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Exclusive Interview With Minister Of Tourism Carlos Ricardo Benavides

Costa Rica focusing on eco-tourism to weather the economic storm

Juergen T. Steinmetz, eTN  Oct 23, 2009

eTN: How is the current situation when it comes to tourism in Costa Rica?

Carlos Ricardo Benavides Jimenez: Like the rest of the world, it has decreased a little bit, because our main market is the United States, and North America itself is almost 62 percent of our market, so when North America comes down, our tourism also goes down a lot. But we have maintained also a very high-class tourism, the one that goes for example to the Hyatt or to the Four Seasons, that still comes, it doesn’t matter what the crisis is at this point. We have been in a small recuperation in August and September, and we hope to maintain our progress, and probably help us a little bit with vacationers coming for December so we can have maybe a negative loss for the whole 2009 around -6 or -7 percent; that is what we are forecasting right now.

eTN: The air links from the United States, they decreased or they stayed the same?

Benavides Jimenez: Well, some of them decreased, but not because of lack of people flying, but for example, in the case of Delta, it was because of the power of the fleet, and it was not very fuel efficient itself, so long trips, for example the ones from New York to San Jose, over a 5-hour trip, were very positive for them with all planes. Other airlines have decreased the size of the planes, trying to bring full planes and not at all require planes from different parts. But all of them are still flying. We have not lost any kind of carrier. As a matter of fact, we added two new carriers from the United States. We added JetBlue that initiated flights from Orlando direct to San Jose, and we added Spirit Airlines who also initiated flights from Ft. Lauderdale in the United States, and last year we initiated Frontier Airlines from Denver.

eTN: You mentioned 5-star tourism to Costa Rica is a big issue. Did you see the prices coming down for hotels?

Benavides Jimenez: No, not much, not much. We have a philosophy – when you make your product very cheap, and people get accustomed to paying $1 for something that you know that is worth a hundred dollars, when you got back to charge them the $100, they will turn to you and say, but that was worth $1, and you will tell them, no there was a crisis, I’m sorry. If you will charge $1, it is probably because it was worth $1 not $100.

eTN: I love this philosophy, but is it realistic that the hotels follow your philosophy?

Benavides Jimenez: They didn’t go so low as to make the destination extremely cheap. They went down a little bit, but what we made was another thing – we made special packages. For example, if you stay 3 nights, we will give you 2 nights free; if you stay 5 nights, we will give you a complimentary night or a complimentary free meal at the spa, and a complimentary tour. In other words, what we wanted to add was not a cheaper product, but add more product to what you are paying. In that way, your product will always have a normal price, but people will feel that they are getting more for what they are paying.

eTN: Besides North America, United States, Canada, what other targets are there for you?

Benavides Jimenez: Our main targets are Spain, Germany, France, England, and then regional tourism from Central America, and United States, Canada, and Mexico. I would say from the big pie that would be like 75 percent of the graphics.

eTN: A lot of destinations have told me they see an enormous difference in the number of stays between Europe and North America. Have you experienced the same thing?

Benavides Jimenez: Yes, because in all across the chart, the expenditure has always come down, so that means that the income from tourism will also come down – it’s inevitable. But I think we will recuperate that next year. I think we are seeing that – the numbers coming up.

eTN: What are your air links currently from Germany? Are there charter flights or is it based on commercial flights?

Benavides Jimenez: We have Condor. Condor is making two weekly flights, and we were trying to make Lufthansa maybe try one flight directly to San Jose, because most of the people have to go to Madrid and get by way of Iberia or go to the United States by way of Continental and then come down. But the market is there. We are very aggressive in Germany; a lot of marketing going on in Germany, a lot of cooperative campaigns especially for tour operators like Tui, and we are very, very, very strong in Germany. It’s a good market for us.

eTN: Besides the classical idea, is there any niche market people should know about in Costa Rica?

Benavides Jimenez: Especially, what we have promoted always eco-tourism – beaches, volcanoes, nature – that is our main goals. And I always tell people, we are not perfect in eco-tourism, but at least we give the fight. So to keep eco-tourism as our main market, we have 25 percent of our country protected. We have 4.5 percent of all the bio-diversity in the world are present in Costa Rica. So we are protecting that part that is nature. So, if you want to see nature, if you want to see hotels contracted with nature in mind, with a maximum high level, you go to Costa Rica.

eTN: When you compare the GDP to tourism, how important is tourism to Costa Rica?

Benavides Jimenez: Excluding inter-continental, because there is no way to measure inter-continental, tourism is number one.

eTN: What does the government do? Yesterday, we heard Geoffrey Lipman talking about the Road of Recovery. Are these all interesting developments for you to cooperate?

Benavides Jimenez: Yes, but, what we have done especially is to promote local tourism; try to keep the tourism that we already have.

eTN: Our readers are travel industry professionals – these are travel agent, tour operators, PR agencies, journalists. Is there anything you want them to know about Costa Rica?

Benavides Jimenez: When you get in Costa Rica, you are getting a way of doing tourism, and in the end you are betting for the future – for your future and the future of your sons and granddaughters and grandsons, because we are trying to keep the message that you can do tourism by respecting nature, and in the future, if we don’t do that, then nothing else will matter than what we have done with nature. We know that in the future, as many have said, the big fight will be for water and for food, so when you get to come to our country, we believe in this form of doing things - that everything can be on a balance with nature and with progress and with tourism.

Costa Rica focusing on eco-tourism to weather the economic storm
Costa Rica Minister Of Tourism Carlos Ricardo Benavides Jimenez/ Image via

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