa Rica saw only 35,676 arrivals in 2016, of which 12,800 were from China. Recent years have seen the Costa Rican government take concrete steps toward courting the Chinese market. In 2014, President Luis Guillermo Solís met with the director of the China National Tourism Administration and outlined steps for Chinese tourism firms to connect with their Costa Rican counterparts. The potential is tremendous; research indicates that Chinese tourists tend to be more affluent and willing to spend than North American tourists. Establishing a pipeline here would reap benefits for the Costa Rican tourism industry.