Tourism industry seeks changes with new president

Tourism in Costa Rica is either pretty good or pretty bad, depending on who is doing the assessment.

With a new president comes change, and that is true of the country’s tourism agency, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo.

Already, the national tourism chamber is on record urging that its members be named to the institute’s board of directors.

Many in the tourism industry fear that the government efforts in tourism are aimed mainly to the benefit of the large corporations, the multi-nationals, without regard to the small owner-operators.

That feeling coalesced in the creation of an alternative tourism organization four years ago. This is the Asociacion Para La Proteccion del Turismo en Costa Rica, known as ProTur, which declares on its Facebook page that it consists of disgruntled small- and medium-size tourism companies in Costa Rica who got together as a lobbying group to make public the wheeling and dealing cozy relationships.

The national tourism chamber, the Cámera Nacional de Turismo, has been more outspoken lately, and ProTur seems to have lost its revolutionary spirit.

That may be because the national chamber is beginning to talk tough. This is the group that says the new directors of the government tourism agency should be people who work in the field.

The president, Isabel Vargas Rodríguez, posted ablistering critique of the government and politicians in general on the chamber’s Web site:

“We demand a just government, a favorable business climate, a modern and efficient state. Finally we want to feel proud to belong to this country with a vision of the future, with upright and knowledgeable leaders. Choosing the future officials is our responsibility but the job and the challenge will be for this new administration to avoid being the last made up of egotists or the inept without the conviction, the consistency and the commitment that Costa Rica needs.

The chamber outlined its demand for inclusion Feb. 3 in a press release, the day after the general elections. It said that members wished to discuss priorities with the two runoff candidates.

Tourism, it said, needs to be repositioned as a key sector in social mobilization and economic growth in the national development plan with clear directives that articulate public and private actions with the administration’s backing through state policies that promote fundamental development of the tourism industry.

Many in the industry see the tourism institute as what they call a piñata, a basket of goodies that only the privileged can access.

PorTur threatened to sue the tourism institute because officials promoted the country with inflated tourism figures, the organization said at the time.

A.M. Costa Rica has been saying for years that the tourism numbers include hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who are not traditional tourists. So any entrepreneur who comes here on the strength of the institute’s claim of more than 2 million tourists a year is sure to be disappointed.

Yet some are doing well during this high season. The San José Palacio was turning away would-be guests last week. Tourism operators on the Pacific coast report that business is good.

The tourism institute just announced that it is investing nearly $700,000 in advertising related to the Winter Olympics.  The campaign calls for 267 commercials for $500,000 on NBC Universal networks through Sunday. There also is $192,000 allocated for social media and pay-per-click ads with Google and Yahoo|Bing. That was announced Feb. 9, and such big campaigns are typical of the tourism institute.

ProTur questioned this type of promotion publicly in 2012 when it critiqued the Gift of Happiness, which was the campaign that featured a talking sloth and handed out free trips to North Americans. ProTur wondered why an Atlanta, Georgia, ad agency got the contract for the project without any kind of competitive bidding.

This was a $6.5 million promotional scheme that gave away 80 free trips for two with the hope that the recipients say good things about the country on the social networks.

The institute also got bad reviews because it seemed to favor the places it paid to lodge the trip winners.

The tourism institute also is certain to come up with an expensive campaign for the World Cup soccer championships in June as it did eight years ago when the event was held in Germany. And some officials may be able to attend as institute guests.

Then there was the campaign that put ads on buses and as video advertising in movie houses.

In none of these campaigns did the institute report results, although assessing results is a major segment of any advertising campaign.

In addition, the tourism institute is involved now in constructing a convention center in Heredia. This is a project that private enterprise did not see as profitable.

All of these projects are being done with public money.

Although the tourism institute has other functions, such as ratifying maritime property concessions, its marketing efforts are the most visible.

The latest campaign embedded in the Winter Olympics is the first where the institute has expressed an advertising goal. The campaign seeks to raise the ranking of the institute’s Web site,

The site was in 155,605th place worldwide, based on Alexa figures when the campaign began Feb. 7

The ranking was 153,988th place Monday night. Alexa said that 29.7 percent of the visitors come from the United States.

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