Costa Rica: The Numbers Game
Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world, home to cute sloths and beaches and volcanoes and 5% of the planet’s biodiversity. It’s easily reached from the United States and, increasingly, Europe. In 2011, 2,195,960 foreigners visited the country, a 4.6% increase from 2010. Last month ICT, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (Costa Rican Tourism Board), touted the success of its “Million Dollar Gift of Happiness” campaign, designed to harness social networking to help Costa Rica recover from the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis led to a decline in foreign visitors, from 2008 to 2009, for the first time since 1988, and only in 2011 did the numbers reach pre-crisis heights. Talking sloths, social networks, and happiness, it seemed, were just the thing to reinforce an industry that brings in roughly $2 billion per year.
Is this good news? Is it even accurate news? The Tico Times, Costa Rica’s main English-language newspaper, and PROTUR, the Association for the Protection of Tourism, have questioned the ICT’s methods of counting foreign entries. The numbers come straight from immigration checkpoints, and, according to PROTUR, may be overstated by more than a million visitors – indicating that the tourism industry is losing, rather than gaining, competitiveness and international appeal.
There are two groups of concern to PROTUR: Nicaraguans and residents. Nicaraguans, although technically foreign visitors, are more likely entering the country to work, while the “visa run” has long been the preferred method for foreigners to live in Costa Rica without acquiring an official residency permit. Every 90 days, expatriates without formal residency must leave the country for 72 hours or risk fines or possible denial of entry to the country. (Here’s one website offering advice on the visa run; even About.com has an information page on it). PROTUR argues that the 600,000 ground crossings, and the 660,000 repeat visitors, should be excluded from the ICT’s numbers, as they likely represent foreigners working in Costa Rica rather than new travelers. In a follow-up article, the ICT rejected concerns about its counting methods, saying that they were in line with international standards and that the numbers are an accurate representation of visitor arrivals.
Others have also questioned the ICT’s “Million Dollar Gift of Happiness” campaign, which created a Facebook contest where “liking” the ICT page and agreeing to certain terms and conditions entered you in a drawing to win one of 160 vacation packages. Some of the winners were announced on TV shows hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper, further increasing the campaign’s outreach. The ICT said that its success is based on increasing the number of fans from 8,000 to 143,000 in less than three months; as of March 21, there were more than 157,000.
Still, at a cost of more than $6.4 million, one recent editorial in La Nación, Costa Rica’s biggest daily newspaper, wrote that it makes no sense to spend money on a Facebook campaign, a platform which is free to use, and where “every one of the [like] clicks [on the official ICT site] cost us $42 without getting anything in return. Wouldn’t it have been better to ask them why they want to visit our country and give them a prize for that[, rather than giving away 160 trips]?”
The bigger question that remains largely unasked in this debate over tourism counting and marketing is whether, and how, to sell Costa Rica as a country with “no artificial ingredients” (an ICT slogan). Drawing on its “happiest country in the world” designation, this new campaign has shifted the focus away from this “natural” perspective towards one of “pura vida,” Costa Rica’s unofficial national slogan. Pura vida literally means “pure life” and can be used as a greeting, an agreement, or to describe an allegedly laid-back, stress-free lifestyle in harmony with the natural world. That Costa Rica is devoid of artificial ingredients is thus implicit in its pura vida way of being.
How, then, does one design a marketing campaign for a country presumed to be in balance with its biodiversity? One of the ICT’s stated policies is that “The concept of sustainability will be the fundamental axis of tourism activity and will be considered as the main factor characterizing the national tourism product;” another is that “any kind of tourism activity that threatens our people’s habits or puts at risk the physical and moral integrity of human beings will be fought against forcefully.” Its National Sustainable Tourism Plan for 2010 – 2016 calls for an “equilibrium or balance between financial, natural, human, and social capital, encouraging the sustainable use of resources (natural and human) and an equitable distribution of benefits (3).”
The Plan itself states that Costa Rica should not look to simply increase the number of tourists, but also the quality of tourists, presumably those who will respect Costa Rica’s stated focus on biodiversity and natural and human resource protection (10). It also places a strong emphasis on increasing the number of Costa Ricans who travel within the country, in part as a response to the foreign financial crisis and in part because, as one man told me, “Costa Ricans should know our own country.” He noted, however, that as foreign tourism increases Costa Ricans are often priced out of their own country, unable to affording rising hotel and food costs. Local businesses here in Orosi have told me that this has been more of a problem in Monteverde (home to the Arenal volcano) and the beach towns, and that it is less of a problem here in the Cartago province. Unable to draw the beachgoers looking for monkeys and cheap beer, they have relied heavily on domestic tourism to help them through “la crisis.”
So what will happen to tourism marketing in Costa Rica? Increasing domestic tourism will no doubt place more stress on the ICT to better quantify its definition of “tourist,” and to respond to questions about its counting methodologies. It also requires an entirely different marketing strategy, as the majority of Costa Ricans I have met treat the “happiest country” designation with scorn. “Of course Costa Ricans are happy; they don’t work,” said one. “Wouldn’t you be happy if you could just quit your job any time it got stressful?” A few have wondered what life must be like elsewhere; rather than Costa Rica being so happy, they muse, everywhere else must be truly miserable. Referencing recent high-profile political scandals and the struggle to pass a new budget, one blogger noted that the secret to being happy was to have a “government straight out of the a fairy tale,” with a picture replacing Snow White’s face with that of President Laura Chinchilla.