Costa Rica, famous for lush tropical rainforests and easy access to adventures such as snorkeling and white-water rafting, is a long-time fixture of the discerning travelers’ bucket list. And over the last few years, the country has seriously grown its credentials as a MICE destination, thanks to high levels of connectivity and investment in state-of-the-art conference infrastructure. But Costa Rica’s economic reliance on tourism has meant that the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic has been adverse.
In July this year, the country welcomed Gustavo Segura Sancho as its new Tourism Minister. Since then, Segura Sancho, who has an MBA in Sustainable Development, has been rolling out a series of initiatives to attract visitors back to Costa Rica. These range from inventive marketing campaigns designed to stimulate national and international tourism to safety protocols that aim to foster confidence in overseas businesses planning their next conference in the country.
SkiftX spoke to Segura Sancho to find out how he plans to rise to the challenge, what travelers should consider before plotting their next trip to Costa Rica and how the MICE industry will change shape in a post-pandemic world.
SkiftX: In 2020, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have rippled through the global travel industry, restricting travelers’ ability to experience other cultures. This is particularly acute in Costa Rica. What are some of the biggest economic and cultural impacts of Covid-19 on Costa Rican tourism?
Gustavo Segura Sancho: Covid-19 has severely impacted the Costa Rican economy, a country that relies on tourism. The tourism industry provides hundreds of thousands of jobs each year, which are essential to the country’s economic growth and development. In 2019, we welcomed more than 3.1 million international travelers, a vast majority of them from the United States.
Costa Rica began a phased reopening of businesses in early August and to aid local economies, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute began promoting local tourism through its Vamos a Turistear [“Let’s go touring”] advertising campaign. As we begin reopening the country to international travelers, we anticipate domestic travel will continue and will remain a priority for the tourism sector, which previously relied heavily on international tourism.
SkiftX: In July, you were named Costa Rica’s new Minister for Tourism. In a recent interview, you ranked your biggest priorities as the execution of measures to reactivate the economy, the introduction of tools to ease the financial difficulties of tourism companies and the return of international flights. Why are these critical for you?
Segura Sancho: Tourism makes up 8.2 percent of Costa Rica’s GDP. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute, with the support of the private sector, designed a set of 16 protocols, which outline specific processes and guidelines for tour operators, cruises, airlines, hotels and other tourism companies to resume their operations safely. This was the first step we took to address our economy’s reactivation.
We are currently working with Costa Rica’s government to provide monetary aid and resources in the way of a $30 million fund for six months to vulnerable micro, small and medium-sized tourism businesses registered with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. Approximately 5,000 businesses (around 30,000 jobs) will benefit from the bonus, which is part of an economic benefit program called PymeProteger.
As we reopen our borders to international travelers, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute is in close communication with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, and airline partners to resume flight routes. Beginning September 1, Costa Rica received approximately five weekly flights from the U.S., which is less than five percent of the commercial flight activity prior to the pandemic. While we are eager to welcome travelers back to Costa Rica, it is of the utmost importance that we do so in a way that is safe both for our citizens and visitors. We are anticipating a slow, but safe and successful reactivation of our tourism sector, and will continue to evaluate our efforts daily.
SkiftX: You have substantial experience in the hotel, travel and sustainable tourism sectors. What are your biggest challenges as Costa Rica’s Minister for Tourism over the next twelve months?
Segura Sancho: The biggest challenge is rebuilding our country’s tourism sector in a manner that alleviates the financial burden on the tourism sector and promotes economic recovery, while prioritizing health management. It is my goal to balance the short-term emotional, physical and financial needs of stakeholders in the tourism industry without losing sight of the long-term task of ensuring that Costa Rica remains a key player in international tourism.
SkiftX: Costa Rica has strong appeal as a MICE destination, thanks to its proximity to two international airports and the accessibility of its rich ecological attractions. What makes the country attractive for the MICE sector?
Segura Sancho: Costa Rica is three to five hours from most major cities in the United States and Canada, making travel convenient and easy to our two international airports, Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) and Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), and there is only a two-hour time difference between Costa Rica and anywhere in the United States. The country features an excellent range of services and infrastructure, including five-star resorts, internationally acclaimed hotel chains, boutique hotels, ecolodges and more. The first large Costa Rica Convention Center was constructed in our capital city San José in 2018 and offers over 40,000 square feet of eco-friendly exhibition space and smaller breakout rooms. Throughout the country there are 127 meeting rooms with features, such as state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, exhibition areas, multilingual and expert personnel, and one of the most technologically advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America. Meeting costs are also tax-deductible for United States organizations and citizens.
Apart from its meeting spaces and amenities, Costa Rica offers numerous individual and team-building activities outside of the boardroom, which local charter services and tour operators can assist with coordinating and providing VIP transportation to. The country’s unique landscape makes opportunities for adventure, relaxation, nature and wildlife, limitless and travelers residing in San José can visit our cultural institutions and experience the innovative gastronomy scene. For companies committed to operating and traveling sustainably, Costa Rica operates on 99.5% renewable energy. Meeting planners can orchestrate sustainable meetings utilizing Costa Rican Tourism Institute’s Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST) program, which has recognized more than 400 local tourism companies for sustainable management of business, social, cultural and environmental activities.
