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Tourism in Costa Rica

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Tourism in Costa Rica

Poás Volcano Crater is one of Costa Rica's main tourist attractions.
Cocos Island is a prime ecotourism destination. A World Heritage Site, ranked among the top 77 nominees for the world's New 7 Wonders of Nature.[1]

Tourism in Costa Rica is one of the fastest growing economic sectors of the country[2] and by 1995 became the largest foreign exchange earner.[3][4] Since 1999, tourism earns more foreign exchange than bananas, pineapples and coffee exports combined.[5] The tourism boom began in 1987,[3] with the number of visitors up from 329,000 in 1988, through 1.03 million in 1999, to a historical record of 2.52 million foreign visitors in 2014.[6][7] In 2012 tourism contributed with 12.5% of the country's GDP and it was responsible for 11.7% of direct and indirect employment.[8] In 2009 tourism attracted 17% of foreign direct investment inflows, and 13% in average between 2000 and 2009.[9] In 2010 the tourism industry was responsible for 21.2% of foreign exchange generated by all exports.[10] According to a 2007 report by ECLAC, tourism contributed to a reduction in poverty of 3% in the country.[9]

Since the late 1980s Costa Rica became a popular nature travel destination, and its main competitive advantage is its well-established system of national parks and protected areas,[11] covering around 23.4% of the country's land area,[12] the largest in the world as a percentage of the country's territory,[13][14] and home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, in a country that has only 0.03% of the world's landmass, but that is estimated to contain 5% of the world's biodiversity.[15][16] The country also has plenty of beaches, both in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, within short travel distances, and also several volcanoes that can be visited with safety. By the early 1990s, Costa Rica became known as the poster child of ecotourism,[16] with tourist arrivals reaching an average annual growth rate of 14% between 1986 to 1994.[3][17]

According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board, 47% of international tourists visiting the country in 2009 engaged in activities related to ecotourism, which includes trekking, flora, fauna, and bird watching, and visits to rural communities. However, most visitors look for adventure activities.[18] Costa Rica was included by Ethical Traveler magazine in the 2011 and the 2012 list of The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations.[19][20]


  • Description and key statistics 1
  • Comparative performance in the Latin American market 2
  • Ecotourism 3
    • The "Bandera Azul" Program 3.1
    • Voluntary Certification Program 3.2
    • Ethical Traveler Destination 3.3
  • Beaches and adventure 4
  • Main natural attractions 5
    • National Parks and Biological Reserves 5.1
    • Volcanoes 5.2
    • Beaches 5.3
    • Seven Natural Wonders of Costa Rica 5.4
  • Other activities and popular destinations 6
  • Medical Tourism 7
  • Environmental and social impacts 8
    • Beachfront developments 8.1
    • Hotel siting and construction 8.2
    • Sex tourism 8.3
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Description and key statistics

International tourist arrivals
Year Arrivals
Year Arrivals
Year Arrivals
USD million
Year Arrivals
USD million
1988 329 1996 781 2004 1,453 1,358 2012 2,343 2,313
1989 376 1997 811 2005 1,679 1,570 2013 2,428 2,665
1990 435 1998 943 2006 1,725 1,732 2014 2,527 2,864
1991 504 1999 1,032 2007 1,973 1,974
1992 611 2000 1,088 2008 2,089 2,144
1993 684 2001 1,131 2009 1,923 2,075
1994 762 2002 1,113 2010 2,100 1,999
1995 785 2003 1,239 2011 2,192 2,152

Costa Rica stands as the most visited nation in the Central American region, with 2.3 million foreign visitors in 2012, capturing a market share of 26.4% of all visitors to the region.[28] In 2012 Panama ranked second in the region with 1.6 million, followed by Guatemala with 1.3 million visitors.[28]

The number of tourists visiting Costa Rica surpassed the 2 million milestone in 2008, and tourist-related income reached US$2.1 billion that year.[25] As a result of the Great Recession, international arrivals began falling since August 2008, as the number of U.S. citizens visiting the country shrank, and this market segment represented 54% of all foreign tourists visiting Costa Rica.[29]

The combined effect of the global economic crisis and the 2009 flu pandemic resulted in a reduction of tourists arrivals in 2009 to 1.9 million visitors, an 8% reduction as compared to 2008.[30] In 2010 the number of visitors rose to 2.1 million, barely exceeding the 2008 peak,[10] and a record was reached in 2012 with 2.34 million visitors, a 6.9% increase over 2011.[21]

