Contacto Boletín

Actualidad Alba Sud | Turismo Responsable | Costa Rica


Seminar: «Vulnerabilities and post pandemic scenarios of tourism in Costa Rica»

Arturo Silva & Angélica Duarte | Alba Sud

Between August 10 and 14, a virtual seminar was held, organized by the School of Sociology of the University of Costa Rica and Alba Sud, in order to collectively analyze different dimensions of the tourism crisis caused by the pandemic of the COVID-19.

Crédito Fotografía: Quajiniquil, Costa Rica. Imagen de Ernest Cañada.

The Virtual Seminar "Vulnerabilities and Post Pandemic Scenarios of Tourism in Costa Rica", held in the second week of August, was a coordinated effort between the School of Sociology of the University of Costa Rica and Alba Sud, which had the support of the Diputación de Barcelona within the framework of the project "International campaign to make visible human rights violations by tourist investment in Central America".

The event included three round tables on topics related to the contradictions of the global tourism processes, the dynamics of reconfiguration of tourism, the tourist profile, and the challenges and responses of rural and community-based tourism. In this series of three debates, a diversity of actors participated, from local tourism managers from the Térraba, Talamanca and Guanacaste regions, academics from the University of Costa Rica, a representative from the chamber of rural experiences of rural tourism and rural community tourism and collaborators of Alba Sud.

Table I. Vulnerabilities and contradictions of the global touristification process

The first table had the objective of analyzing the global touristification processes, with emphasis on the current and possible scenarios of activity in the context of the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Based on the contributions Allen Cordero Ulate, director of the School of Sociology at the University of Costa Rica, María Angelica Picado Duarte and Ernest Cañada, both representing Alba Sud.

First, Dr. Allen Cordero emphasized the economic and social importance of tourism in Costa Rica. After reviewing the main macroeconomic indicators, Cordero highlighted the changes that have occurred in the country's tourism reality in recent years and in what way the pandemic opens the possibility of new scenarios of the activity. Likewise, he emphasized that the Costa Rican tourism model has changed to one that prioritizes large investments and the visitation of foreign tourists, that implies that the national tourist has moved to a second place of importance. Cordero calls this the "Balearization" of tourism in Costa Rica, in reference to what happened in the Balearic Islands in Spain. In other words, a tourist model open to the outside world that is understood as an extension of the flow of imports and exports based on tourist enclaves. An ideology of accumulation from tourist activity that has permeated medium and small tourism enterprises.

Allen Cordero also highlighted that, far from questioning the tourism model, the pandemic crisis has served to reveal the tension between health and the economy. The strategy has been to underline the private management of tourism as an activity with a great variety of offers from medium and small enterprises, democratized and of enormous social variety. With the support of certain sectors of civil society, there is a commitment to reactivation through the deregulation of the labor market, reduction of hours and dismissals. At the same time as facilities in tax charges such as tax exemption for the tourism sector.

Cordero predicts two possible scenarios, contradictory but coexisting. The first is an elitization of tourist activity where the upper classes, national or foreign, are the ones who will be to afford expensive trips and health security measures. And a second that has to do with the democratization of tourist activity. This implies a greater visitation of national tourists from the middle and popular classes to destinations. Community relations with local tourism enterprises would be an axis that articulates this greater democratization of tourism activity. Especially those of popular, indigenous and peasant base. Finally, Cordero raised the need to investigate what strategies these initiatives could have to attract national tourists in a post-COVID-19 scenario.

The Master María Angelica Picado Duarte loomed the tourist issue from a territorial approach. The triad "Forms of Life-Network of Actors-Territorial Assets" are fundamental to understand the relationship between tourism and territory, that is, the reappropriation of the tourist social space.

Picado pointed out that tourism can serve the interests of local communities or be a means for the dispossession of community life forms. He cited the examples of the Garífuna population in Honduras or the islets of Granada in Nicaragua where the capitalization of nature prevails, this has caused socio-environmental tensions and territorial segregation. For Picado, the analysis of tourism should pay attention to the contradictions that occur in the activity.

