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Costa Rica 2018 | TOURISM | PHOTO ESSAY: GUANACASTE

A check up on medical tourism's potential in Guanacaste, Costa Rica's most developed tourist spot, will help the sector diagnose both problematic and prosperous segments.

Now synonymous with 'sustainable luxury,' the Guanacaste province was once a humble portion of Costa Rica's northwest. Today it has become a high-end legacy destination for many. Businesses and government officials alike are looking to diversify the region's offerings to thwart staleness and raise tourist spending.

During an interview with “The Voice of Guanacaste," Cesar Jaramillo, General Manager of Coriport, operator of Guanacaste's Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), stated, “Last year [2016] air travel was less expensive and as a result a lot of first-time tourists arrived with less purchasing power, purchased smaller tour packages, and spent fewer days in the country." Augmenting this sentiment was Isabel Vargas, president of the National Chamber of Tourism (Canatur), who advocated in a 2013 “La Nacion" article to bring in more tourists in an effort to offset lower spending.
Many are proactively looking to developa platform capable of accommodating a desirable mix of travelers, and medical and wellness tourism are potential areas for development.

Medical tourism was, at one point, seen by the business community as a new way to tap into the pocket books of travelers in the face of the overall decline in spending. However, when looking into the feasibility of this segment it is important to recognize a few realities facing this sub-segment of tourism. Costa Rica has developed into a relatively expensive destination for Latin America. Using capital cities as a proxy for overall cost of living, the Economist's “Worldwide Cost of Living Report 2017," ranks San José at 78 out of 133 countries, with neighbors Bogotá at 96th and Panama City at 112th. Perhaps the most telling relation to San Jose's ranking, though, is its proximity to an American city—Atlanta—coming in at 75th. Further exasperating this trend within Guanacas

te itself are the results of the latest study from the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce (MEIC) in 2014, which concludes that the basic food basket is 10% more expensive in Guanacaste than the rest of the country.
Permeating all of this was a contradictory belief among industry players that they can attract medical tourists from San José simply because they are closer to the beach. But, medical tourism is lagging, and it is primarily the US' relatively more expensive healthcare industry that is keeping Costa Rica's medical tourism industry afloat. In the first half of 2017, about 80% of air bound tourists in Guanacaste were from the US. The primary reason for medical tourism is to service price-sensitive consumers. If you are flying to a foreign country for medical treatment, it means you are cost sensitive and that medical treatment is the main reason you are flying there, not the beach. Developing beaches is not the remedy for an ailing medical tourism industry.
However, it could be the prescription for promoting wellness tourism. While also including a health aspect, wellness tourism emphasizes resort and beach vacations with an added benefit to mental and physical wellbeing. Wellness travelers seek many of the luxuries of Costa Rica's Guanacaste region such as beaches and other amenities.
TBY discussed the potential of wellness tourism with Costa Rica's Minister of Tourism, Mauricio Ventura, to understand the vision of the sector's future. Broadly speaking, Ventura advocated two primary development opportunities: MICE and wellness tourism. MICE serves to benefit all areas of the country, not just Guanacaste. As for Guanacaste, and if Minister Ventura's words are anything to go by, wellness retreat tourism offers the best emerging opportunity for the country. It is a form of tourism more aligned with the sought after affluent traveler, increasing tourist numbers and spending per visit, and can be well absorbed within Guanacaste's current tourism infrastructure—both of which are advantages of wellness tourism over medical tourism.