Costa Rica benefits from U.S. visits

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Despite tightening the screws on government tourism spending in recent years, Costa Rica is reporting surging visitor numbers on the strength of enthusiastic private marketing and the growth of U.S.-originating travel.

While Costa Rica's official tourism expenditures declined from $12 million in 2002 to $7 million in 2004, tourism minister Rodrigo Castro said the Central American republic achieved a 12% growth in tourism in 2003 and expects the rate to continue for 2004.

Speaking at the recent Expotur trade show presented by the Costa Rican Tourism Board, Castro said the marketing efforts of suppliers have benefitted from a post-9/11 shift of interest by Americans from Europe to other destinations, among them Costa Rica.

According to Castro, about 100 new flights to the country have been launched from the U.S. in the last 24 months.

Airlines entering the market include America West and US Airways. Airlines that were already established in the destination, such as Continental, Delta and American, have expanded into Liberia Airport in the northwestern region of Costa Rica.

The augmented air service has breathed life into the local lodging industry, with major chains opening hotels in the destination. Four Seasons, for example, earlier this year launched what it considers a flagship property in the town of Liberia.

The Costa Rica Tourism Board also has leveraged its relationships with wholesalers through cooperative marketing efforts. The board currently is lobbying the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) to hold its annual out-of-country board meeting next spring in Costa Rica.

USTOA President Bob Whitley, who attended Expotur as a guest of the Costa Rican Tourism Board, said his group chooses destinations for board meetings that members are interested in developing, and Costa Rica tops the list.

"Every year we survey our members about which destinations are hot, and for the last three years Costa Rica has been the No. 1 hot new destination," Whitley said. The board members will vote on the destination at their Oct. 12 meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"I really want our members to see what is here," Whitley said.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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