International tourist receipts rose to US$2.425 billion in 2012.[28] The lead country of origin was the United States with 921,097 tourists, followed by Nicaragua with 474,011 visitors, and Canada with 151,568.[31] Costa Rica was a port of call to 175 cruise ships in 2012, down from its peak of 264 ships in 2010. Cruise ships brought 247,138 short-term visitors in 2012, who spent US$14.4 million, down from US$31.8 million in 2004, the peak year for cruise ship receipts.[31]

Arrivals reached 2.428 million visitors in 2013, up 3.6% from 2012, and the U.S. continued as the leading country of origin with 929,402 visitors (38.3%).[32] In 2013, the average stay was 12.1 nights, up from 11.6 nights in 2012, and the average expenditure per international tourist was US$1,378 per stay.[7] A historical record of 2.5 million international visitors arrived in the country in 2014, up 4.1% year-on-year, and the corresponding receipts rose to US$2.636 billion in 2014, up 8.3% from the previous year.[7]

In terms of the 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI), Costa Rica reached the 47th place in the world ranking, classified as the third most competitive among Latin American countries after Panama (37) and Mexico (44), and ranking sixth in the Americas.[8] Just considering the subindex measuring human, cultural, and natural resources, Costa Rica ranks in the 38th place at a worldwide level, and 7th when considering just the natural resources criteria. The country ranks a high 26th overall for environmental sustainability, ranking 9th in the world for sustainability of its travel and tourism industry development. The TTCI report also notes Costa Rica's main weaknesses, limited number of cultural sites (93rd) and poor condition of ground transport infrastructure (100th), with quality of the roads ranking 129th and quality of port infrastructure 106th.[8]

In 2012 most visitors came from the United States (39.3%), Nicaragua (20.2%), Canada (6.5%), Panama (3.9%), and Mexico (2.9%).[31] Tourists from North America and European countries made up 60.8% of all international visitors, and visitors from Central America represented 30.8%.[31] According to a 2006 survey, visitors from the Caribbean Basin and South America travel to Costa Rica mainly for business or professional purposes, while a majority of Americans, Canadians and Europeans visit the country for leisure. Word of mouth from friends and family, with an average of 58%, was the leading reason for visiting Costa Rica for vacations and leisure. The main visitor's complaint is the poor condition of the roads.[5]

Top 20 visitor arrivals by country of origin in 2012[31]
Ranking Country
of origin
% Total
Ranking Country
of origin
% Total
1  United States 921,097 39.3 11  Honduras 35,036 1.5
2  Nicaragua 474,011 20.2 12  Colombia 33,712 1.4
3  Canada 151,568 6.5 13  United Kingdom 31,930 1.4
4  Panama 90,899 3.9 14  Venezuela 31,432 1.3
5  Mexico 66,959 2.9 15  Netherlands 25,758 1.1
6  El Salvador 64,923 2.8 16  Argentina 24,545 1.0
7  Guatemala 55,334 2.4 17  Italy 20,335 0.9
8  Germany 50,938 2.2 18   Switzerland 16,869 0.7
9  Spain 47,505 2.0 19  Brazil 15,071 0.6
10  France 38,139 1.6 20  Israel 11,095 0.5
Visitor arrivals by region of origin in 2012 (Top 4)
1 North America 1,139,624 48.6 3 Europe 284,996 12.1
2 Central America 721,049 30.8 4 South America 136,486 5.8

Comparative performance in the Latin American market

The following table presents a comparison of Costa Rica's tourism industry performance with selected countries from the Caribbean Basin and South America, including Bahamas, Cuba, and several of the top ten Latin American countries according to their 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI), which are competitors in the nature travel market segment.

Caribbean and
Latin American
(col 2)/(col 1)
per 1000 pop.
as %
of exports
goods and
as %
% Direct &
in tourism
 Bahamas(1) 1,419 2,367 1,668 4,616 6,288 74.6 34.1 68.7
 Barbados 536 916 1,709 1,956 2,749 58.5 42.7 41.9 27 4.88
 Brazil 5,677 6,645 1,170 26 18 3.2 8.9 8.1 51 4.37
 Chile 3,554 2,201 619 151 73 5.3 8.4 8.0 56 4.29
 Colombia 2,175 2,351 1,081 26 25 6.6 5.1 5.5 84 3.90
 Costa Rica 2,343 2,425 1,035 442 343 17.5 12.5 11.7 47 4.44
 Cuba(1) 2,688 2,283 849 188 169 n/d n/d n/d n/d n/d
 Dominican Republic 4,563 4,549 997 408 353 36.2 14.7 13.6 86 3.88
 Jamaica 1,986 2,043 1,029 628 530 49.2 25.7 23.8 67 4.08
 Mexico 23,403 12,739 544 201 103 5.7 12.4 13.7 44 4.46
 Panama 1,606 2,259 1,406 330 211 10.6 10.1 9.6 37 4.54
 Peru 2,846 2,657 933 65 41 9.0 9.1 7.8 73 4.00
 Uruguay 2,695 2,076 770 525 145 14.2 10.2 9.7 59 4.23
  • Notes: Green shadow denotes the country with the top indicator. Yellow shadow corresponds to Costa Rica's.
    (1) Visitors and receipts for Cuba correspond to 2011. For Bahamas tourism revenues as % GDP are for 2003, and direct and indirect employment for 2005.


