Those worried that Costa Rica's continued popularity as an ecotourism destination might ironically lead to overdevelopment can breathe a sigh of relief. During the annual Expotur national travel trade show, which took place recently in capital city San Jose, Costa Rica's federal government announced regulations that will restrict construction in several tourist regions.
The first set of guidelines, which go into effect immediately, will restrict the height, size and location of buildings in Guanacaste, the province where development is proceeding at the fastest pace.
"What has happened in Guanacaste is fast growth that is a menace to our sustainability," said Carlos Benavides, Costa Rica's minister of tourism. "The local governments don't have their planning done," he said, which has made it necessary for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to sign a decree.
"The regulations are going to be in place until the local government has their zoning [restrictions] done," he added. "What we're doing is just an advance on what we think needs to be done; we sell Costa Rica as a natural paradise, and that's the way we want to keep it."
The federal government is soon going to announce similar measures for the central Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea coasts, according to Benavides.
According to the decree, developers may not build on more than 60% of their land along the shore; there is also a three-story limit on beachfront construction, and a nine-story limit for construction farther than about 2.5 miles from the coast.
By the numbers
Benavides reported that Costa Rica's revenues from international tourism reached $1.9 billion in 2007, generated by nearly 2 million foreign visitors.
"Our sustained growth for the year 2007 and the first quarter of the present year is made possible, to a large extent, by the solid offering of airline seats, which in the past year has grown by 28%, which translates into an extra 635,000 extra seats."
Some 127,647 international visitors arrived by plane in January, a 13.7% increase over the same month in 2007.
In the green vein, Benavides also announced that Costa Rica is dedicated to becoming the first carbon-neutral country by 2021. "To this end, we have already designed a strategy that will permit us to keep making progress toward our goal."
The Costa Rica Tourist Board and the Certification for Sustainable Tourism program set up an information booth for tourism companies and international visitors during Expotur, to provide details about how companies can meet certification guidelines.
Costa Rica also recently hosted the Fourth Meeting of the International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development, led by the United Nations Environmental Program and the United Nations Initiative for Social and Economic Development. The meeting addressed issues such as protection of natural resources, promotion of sustainable production and consumption patterns in the tourism industry.
News from attractions, tour operators and hoteliers currently operating in Costa Rica announced at Expotur included:
• Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park: Opening this month, Veragua is located in Limon, next to La Amistad park and the Chirripo Native Reserve. The new park includes an open-air tram ride through the rainforest canopy; a waterfall; hiking trails through the rainforest; exhibits with live butterflies, reptiles and frogs; and a scientific research station. Admission rates are $65 for adults and $45 for children. Call 011-506-2296-5056 or visit www.veraguarainforest.com.
• Hilton Papagayo Resort Costa Rica: Since completing its multimillion-dollar renovation over the past few months, the Hilton Papagayo, as of Nov. 1, will drop its all-inclusive structure and offer traditional Hilton services. Rates will still include access to nonmotorized water sports, the fitness center, karaoke, dance lessons and live musical performances at the bar. See www.hilton.com.
• Crowne Plaza Corobici San Jose Costa Rica: The former Melia Corobici this year became the first Crowne Plaza in Costa Rica. The 213-room property has been refurbished to meet Crowne Plaza standards. Call (888) 211-9874 or visit www.crowneplaza.com.
• Crocodile Bay: The resort unveiled a number of new packages, including a seven-night, all-inclusive "Osa Highlights" program that includes visits to the Osa rain forest, a boat ride to botanical gardens and the Silvestre Animal Sanctuary, either zipline canopy tour or waterfall rappelling, offshore or inshore fishing, and a choice of ecotours. Prices start at $2,220, double, for five days and seven nights. Call (800) 733-1115 or visit www.crocodilebay.com.
• Tara Tours: This tour operator has introduced a new, seven-night Exciting Costa Rica package that includes visits to San Jose, the Arenal Volcano and the Caribbean coast, as well as Class III river rafting on the Reventazon River. Prices start at $1,474 per person, double, including Miami departure. Call (800) 327-0080 or visit www.taratours.com.
• Arenal Nayara: Opened in December, this 24-room property located near the Arenal Volcano has luxury, bungalow-style accommodations. The boutique-style property features a swimming pool, restaurant and spa. Rooms start at $160. Call 011-506-460-3774 or visit www.arenalnayara.com.
• Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort: This 38-room hotel opened this year in Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast. Located partly on what has traditionally been an isolated, clothing-optional beach favored by gay vacationers, the property has two swimming pools, a small spa and gift shop. Call 011-506-2777-2777 or visit www.arenasdelmar.com.
In the works
Hotels and resorts currently under construction or about to open in Costa Rica include:
• JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa: The seventh JW Marriott hotel in Latin America will open in 2008 in Guanacaste, under a franchise agreement with Hotel Real de Pinilla. The 310-room property, part of the 4,000-acre Hacienda Pinilla Beach resort and residential community, will have a 13,500-square-foot health club and spa, a swimming pool, children's club and more than 5,500 square feet of meetings space. Call (888) 236-2427 or visit www.marriott.com.
• St. Regis Resort and Residences: Located in Playa Coyol, in the Central Pacific region, this property, slated to open by the end of the year, will feature 135 rooms with ocean views, outdoor terraces and outdoor showers, plus three pool areas, restaurants, bars, beach club, an 11,000-square-foot spa and 3,750 square feet of meetings space. Call (866) 672-7236 or visit www.stregisresidences.com/costarica.
• Quality Liberia Hotel: This 100-room hotel, owned by El Salvador-based Real Hotels & Resorts, is to open in 2009 in the city of Liberia, in Guanacaste province. Visit www.qualityinn.com or www.realhotelsandresorts.com.
• Riu Guanacaste: This all-inclusive, 701-room property is scheduled to open in fall 2009. The property, Riu's first in Costa Rica, will feature three restaurants, six bars and five conference rooms. Visit www.riu.com.
• Rosewood Costa Carmel: Rosewood Hotels plans to open a 112-acre luxury resort in Guanacaste in 2010, with 31 casitas ranging from two to five bedrooms. Call (888) 767-3966 or visit www.rosewoodhotels.com.
• Embassy Suites by Hilton San Jose: Located in the capital's Escazu neighborhood, this 150-room property is to open in February 2010. Call (800) 362-2779 or visit www.embassysuites.com.
• Limoncito: This 58-room condo hotel is slated to open in August 2010. Visit www.limoncitolife.com.
• Alajuela Convention Center: The city of Alajuela, where San Jose's international airport is located, is to be the home of the country's first stand-alone convention center, thanks to a new project overseen by Feria de Valencia, a Spanish firm, and Alta Group, a local company. The 56,800-acre project is in the funding stages and has not yet announced an opening date.
For information about Costa Rica, contact the Costa Rica Tourist Board at (866) 267-8274 or visit www.visitcostarica.com.