Murders, protests tarnish Costa Rica

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Costa Rica, the darling of ecotourism destinations, is unaccustomed to the adverse media headlines detailing the recent killings of two young American women in the Caribbean town of Cahuita.

Exacerbating the situation was news coverage of political protesters blocking roads leading to key tourist attractions.

The State Department advised U.S. travelers to Costa Rica to "avoid demonstrations, be flexible when driving because of the possibility of blocked roads and keep gas tanks at least half full.

Although there were no new roadblocks reported in Costa Rica last week, Michael Kaye, president of San Jose-based Costa Rica Expeditions, reported that the end is not yet in sight for strikers protesting new laws that would privatize certain industries and eventually remove government-controlled prices enjoyed by farmers, workers and government employees.

"I think it is important to understand that the last two weeks represent the beginning of what is going to be a long and sometimes painful process of restructuring of government energy and telecommunications monopolies," said Kaye. "I think it would be overly optimistic to think that we have seen the last of these problems."

In some cases, local tour operators jumped through hoops to cope with the inconveniences that roadblocks caused visitors traveling overland in Costa Rica, said Dan Conaway, president of Atlanta-based Elegant Vacations. "Thank goodness we have our own office in Costa Rica."

He said that when clients were heading for Poas National Park, the operator put extra soda and water on their vans in case of delays, and "when Sansa did not fly to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa peninsula, we chartered a plane for the trip."

Conaway said, "Disruptions occurred during spring break, and we did not receive cancellations, but certainly the news is putting a damper on new bookings for Easter and shoulder spring season."

Conaway was quick to point out that Costa Rica is a democratic country, and "its citizens have a right to peaceful demonstrations."

Meanwhile, the police are continuing to investigate the deaths of two 19-year-old women whose bodies were found March 13 near the Caribbean town of Cahuita, 90 miles east of San Jose.

As of press time, police had arrested two suspects in the murders and were searching for a third. Both murdered victims were students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. One of the women had been living in Costa Rica since January, the other was visiting her friend.

Although a crime of this nature could have happened anywhere, "it happened in Costa Rica, which, despite occasional violence, continues to be one of the safest places in the world," said Annie Berk, vice president of Ladatco Tours in Miami.

She said that even though the area around Cahuita and Puerto Viejo is known to be more dangerous [allegedly due primarily to drug trafficking] than the rest of the country, "no matter where violence takes place against foreigners, it tends to be reported with big and broad headlines in popular destinations such as Costa Rica."

"Newspapers infer that the scene of the murders is a full-fledged Caribbean resort area," said Berk, "which, with almost no infrastructure, indeed it is not."

According to Berk, the company received no cancellations because of these events, although it is a bit early to tell if there is "image damage" to Costa Rica.

Although she expected the news to play itself out, "it would be very beneficial to the country if the murderer or murderers were caught. This tragedy has several murky aspects that are certainly not tourist related," she said.

Although the murders were not an attack on tourists per se, Lori Sidawi, vice president of Sunny Land Tours, Hackensack N.J., believes such an incident always reflects on a country, "even one as peaceful as Costa Rica."

Sunny Land's program this year offers many nature and resort lodge packages to the Caribbean coast, and according to Sidawi, "we intend to continue our promotion of what is basically a new area of Costa Rica and a lovely and unspoiled region."

Elegant offers five-night fams

NEW YORK -- In the light of recent events in Costa Rica, Elegant Vacations is stepping up its travel agent educational program, offering five-night fam trips from May l through Nov. 30 in cooperation with Sol Melia Hotels.

Two nights will be spent at the Melia Cariari in San Jose and three nights at the Melia Playa Conchal in Tamarindo. The cost is $299 per person, double.

For more information, call (800) 451-4398; fax (770) 859-0259, or e-mail [email protected].

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