As of September 9, Costa Rica’s business and educational meetings and events centers were allowed to host up to 75 people, not including logistics personnel. Hotels can operate at 100 percent capacity, with the exception of common areas, which must be maintained at 50 percent.
SkiftX: What measures will you put into place to keep growing the country’s MICE market?
Segura Sancho: Costa Rica recently received the WTTC Global Safe Travels stamp by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) for our commitment to rebuilding confidence among travelers through health and safety measures that align with WTTC, WHO and CDC guidelines. The private sector has been working with the convention bureau on a webpage where buyers can find affiliated companies that comply with the Safe Travels guidelines. Costa Rica also offers a wide range of virtual and hybrid events and has developed experiences and incentive programs that are focused on well-being. These experiences invite participants to create a broader connection with nature and themselves.
SkiftX: Over the last few years, the MICE industry has become one of the fastest-growing aspects of Costa Rican tourism, thanks to a new sustainable convention center, access to natural attractions and eco-tourism credentials. As the country re-opens, the Costa Rica Convention Centre will be certified under a new Safe Guard program to protect the health and safety of delegates and staff. What do you predict for the future of the MICE industry in Costa Rica?
Segura Sancho: The vision remains for the Costa Rica Convention Center (CCCR) to serve as a venue for world-class events with exceptional and sustainable service and efficiency. The Safe Guard certification reinforces the CCCR’s new health and safety measures and provides meeting planners with a tool to assess the health and safety standards of all of Costa Rica’s venues. We [also] anticipate an emphasis on technology and telecommunications. Our venues feature state-of-the-art equipment, multilingual personnel and exceptional customer service.
Costa Rica features one of the most technologically advanced telecommunications systems in the Latin American region and provides a unique perspective on meetings and incentives with its rich culture and biodiversity, and sustainable tourism infrastructure. With many businesses providing employees the option to work from home or to take meetings virtually, high-quality technology and streaming capabilities are crucial. The CCCR and many of our hotels also offer ample meeting space and exhibition areas, ideal for socially distanced functions.
Costa Rica is accessible whether you’re coming from the United States, Latin America, Canada or Europe. Pre-pandemic the country’s two international airports served 15 foreign airlines. Visas are also not required for U.S., Canadian and Western Europeans residing in the country for less than 90 days.
SkiftX: As the world’s most biodiverse region, Costa Rica has long attracted travelers and eco-tourists seeking once-and-a-lifetime adventures and experiences. But the reality of the coronavirus means that they may not enjoy the same mobility and freedom that was part of the pre-pandemic world. What advice would you give to travelers interested in coming to Costa Rica and planning their holiday?
Segura Sancho: Costa Rica is home to more than five percent of the world’s known biodiversity and more than 27 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. So much of our country’s tourism offerings are found in nature, which makes a socially distanced and enjoyable experience in the country possible. Of course, some experiences will – and have already – changed. Capacity numbers in national parks, at beaches and on guided tours have been reduced, and waiting times may increase, however, there are also many positives to consider. For example, Costa Rica is seeing a surge in wildlife, and travelers are becoming more aware of ecotourism travel options and experiences. For more information on Costa Rica’s travel sector protocols, visit Costa Rican Tourism Institute’s Covid-19 resource page.
I would advise travelers to explore Costa Rica’s nature activities and to consider traveling to more remote and secluded areas of the country that received less tourism pre-pandemic. This will not only aid local economies, but it will provide travelers with one-of-a-kind experiences and will allow them to reconnect with themselves and those who they are traveling with.
SkiftX: Marketing strategies in a post-pandemic world must advocate for the power of travel but also highlight the importance of health and safety at every turn. As the Minister for Tourism, what is your most important message?
Segura Sancho: These past few months have demonstrated Costa Rica’s resilience. The tourism sector has worked tirelessly to strategize and evaluate how best to reactivate the sector, so that Costa Rica can remain a key player in international tourism. Costa Rica is more than just a nature and adventure destination. The country’s authenticity, which is communicated through its people, democracy and sustainability, is what sets Costa Rica apart from other countries and what makes us proud to be Ticos.
At the onset of the virus, the government’s quick actions and the country’s universal healthcare system were successful in reducing the spread of the virus, and our prioritization of health management has prepared us for Costa Rica’s border reopening to several markets. I am confident that international tourism will bounce back, and that Costa Rica will continue to provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences that move travelers and invite them to consider what’s essential in life. This is the message we hope to communicate to travelers through our domestic and international travel marketing.
This content was created collaboratively by Costa Rica Tourism and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.
* Travelers from all U.S. states are allowed to enter Costa Rica from November 1 provided that they meet the entry requirements. This interview was conducted prior to the new entry requirements being announced.
Please see Costa Rica’s entry requirements page for the latest travel news.