Costa Rica's biodiversity is an asset for ecotourism. Shown a notable frog species, the Red-eyed Tree Frog.
Beach sign and flag from the Bandera Azul Ecológica (Ecological Blue Flag) Program at Playa Langosta, Las Baulas National Marine Park, Guanacaste.
A hotel sign showing the voluntary certification programs the hotel has passed or is associated with. Shown are a four star Bandera Azul Ecológica and a three leaves CST Program.
Arenal Volcano is a main destination in Costa Rica, San Carlos, Alajuela.
Manuel Antonio National Park is well known for its four beaches combined with sights of natural beauty, Quepos Puntarenas.
Tourists at the viewing area at the edge of the Poás Volcano crater.
Celeste River, located at Tenorio Volcano National Park, is among the most popular destinations by both foreign and domestic tourists.
Cruise ships on call at Puntarenas Port in the Pacific.

Ecotourism is extremely popular with the many tourists visiting the extensive national parks and protected areas around the country. Costa Rica was a pioneer in this type of tourism and the country is recognized as one of the few with real ecotourism.[16] As of 2006, a total of 54% international tourists visited national parks or protected areas, visiting at least two such natural refuges, and it goes up to three for European visitors.[35]

In recent years, several of its top travel service providers have been internationally recognized for their commitment to planet-positive tourism. Examples include Nature Air[36] and Hotel Punta Islita[37] as winners of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, sponsored by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), and Lapa Rios Ecolodge[38] as winner of the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Standard-Setter.

The "Bandera Azul" Program

Implemented in 1996 and inspired by a similar program developed in Europe in 1985,[39] the "Bandera Azul Ecológica" (Ecological Blue Flag) Program is intended to promote development while curbing the negative impacts of mass tourism by helping the local community to work against pollution and protecting the environment. The program evaluates the environmental quality of coastal areas, in terms of the quality of the beaches and sea water, access and quality of drinking water, water and waste management, security, and environmental education. Depending on the degree of compliance against the optimal criteria established, a certain number of stars are awarded to the Blue Flag.[40]

After the first evaluation, ten beaches were awarded the distinction, which usually is highly publicized to potential visitors.[41] In 2008, based on the evaluation carried out in 2007, 59 beaches kept the distinction while eight beaches lost it.[40][42] In 2009, out of 81 applicants, only 61 beaches won the distinction, and just two obtained the maximum 5 stars, Playa Blanca in Punta Leona and Playa Langosta in Santa Cruz.[43]

Voluntary Certification Program

Developed in 1997 by the Costa Rican Tourism Board, the public agency responsible for tourism development and regulation in the country, a voluntary Certification for Sustainable Tourism Program (known as CST) was introduced in order to turn "the concept of sustainability into something real" by "improving the way in which the natural and social resources are utilized, to motivate the active participation of the local communities, and to support the competitiveness of the business sector."[3] The program was aimed for all types of businesses in the tourism industry, but it began only with lodging providers. By 2007, a total of 108 parameters are considered for the CST evaluation.[44]

CST hopes to encourage businesses to become sustainable in a variety of ways, including using recycled products, implementing water and energy saving devices, properly disposing and treating waste, conserving and expanding Costa Rica's forests, and developing better systems of information management.[45] As of October 2009, out of approximately 3,000 hotels and tours operators,[46] only 105 have a Certification for Sustainable Tourism.[47] Some tour operators in the U.S. and Europe promote several small hotels that hold this certification through their travel packages.[48]

Ethical Traveler Destination

Costa Rica was included in both the 2011 and 2012 lists of The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations. This is an annual ranking produced by Ethical Traveler magazine, which is based on a study of developing nations from around the world to identify the best tourism destinations among them. The benchmarking uses categories such as environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights.[19][20]

