Allan Flores declared Costa Rica’s two-year tourism slump to be in the past. The new tourism minister, a clean-cut and tanned ambassador to the country’s most heavily-promoted industry, looked ahead to a new era of tourism Wednesday at the National Theater, for travel fair Expotur’s inauguration in downtown San José.
Tourism reps packed the historic venue to watch Costa Rica’s government welcome the latest chapter in an ever-expanding industry.
On Wednesday night, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla walked to an open podium and added her name to a bill authorizing the construction of a new $30 million convention center in Barreal de Heredia, northwest of San José.
“This is a very special moment,” Chinchilla said. “Enhancing the country’s infrastructure and bringing in foreign investors will play an important role for the future of the country.”
The massive new center, which will be funded in equal parts by Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), will hold an estimated 3,000 people and has a completion date of early 2014.
The official announcement of the new convention center came on the opening day of the 27th annual Expotur, the country’s largest tourism trade show. Approximately 300 regional tourism businesses will try to charm visitors from 29 countries. Members of the public are invited to attend the free event, which showcases everything from bungee jumping adventures to organic pineapple farm tours, on Saturday and Sunday, the fair’s last day.
The Costa Rican Association of Tourism Professionals (Acoprot) estimates the attention garnered by Expotur brings in some 70,000 new tourists each year to Costa Rica, a number officials hope will increase as tourism businesses weather the global economic crisis. Flores believes the worst is over.
“In the first three months of 2011, we are seeing an average of 7.8 percent more people coming into the country,” Flores said.
In order to capitalize on the upturn, the country’s main players in tourism are undertaking new efforts to market themselves to the international community. Flores said Costa Rica is working with 22 Squared, a U.S. publicity agency, to market itself more strongly in North America. Flores also wants to increase the number of international flights coming into the country. But the jewel of the latest tourism push comes in the form an expansive convention center.
Speakers at the sumptuous inauguration event included Acoprot President Yadyra Simon and San José Mayor Johnny Araya. Both emphasized making a push to showcase the country’s capital to tourists. In an interview before the inauguration event, Simon told The Tico Times that Acoprot was urging the government to do more to promote San José, emphasizing the city’s gastronomy, arts and music. She gave the example of Costa Rica’s museums – the most detailed collections are found in the country’s capital. But these often impressive exhibitions, Simon said, neve receive the same type of attention as the country’s other tourist attractions. The vast majority of tourists enter the country through San José, she said, and visitors deserve a better infrastructure when they arrive.
Culture Minister Manuel Obregón flaunted Costa Rica’s music scene. He gave a bombastic performance on a grand piano, while a video flashed images of Costa Rica’s ecosystem behind him.
After the presentation at the National Theater, transportation was provided for guests to downtown San José’s La Antigua Aduana, where observers were treated to cultural presentations and hors d’oeuvres.
Cultural tourism is the theme at this year’s Expotur. At Plaza Ramada Plaza Herradura in Belén, west of San José, colorful traditional wooden carretas, or ox carts, decorated the exhibition grounds. Painted by artists from the village of Sarchí, northwest of San José, the carts added cultural zip to the fairgrounds. Although, the carts’ arrival came with some irony since the previous day the Health Ministry closed the country’s oldest ox cart manufacturer – a factory in Sarchí that opened in 1923 – for code violations.
Sellers mutated their booths into mini-jungles, using flora to help sell regional tours or sustainability organizations. A koi pond was set up in the threshold of one entryway to the main showroom.
Vendors from Belize to Panama presented fanciful stands in a convention space that looked filled to the limit.
Certain sellers tried to expand on niche markets. José Cabada sold rich honey made by stingless bees native to Costa Rica and promoted a carbon-neutral lifestyle in a type of tourism called agro-ecotourism.
“You depend on the farms that are working in order for them to show you a product,” Cabada said.
Rows of sellers lined the 1,900-person conference room and the surrounding lobbies. A company selling 100 percent biodegradable sports bottles called Jungle Jugs was juxtaposed next to a textile business offering Black & Decker toasters and Hamilton Beach grills.
And yet Expotur has grown so much in the past decades that the cramped scene doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.
“We cannot grow any more because of the space,” Simon said. “We don’t have enough space.”
More groups keep trying to squeeze in to the convention center, underlining the significance of building a new one. Many are willing to pay high fees for a booth. This year, 65 first-time vendors had a spot at Expotur, Simon said. A group of Expotur rookies from the Pacific coast all chipped in on a booth to bring attention to their region.
“We are a small town, but five hotels got together here to try to expand our influence,” said Lilli Núñez, who helps manage Frank’s Place on the Nicoya Peninsula, in Costa Rica’s north Pacific region. “And probably we will do it again next year.”
Simon said one new feature of Expotur this year is giving tours of the country to foreign representatives who might be interested in participating in larger events when the new convention center is unveiled. While the opening of the building remains three years off, the Costa Rican tourism industry’s vision places a heavy emphasis on foresight.
“We talk about the potential Costa Rica has,” Simon said. “And how we should improve that potential, because we have it and it’s something we have to really put out in a better way.”