Region, COVID-19

The ICT says that COVID-19 could make them more efficient in implementing the funds of the Polo Papagayo for the benefit of the communities

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Translator: Ruben Acevedo Rodríguez

The Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) also included the Polo Turístico Golfo de Papagayo in its strategy to reactivate the national tourism, but after a month of the presentation for the project, the institution is yet to explain how Papagayo will contribute to the new strategy.

On May 6th, the Tourism Minister, María Amalia Revelo, said that it was a plan with eight different priorities. One of them was Papagayo. At that time, La Voz de Guanacaste consulted the Minister about the reasons why the Polo was a priority for the reactivation.

“This is a strategy that has been in place for a long time,” replied Revelo at a press conference that day, without going into detail.

One of the areas that Costa Rica imagined since the 70’s as a source for investment in Guanacaste and the country is the Polo Turístico Golfo de Papagayo. Since then, the ICT manages it.

However, since its creation, the Polo has not achieved a successful development. An example of this is that by 2017, only 12 of the 40 concessions reported their tourism projects completed in the area.

Government and ICT development promises to the communities around the Polo remain incomplete. Among them, the creation of a “tourist village” that was to be built with the money paid (fee) by the licensees of the lands inside the Polo.

So how can a project that has sailed through unfinished promises and developments lift up the tourism in the area? Most of all, how can it do so in the midst of the crisis?

It is with this question in mind that this media spoke with Gustavo Alvarado, Director of Tourism Management of the ICT, about the inclusion of the Polo Turístico Papagayo in the strategy.

During this interview, he talks about the responsibility of companies and how the ICT could become more efficient in the application of the funds they already have.

The following is an extraction of the conversation, slightly edited for accuracy:

– What will the Polo contribute to the recovery of the touristic sector? Why is it included in this action plan?

The answer is very simple. The ICT is directly responsible for the management and progress of that geographical area of the country. By law, the institution is responsible for everything that has to do with the licensing process, the proper administration of these licenses and also everything that has to do with the development of touristic infrastructure in this area.

-What would the Polo contribute to the recovery of the sector in the current crisis caused by COVID-19?

You should not see it as an isolated issue, any touristic sector in this country that manages to recover will be an improvement for its development. If we have a reactivation in the area of Guanacaste or in Papagayo it is because we are making progress in the process of economic recovery which is so needed in the country.

– The plan of action that you mention, according to a statement from the institute, has been focused on the initial reactivation of local tourism. How is the Polo aligned with this initiative?

It depends too on the operation of each private company. In fact, the institution bets in part that the reactivation of our economy in terms of tourism should initially be focused on national tourism. However, there are tourism projects in Guanacaste as well as in other areas of the country that might not be attractive for national tourism and that is a private decision.

We are going to promote tourism among citizens of Costa Rica, but the decision of whether or not a businessman wants to participate in this desire to receive national tourists is a private business decision.

– And do you consider that the Polo is headed towards such a decision? Have you discussed it with the business managers inside the Polo?

We have been in talks with the licensees. They are evaluating the economic issue of whether it is profitable to open to the domestic market because of a cost issue. There are all kinds of rooms there, with their economic value, but we cannot deny that we also have a hotel issue that is very focused on tourists with a high purchasing power. So, there the business owner will have to assess whether or not national tourism works, but it is a decision that they are considering at this time to decide whether or not to open their doors for the operation of national tourism at first.

– Do you know what level of impact the hotels or the licensees within the Polo are experiencing?

What we are clear about is that all the hotels so far are closed and that has a financial implication for the people who worked there. I would have to effectively review what mechanism or mechanisms have been in place with respect to the management of their staff, because we have seen actions ranging from the suspension of contracts to layoffs or some decrease in salary. What is certain is that currently most of the hotels, if not all, are completely closed.

– So, did the impact of the hotels inside the Polo area influence them to take it into account in the strategy?

The subject of impact must be dealt with at every discussion board. In other words, the issue is generalized. The fact that the ICT has a legal relationship with the administration of the Polo makes no difference. I put it this way: if Papagayo were not directly responsible for its administration by the ICT, it would still be taken into consideration as it has been with the rest of the country because of the impact.

– Where do you see the contribution of the Polo to the reactivation of the touristic sector: in attractions for tourists or in employment for nationals?

Both are essential because they are linked. Attracting tourists implies that you are going to operate your tourist service and to operate your tourist service you must hire staff. So, both things are important in this case, because having people working implies an economic reactivation, not only of a company for a certain area but also a reactivation for the families and the communities where the people who work in these areas live. Therefore, having tourists and having people working is an advance that goes beyond, in this case, the Polo Turístico.

The Marina Papagayo is part of the developments within the Gulf of Papagayo Tourist Pole (PTGP). The area has been administered by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) for more than 46 years.

– Has the ICT evaluated how the COVID-19 crisis will affect the development of the Polo concessions? I give the example of the 2008 crisis, where some of the investments were paralyzed by an economic recession.

To date, we have not had any requests that the investments could be stopped, so to speak. I’m not saying that cannot happen in the future. Now, it seems that the issue of investments would not be affected. One could foresee that what could happen is some rethinking of the product that they are considering building or extending the terms to make the investment. But today, what was foreseen in the investment, lets us say, does not seem to stop at this moment.

– What is the ICT doing differently with Papagayo from what the institution normally does in the area with the Polo?

The only difference, I would say, is that the Government is seeking to give greater legal security to investors. The concession contracts did not foresee in one way or another situations such as the one we are living with pandemics and this is thinking to ensure a clearer stability. Another different issue, and this is a very particular one, is that we intend to be much more agile in the execution of the funds that we have as a result of the payment of the fees of these concessions to execute infrastructure projects in the Papagayo area.

For quite some time the licensees have been paying their fees, and these funds should be used for the development of infrastructure or other matters for the benefit of the surrounding communities.

We believe that at this juncture these funds should be executed more quickly and more efficiently.

– In other words, do you think the situation will make them more efficient than they have been in any past year?

Indeed. We are even thinking of involving other areas of the institution in the execution of these funds and we believe that this will be the way to achieve greater agility in these matters.

– Have they considered any changes in costs or fee payments by, for example, concessionaires, in order to give them just such legal protection? 

We have not gone into the subject so far. Prior to the crisis, there were initiatives even in the Legislative Assembly and elsewhere that aimed to increase the cost of these fees. I think that would be, at this point, a serious mistake. At this moment we cannot think of increasing fees of any kind. What we need to do is to strengthen the investment that we have and may soon have.

– Beyond the issue of the Polo, does the ICT have a specific strategy for the tourist sector of Guanacaste?

No, not at the moment, because there is a characteristic that is not often commented on. Business owners have a zero income as a result of the pandemic, but I must also say that the ICT also has a zero income. Since March, the institution has not received any new revenue. The institution lives off the income from the taxes charged to tourists who arrive in the country or from Costa Ricans who travel when they leave. What does this mean? First, that we have had to make strong cuts to the entire budget of the institution in order to focus on important areas to address the crisis and also, we will have to use the surplus of the institution to meet all the needs.

The use of the profit and the economic cuts within the institution force us to be very careful and efficient with the funds. We are no longer in that situation where the institution received fresh revenues and to be diverted or to have, let’s say, separate actions by areas of the country could make it difficult for us to execute these funds.

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