Costa Rica was absent from the list for several years because World Vision considered the country among the world's most notorious destinations for sexual predators. Even though the problem has not completely disappeared, Ethical Traveler included Costa Rica back on the 2011 list of ethical destinations due to the government's serious efforts to address human trafficking through increased public awareness campaigns, creating a new office devoted to human trafficking, and training officials.[49]

Beaches and adventure

Most of the main attractions are nature related, a combination of ecotourism with leisure and adventure activities: sun, sea and sand (55%); flora and wildlife watching (44%); visiting volcanoes (43%); trekking (41%); bird watching (30%); canopy tours (26%);bungee jumping from bridges (11%); surfing (11%); snorkeling (10%); and rafting (7%). Cultural activities such as visiting museums, art galleries and theaters corresponds to 11%, and business travel corresponds to 17%.[35]

Seven Costa Rican resorts were included in the 2012 Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards, ranking among the top 15 resorts in Central and South America. The resorts are Xandari Resort and Spa (2), Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo (3), Hotel Punta Islita (8), El Silencio Lodge and Spa (9), Los Sueños Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort (11), Arenas del Mar (12) and the Westin Playa Conchal, Resort and Spa at Playa Conchal (15). The award selection is based on surveys among the magazine's subscribers, who evaluate the resort's quality of rooms, service, food, location, design, and activities.[50][51] Two hotels were also chosen by the magazine readers among the top 5 in Central America, Hotel Grano de Oro (3) in San José and Hotel Villa Caletas (4) in Puntarenas Central Pacific.[52]

Main natural attractions

National Parks and Biological Reserves

In 2009 more than 1.2 million tourists visited national parks and protected wild reserves, up from 812 thousand visitors in 2000 and 510 thousand in 1990. Since 2003 slightly more than half the visitors are international tourists. The most visited parks are Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero, Cahuita, and the parks around the volcanoes Poás, Arenal and Irazú.[53]

Other favorite national parks and wild reserves are:



See List of beaches of Costa Rica

Seven Natural Wonders of Costa Rica

Elected in 2007 by Costa Ricans through an open contest organized by a leading newspaper as the 7 natural wonders of Costa Rica,[56] these natural sites are among the most popular destinations by both foreign and domestic tourists, with the exception of Cocos Island, which it is not easily accessed, because it is located in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 550 km (340 mi) from the Pacific shore of Costa Rica.

Ranking 7 natural wonders of Costa Rica
1 Cocos Island (Spanish: Isla del Coco)
2 Arenal Volcano (Spanish: Volcán Arenal)
3 Chirripo Mountain (Spanish: Cerro Chirripó)
4 Celeste River (Spanish: Río Celeste)
5 Tortuguero Canals (Spanish: Canales de Torguero)
6 Poás Volcano (Spanish: Volcán Poás)
7 Monteverde Reserve (Spanish: Reserva Monteverde)

Other activities and popular destinations

Interior of Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica (El Foyer).

Medical Tourism

Costa Rica, together with Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, and Chile, is among the Latin America countries that have become popular destinations for medical tourism.[57][58] In 2009 Costa Rica received 30,000 international tourists seeking for medical treatment, and spent around US$250 million. Most medical travelers came from the United States and Canada.[59] During 2010, the number of patients rose to 36,000 international tourists, with 40% of them receiving dental care services.[60] In 2011, that number continued to rise, eventually reaching 46,474.[61]

Costa Rica is particularly attractive to American tourists because of its proximity and short flight, the quality of medical services and its health care system, and lower medical costs.[58][62] The country has 20 medical centers, including small clinics and private hospitals, with international certification, including three hospitals accredited by the Joint Commission International.[59][62]

Americans tourist prefer Costa Rica, together with Mexico and Panama, for dental services or cosmetic surgeries. Costa Rica offers 30% to 50% savings as compared to U.S. costs for quality dental and cosmetic surgery services, and is attractive for those U.S. citizens without health insurance or seeking procedures not covered by their health insurance plans.[57][63] Foreign patients also find lower-priced nonsurgical procedures and tests, as an example, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in Costa Rica costs from $200 to $300, compared to more than $1,000 in the United States.[57] In average medical costs are 70% lower than in the U.S.[59] Due to the country's natural attractions, many health tourists combine their treatment with ecotourism and offer an opportunity to their family or companions to be entertained while the patient undergoes the medical procedure.[58]

Environmental and social impacts

Beachfront development boom in Tamarindo beach (circa 2007).
Manuel Antonio beach