Tourism or tourisms based on local communities must start from a management model based on their autonomy, that is, an autonomous management of material, ecological and symbolic heritage, and that, in turn, allow an equitable distribution of the benefits. As a community project it must be compatible with ecological, agricultural and, of course, social cycles. From this perspective, tourism can generate social cohesion, collective action and livelihood alternatives. One of the aspects that Picado emphasized the most was the political struggle of women for the territory. This is understood as an autonomic dimension that integrates gender and ecology to reaffirm land tenure and access to the goods it produces.

To close, Picado put on the table a list of points that must be taken into account during and after the pandemic: the right to tourism for everyone in times of pandemic; the priority of small and medium tourism companies; gradual reactivation; the "cannibalization" of "CovidFree" destinations; big capital's commitment to medical tourism, residences for the elderly and leisure bubbles; the acceleration of the processes of a greater digitization of tourism.

Finally, the last speaker of the day was Ernest Cañada. Cañada's contribution revolved around the global tourism process and what paths should be taken to not only face this crisis but also to restructure tourism in more equitable ways.

In his way of seeing what the tourism sector is experiencing at the moment is a crisis resulting from the restriction in the arrival of tourists, but this allows to unveil a structural crisis of the hegemonic model. Cañada points out that the Central American region became one of the last peripheries to join the global tourism process, mainly in coastal destinations. Touristification is understood as the process of converting territories into tourist spaces under the logic of capital. This leads to a monofunctionality of the territory to adapt to the accumulation and reproduction needs of capital from tourism.

The over-specialization of tourist territories comes with it a series of consequences. Among the most important dynamics of land and water dispossession, a double migration dynamic that expels local populations, while attracting tourists and new residents along with seasonal labor. Cañada emphasized that the working conditions of this workforce are in most cases subordinate to large capitals in precarious working conditions and / or an increase in the informal economy.

Cañada closed with a series of ideas that must be considered in order to understand and face the current crisis. This implies assuming that this crisis is not temporary, but rather that we are on the verge of a profound transformation of the tourism fabric. Therefore, he explained, it would be necessary not to repeat the same dynamic that has led us to this situation, and for this it is necessary to pay attention to the demands of groups and communities for the reformulation of public policies. Correct the logic that appeals to the over-specialization of touristified territories because this increases vulnerability to crisis situations and restricts the possibilities of other alternatives. Diversify local economies so that tourism is part of a range of options that allows greater social and economic dynamism. Appeal to national and local tourism to be able to face crises, this is to strengthen community tourism and facilitate national tourism.

Table II. Views from the South Caribbean and Guanacaste

The main goal of the table was to characterize and differentiate the profile of tourists arriving in the South Caribbean in the Limón province and Guanacaste in the North Pacific. For this, we had the collaboration of Alejandra Tenorio, collaborator of the Observatory of Sustainable Tourism of the Caribbean (OBTURCARIBE) of the Caribbean headquarters of the University of Costa Rica, Laetitia Gallet, local manager of South Caribbean tourism, and Luana Cavuoto, sociology student at the University of Costa Rica.

Alejandra Tenorioexplained that the South Caribbean, despite being a destination associated with beach tourism, the cultural variety provides an attraction that differentiates it from other coastal destinations in Costa Rica. A strong Afro-Caribbean presence together with the influence of indigenous culture gives it a comparative advantage with other sun and beach destinations. The South Caribbean boasts three main niches that distribute the tourist offer: Puerto Viejo, with a more commercial activity; Manzanillo, linked to nature activities such as hiking, view of flora and fauna; and Cahuita, associated with cultural activities.

Another peculiarity is that the area is visited mostly by national tourists, both from the same province and from other parts of the country, followed, to a lesser extent, by European and North American tourists. The composition of tourist demand means that average spending is lower than other beach destinations in the country that have followed the model of standardized packages in hotel chains. For example, national tourists spend the night between one and three days, staying mainly in cabins, spending between 600 and 1000 dollars per household. While the foreign tourist prefers to travel either individually or with an accompanying person. The average expenditure of this tourist is 1,650 dollars, in a period of up to a week, in which he uses cabins, small hotels and hostels for his lodging.

