A bit of a controversy was stirred up last week when Boris Marchegiani Carrero, president of the Association for the Protection of Tourism (PROTUR) and owner of the Gaia Hotel , in Manuel Antonio , challenged official government statistics regarding the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica .
According to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute  (ICT), 2,183,815 visitors arrived in the country last year. This represents an increase of four percent over 2010.
However, a report by PROTUR claims that ICT may have overestimated the number of tourists in 2011 by almost one million.
Not least, 27 percent of visitors arrived by land. Most of these visitors are Central American workers (predominantly Nicaraguans) come for seasonal work, plus a smaller number who exit and reenter Costa Rica every three months in order to renew their visas.
Plus, of the 1.4 million arrivals by air, nine percent reported that they came for family visits and another 15 percent for business or study. Hence, vacation tourism accounts for only about 1.1 million visitors per year, generating about $1.7 billion in earnings.
The report, which Marchegiani recently presented before the Legislative Assembly’s Special Standing Committee on Tourism, casts cold water on ICT’s cheery statistics.
Marchegiani also questioned ICT’s claims that Costa Rica’s hotel occupancy rate is 63 percent. PROTUR claims that the true figure for 2011 may have been as low as 35 percent.
Why such a discrepancy? And what importance does it have?
Well, says Marchegiani (as reported in the Tico Times ): “If you say to the world that we have 2.1 million tourists, you build for 2.1 million tourists, which means that when we don’t have 2.1 million tourists, we have all these rooms sitting empty.”
Marchegiani accuses the Costa Rican government of having favored mega-hotel and resort projects designed to attract large-scale investment to a few localized regions, most prominently the northern beach zones of northern Nicoya  and Guanacaste .
Such projects, he claims, have limited local trickle-down effects and do little to benefit the surrounding communities.
Rita Chávez, of the tourism committee, acknowledged that Costa Rica’s tourism paradigm has shifted in favor of “big business,” and away from the small- and medium-sized, locally owned businesses that have traditionally defined the nation’s eco-friendly, sustainable tourism.
PROTUR’s purpose in releasing their report is to change the 57-year-old law governing the development of tourism in Costa Rica, where decision-making power resides exclusively with ICT, according to Marchegiani. He wants to reform ICT and see representatives of hotels and restaurants, plus regional tourism chambers given an equal say in a more democratized process.
Meanwhile, ICT’s 2010-2016 National Sustainable Tourism Plan has a goal of increasing the number of tourist visits to the country five percent annually.
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