Beachfront developments

In many beach areas, but especially in the towns of Tamarindo and Jacó, a real estate boom took place when many foreigners from developed countries began buying beachfront properties and building holiday and vacation houses and condominiums. These developments completely changed the life style in these towns, and property prices are now so high that it became prohibitive for Costa Ricans to own beach front properties.[16] Also, the lack of planning for these developments is having a negative social impact on small communities, as in some cases they are forced to move to places with less adequate infrastructure and where not enough job opportunities exist.[64]

Hotel siting and construction

Also there have been isolated controversies regarding the site location and construction of hotels and beach resorts invading the 50 metres (160 ft) protected maritime public zone; also a case of one hotel located within a protected area; and a few cases of resort development with severe negative impacts to existing flora and fauna, by dumping construction wastes damaging coral reefs or filling mangroves.[16] As a result of these and other similar controversies, the Environment Law 7554 was passed in 1995 to require environmental impact studies before a hotel or any other development is authorized to begin construction.[65]

Another source of pollution is due to dumping untreated sewage into rivers that feed into the beach towns. In 2007 the Constitutional Court order the national and 34 local governments to stop dumping sewage into the Río Grande de Tárcoles, to restore the watershed to its unpolluted condition and to adopt an integrated solution to the wastewater problem.[66] Towns such as Jacó where tourism and real estate development has grown ten-fold since 2004 suffered a backslash in September 2008 when the government blamed the local government of Garabito for high levels of bacteria on the beach.[67]

More recently, controversy took place with the construction of the Sardinal-El Coco-Ocotal aqueduct by private developers, as the community of Sardinal protested violently because they fear that scarce drinking water will be diverted for the tourism developments whose owners are financing the pipeline.[68] As of May 2008, construction works were stopped by order of the local municipality.[69] Developers and the government authorities have explained the aqueduct is public, and that it will benefit not only the tourism developments but also the surrounding communities.[70][71] Controversy still persists regarding the real capacity of the Sardinal aquifer.

Sex tourism

The rapid growth of tourism also has the consequence of the country becoming a popular destination for sex tourism.[72][73][74][75] Despite the government and industry efforts, child sex trade has become a problem.[76][77] A study estimated that "up to 10% of tourists who come to Costa Rica engage in sex tourism", with as many as 10,000 sex workers involved, many of whom are immigrants.[78][79] Also it was reported that about 80% of the sex tourists are from the US.[80] This is largely because prostitution is not illegal but many of the activities surrounding it are indeed illegal,[81] such as pimping.[82][83]

A panoramic view from the summit of the Irazú Volcano.

See also


  1. ^ a b This is the list of the Top 77 nominees eligible for consideration by the Panel of Experts, that by July 21, 2009 will select the 28 Official Finalist Candidates.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ a b c d
  8. ^ a b c d e f g See Table 4, pp. 18 and Country/Economy Profile: Costa Rica, pp. 142-143.
  9. ^ a b See pp. 422 and 425.
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Published on website "Planeta Sustentável"
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c d e Chapter 5. Costa Rica: On the Beaten Path
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ a b c d Technical Paper Series ENV-149, Washington, D.C., pp 9 and 47.|
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b c Data corresponds to 2007
  26. ^
  27. ^ pp. 10
  28. ^ a b c d e f pp. 10
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b c d e See tables 1, 63 and 64.
  32. ^
  33. ^ Population estimated for 2007 (search values for each country profile)
  34. ^ Data corresponds to 2005.
  35. ^ a b 2006 Annual Survey from the Costa Rican Board of Tourism (ICT)
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b pp. 10
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^ See table 4, pp. 4.
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^ a b c Available in pdf
  58. ^ a b c
  59. ^ a b c
  60. ^
  61. ^
  62. ^ a b
  63. ^
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^
  71. ^
  72. ^
  73. ^
  74. ^
  75. ^
  76. ^
  77. ^
  78. ^
  79. ^
  80. ^
  81. ^ see SECCIÓN III: Corrupción, proxenetismo, rufianería (Articles 167 to 172).
  82. ^ (free translation from Spanish)
  83. ^

External links

  • Costa Rica, Condé Nast Traveler
  • Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) official web site
  • Costa Rica's Certification in Sustainable Tourism Program
  • Costa Rica National Parks
  • Costa Rica Hotels & Resorts - Condé Nast Traveler Gold List 2014
  • Costa Rica Guide, National Geographic
  • New York Times Travel Guides: Costa Rica
  • In Search of ‘Wild’ Costa Rica, The New York Times, 10 April 2014.
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