For Tenorio, the crisis caused by COVID-19 has led to a decrease in tourist visits, an increase in unemployment and the disappearance of tourism companies. Among the alternatives that he proposed to solve the crisis in the sector, he cited: promoting digital marketing, unifying tourism offers, facilitating productive chains, joint work between the private sector and the public, training and support from the academy to strengthen tourism rural.

On the same line of analysis, Leatitia Gallet affirmed that the tourist attractive of the South Caribbean is in the multiculturalism of the destination in conjunction with offers that are built on the natural diversity. Most tourism accommodations are family-owned with small capital, with a lodging capacity of no more than 15 rooms. For Gallet, the crisis has highlighted the informality that reigns in the area, which makes it more vulnerable to crises like the current one. As an example, she cited the absence of regulatory plans for land management. According to data provided by her, of the 674 tourist companies registered in the area, only 224 have health permits or tourist declaration, which makes it very difficult to access specific credits or take advantage of institutional initiatives aimed at the tourism sector. The alternative they have carried out is solidarity and cooperation networks to carry out training sessions.

Finally, Luana Cavuoto made a review that, by way of contrast, presents a different reality for the province of Guanacaste. Cavuoto pointed out that the tourism model in Guanacaste has been based on large transnational companies with foreigners leading the way, both in visitation and in managing tourist destinations. This has implied a threat to the privatization of natural resources, being subject to the logic of perpetual growth in tourism investment with little or no participation from local communities.

Table III. Rural Community Tourism: challenges and responses to COVID-19

The third table of the seminar addressed the issue of challenges and responses in the experiences of Rural and Community Tourism in the face of COVID-19. The diversity of voices that interacted in the dialogue space allowed broadening the view from multiple experiences and ways of relating to the tourist environment. In the first instance, the representative of the Chamber of Rural Experiences of Rural Tourism and Rural and Community Tourism, Jorge Fallas, participated. He was then accompanied by local tourism managers who, in turn, accompany processes of indigenous resistance and defense of the territory, such as the leader Bröran Elides Rivera and the community leader Paulino Nájera. Likewise, the academic from the University of Costa Rica, William Du, also participated.

In the first instance, the president of the Chamber of Rural Experiences of Rural Tourism and Community Rural Tourism, Jorge Fallas expressed that his organization brings together some one hundred and sixty experiences in a large part of the Costa Rican territory. The Chamber proposes some measures to legalize a greater number of ventures, visibility in the international market of this tourism model and participation in international fairs. Among the strategies proposed for the reactivation of tourism, he raised the need for greater visibility on social networks, with quite diverse offers such as, for example, the chorreada fairs, recordings to generate information about the pandemic to tourist guides, as well as supporting the marketing of tourism projects at the level of rural community tourism with spaces connected to the media on radio and television. He also pointed out that the pandemic has hit each of the different sectors, making it a time to reinvent and strengthen the identity of each of the country's tourist regions.

On the other hand, rural and community tourism initiatives located in the South Pacific of Costa Rica, specifically in the canton of Buenos Aires in Puntarenas, are located in the Bröran indigenous territory, who have supported the defense of their territory through cultural tourism strategies and educational tourism. Both Elides Rivera and Paulino Nájera are community leaders who have faced various processes of struggle and social resistance against processes of dispossession from the attempt to establish hydroelectric projects in their territory.

During the seminar Elides Rivera explained: “Our Mano de Tigre Association was born as a group of women focused on three axes of community development, both for the training of women, economic development and political advocacy. We were thinking about processes that will lead us to sustain the economic part. This is how we consider the proposal of a women's economy based on community cultural tourism”. Its activities are linked to the rescue of community knowledge about medicinal plants, handicraft activities and everything related to the maintenance of food sovereignty in the community. With tourism and community organization, local management of the territory has been encouraged through mutual cooperation. The type of tourist who visits Térraba is a research tourist, a cooperator, and universities who have very particular interests when visiting this indigenous territory.

