Tourism is the nation’s prime income earner. According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT, or Instituto Costarricense de Turismo), Costa Rica closed out 2010 with just over two million tourist arrivals (generating about $2 billion), reversing a drop of 7.97 percent in 2009 (the first fall in arrivals since 2002). Fully 40 percent came from the United States. About 100,000 workers are directly employed in tourism-related activities; another 400,000 are indirectly employed.
The majority of tourists cite natural beauty as one of their main motivations for visiting Costa Rica, and one-third specifically cite ecotourism. Costa Rica practically invented the term—defined as responsible travel that contributes to conservation of natural environments and sustains the well-being of local people by promoting rural economic development.
The government has since positioned Costa Rica as a comprehensive destination for the whole family. Surfers and others seeking active adventures (including zip lines, ATV tours, and kayaking) have also flocked in recent years, as have North Americans traveling in search of real estate investments, fostering an explosion in condominium construction along the Nicoya coast. The government has begun to promote medical tourism (cosmetic surgery and yoga, for example).
The nation has lacked any sort of coherent tourism development plan to control growth, and zoning regulations have traditionally not been enforced. Consequently, developers large and small were pushing up hotels and condominiums along Costa Rica’s coastline in total disregard of environmental laws. Investors have also pushed the price of land beyond reach of the local population. More than 50 percent of Costa Rica’s habitable coastline is now owned by North Americans and Europeans.
Eco-tour operators have warned that without a conscientious national development plan, the government could kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Defenders of large-scale resorts point out that surging tourism and investment dollars can pull the country out of debt. And the employment opportunities are huge. In 2008, president Oscar Arias issued several presidential decrees to regulate new construction along the coast in an effort to get a grip on development that has already spiraled out of control; as a result, MINAE actually began shutting down, and even pulling down, some hotels and businesses.