Tourism is an integral part of Costa Rica’s economy. But does American travel benefit the average Tico?
W: Sam West
P: Emma Bissell
The city along Playa Jacó’s black sand is like a combination of Panama City Beach, the French Quarter of New Orleans and the Las Vegas strip. Traditional Costa Rican lunch counters are just across the street from a KFC. There are strip clubs, churches, casinos, hip gastropubs, seaside resorts and a Beatles-themed bar. Spring breakers lay out by the waves alongside graying and tanning American expat retirees. In the rest of the country, Jacó has a reputation: This is where the gringos go.
American tourism isn’t the backbone of the Costa Rican economy, but it is a substantial chunk of it, especially on the Pacific Coast and in places like Jacó Beach. According to the country’s tourism board and migration office, Costa Rica gets about 2.6 million visitors a year, and they generate about $3.4 billion, or six percent of the nation’s economy. Steven Bunker, a professor of Latin American history at The University of Alabama, said the country carefully cultivates its image to cater to tourists from developed countries.
“Costa Rica has done a great global PR job, especially in the US,” he said. “It’s positioned itself well, and somewhat accurately, as the safe place to go in Central America. That certainly held true for awhile. Things are changing a little.”
Bunker said that tourism is an important component in Costa Rica’s economy, but not the country’s only resource. Tourism provides many jobs, most of which are low-wage service positions, but depending on where the person already is economically, that can be a good opportunity.
Costa Rica, however, needs American dollars more than the U.S. needs Costa Rican dollars. This can create a skewed relationship, and leads to attempts to create what Bunker called “Epcot-Disney” versions of the country for Americans.
“[Tourism] is great from a straight macroeconomic point of view, and there’s some great social and cultural stuff that comes in there,” he said. “But you’re still shaping your economy and your communities to cater to a foreign clientele. And that can cause some conflict sometimes. Some people can also make a very good living off it.”
Francisco Meca is a Costa Rican who has worked in tourism since he was 17. Meca is from a small town outside of Jacó and described American travel to the region as a “blessing,” and the basis of Jacó’s economy.
He described Jacó as “the Las Vegas of Costa Rica,” a good place for partying as well as adventurous activities like surfing or white-water rafting. Meca is a tour guide who takes people to explore Costa Rica’s jungles and ride on ATVs, and for him, there is no question of whether his service job is a good one.
“It might be the best job you can ever find in the world,” he said.
Meca also spoke of “clinic tourism,” in which Americans looking for certain medical procedures, especially dental services, will travel to Costa Rica to take advantage of its inexpensive but effective healthcare. They may spend extra money enjoying their stay while they are recovering.
Given how closely Costa Rica’s tourist industry is tied in with the United States, economic downturns can hurt the industry. Meca said tourism was impacted by the 2008 recession, but that it has since recovered. And the rest of the country, which is not so dependent on American dollars, wasn’t affected.
Meca said Costa Ricans love “everyone from everywhere,” and that it would be hard to find a resident of Jacó who didn’t like foreigners.
Catherine Gonzalez, a Nicaraguan who lives and works in Costa Rica, said she enjoys the city and the country. She said most Costa Ricans try to be kind and helpful to American retirees and tourists, and consider them a normal part of life.
Left: Souvenir shops line the streets of Playa Jacó. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
RIght: American tourists and retirees flock to places like Jacó because of its beaches. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
“[Costa Ricans] try to be nice. We know the people who come to the country don’t know anything, don’t know the people,” she said.
Tourism from the United States goes back a long time. Before the 1940s, nothing much distinguished Costa Rica from other countries in the region. Central American states tended to have fragile governments which were easily influenced by the U.S. government and American business interests.
But in 1948, there was a brief civil war in Costa Rica that began over the results of a contested presidential election. Jose Figueres Ferrer took control of the country during the dispute, but once in power, he abolished the military and gave women and Afro-Costa Ricans the right to vote. In the aftermath, Costa Rica began to diversify its economy and build effective infrastructure. The country gained a reputation for progress, peace and stability.
Another major factor in Costa Rica’s growth as a tourist destination came in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Americans who wanted a tropical vacation spot could no longer visit the island, and turned to the relatively safe Costa Rica instead. During the 1980s, wars broke out in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama, but Costa Rica did not face any internal strife.
The country also has protected much of its land as national parks, creating an atmosphere for eco-tourism.
Following the 1980s economic boom, Costa Rica also saw an influx of American expatriates retiring in the country, because of its good medical facilities, infrastructure and stable political climate.
However, Costa Rica’s status as the “safe haven” of Central America may be coming under threat. Bunker said that in the past decade, there have been “cracks” developing in the country’s image and status.
Left: In Jacó, a visitor can do adventurous activities such as canopy tours, riding ATVs and surfing. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
RIght: It’s easy to rent a bike so you can travel efficiently in Jacó. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
Protected lands are increasingly coming under pressure from lumbering groups. Economic reforms have weakened much of the country’s social safety net. U.S. crackdowns on the drug trade in the Caribbean have made Central America and Costa Rica a new route for cocaine and other illicit substances. Crime, especially in San Jose, has increased as a result.
Sex tourism is also thriving in Costa Rica, particularly Jacó, which Bunker said was common in developing countries that get a lot of American travel. Sex work is legal in the country, and many tourists take advantage of this. Multiple sources in Jaco said that seeing sex work was an everyday part of life in the city.
However, Bunker made the point that many large American cities face similar problems to places like San Jose or Jaco. He encouraged people to visit Costa Rica, but said they shouldn’t have unrealistic or idealized expectations about their stay.
“One way to look at is as the tropical paradise that’s a little frayed around the edges,” he said.