Likewise, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Elides mentioned that indigenous territories have been traversed by different phenomena in Térraba that have generated socioeconomic and environmental impacts. For example, the floods of the Térraba River and the droughts have led them to think “that we have to prepare for crises in a way with the management of land, water, agriculture forest, if we did not produce the land we would be in unfavorable conditions ”. The women of Mano de Tigre offer different activities related to tourism, such as accommodation, food, sale of handicrafts and essences of medicinal plants. However, given the context of a pandemic five months ago they did not receive tourists or income from this activity.

In this same region, another of the initiatives self-managed by the same local actors is that of Paulino Nájera and his family, the experience of the Térraba Ecological Corner. This initiative was born with the intention of recovering the forest cover of the territory, the rescue of local knowledge linked to nature. That is how they began a path that was intertwined with rural community tourism. Given this, Paulino explains that "tourists were already coming, but there was an objectification of the indigenous people, we began to talk about tourism based on our experiences, our traditions, that they know about our environment."

Tourism for Paulino has marked a before and after in his life. The arrival of this activity led to a reactivation of cultural activities in the Bröran territory. In this sense, when asked how his initiatives are incorporated into the tourism reactivation plans from the government tourism institutions, he replied that: “We have been making progress with limitations, we do not have bank loans, but here we are. We have not had visitation for five months. However, our people have had privileges since we have not shut ourselves in, our environment is a forest of fruit trees, the mountain is intact, the flora and fauna remain, we feel that the land is giving a break "

The responses and strategies that have been proposed as a community organization have been diverse, for example, the exhibition of their products at a local fair open to different exchange mechanisms aimed at solidarity economies. Paulino also considered that this context of pandemic has led him to see new possibilities: "Here is the land, the family, we were going very fast and we were moving away from protecting our source of life."

The session was closed by William Du, coordinator of the Ecological Tourism career of the Paraíso Sur campus of the UCR, who explained some of the limitations that communities linked to rural community tourism have in accessing financing programs. To a great extent, this is due to a monopoly of the sector to focus these supports in areas highly developed by hegemonic tourism. Likewise, he explained that it is possible to offer tourist activities that do not entail the dispossession and alienation of the territory, that is, it should lead towards more experiential and respectful experiences of the environment. In addition, he pointed out: “that local tourism is given to visiting tourist cities abroad, instead of encouraging visits to the domestic market in remote areas of the central Valley of Costa Rica like Térraba himself, who share his vision of the world, his history . "He also mentioned that “planning and good management of tourism are fundamental in these moments where the economy has been hit. Thus, social tourism programs can also be an exit vector amid the crisis, coupled with tourism education processes. Such experiences have taken place in countries like Chile with its Women's Tourism and Young Tourism programs, spaces that provide strategies and special packages for domestic tourism".

Final Thoughts

During the sessions in the virtual seminar, various topics were raised regarding a possible reactivation of tourism. It was made clear that in this context, the management of tourism must be rethought, since there are models that have been developing dynamics of dispossession of land and territories that implied the disarticulation of peasant, rural and urban ways of life. A reality that generated structural vulnerabilities that eventually led to greater impoverishment and social inequalities.

Manzanillo. Arturo Silva's picture. 

Tourism should move towards a model of solidarity economy where it is seen as an alternative of complementarity and diversification of the economies in the territories. The bet must be to contest public policies around tourism, so that real possibilities for transformation and development of the sector are generated. Likewise, that they do not privilege only the tourism development models linked to large transnational capitals, which are thinking of accelerated logic of recovery of tourism through the deepening of elitized spaces or bubbles of pleasure.

In conclusion, this is a deep crisis full of uncertainties and in the midst of complex scenarios. But it also allows other horizons to rethink those tourist dynamics that generated greater vulnerabilities. The seminar was intended to promote reflection on the need to question hyper-specialization in tourism. Similarly, social tourism will have to be strengthened as a facilitator of access for the vast majority to educational leisure and an insertion that does not generate exclusionary spaces. Therefore, the collective aspiration must prioritize a model of vigilance and permanent incidence in public policies, which benefits not only the large business associations but also the communities and their living spaces.


This article is published within the framework of the project "International campaign to make visible human rights violations by tourist investment in Central America" ​​developed by Alba Sud with the support of the International Relations Department of the Diputació de Barcelona (Human Rights call 2017).