In the last 10 years, tourism has generated approximately US$ 28 billion. With the exception of 2009 and the post-stock market crash global crisis, that amounts to roughly 10% of the nation’s GDP per year. In comparison, between 2008-2017, the banana generated US$ 8.3 billion, the pineapple US$ 7.6 billion, and medical devices US$ 4.5 billion, according to Procomer (the Foreign Trade Promoter of Costa Rica). 2016 has been Costa Rica’s biggest year in tourism so far, producing US$ 3.7 billion alone.

23.9 Million visitors from around the world arrived in Costa Rica in the last decade, spending an average of US$ 1,200 per person, according to ICT (the Costa Rican Tourism Board), and 40% of tourists arrived from the United States along. Europe accounts for 14% and visitors from Central America make up 29%.


ICT is now focusing its efforts on attracting meetings and congress tourism with the construction of a new convention center, expected to open in April of this year. Revenue for this conference center is projected to total $180 million in the next three years, with 60 events already confirmed. Costa Rica recently went up 10 spaces on the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) world ranking of meetings tourism, going from position 63 to position 53 among 200 countries.

Mauricio Ventura, the Costa Rica Minister of Tourism, says that the past two years have been spent developing an aggressive strategy to compete in congress and convention tourism, which accounts for 22% of tourism worldwide and generates close to US$ 11.5 billion per year.

ICT is also working to attract new airlines to the country, to grow the already increasing numbers of tourists who enter the country. Portugal’s Ávoris will begin weekly direct flights to Costa Rica in April, connecting Lisbon to San José. This new addition brings the number of direct flights from Europe to nine.
Cultural tourism is another area of interest for ICT because it contributes to the economy of a wider spread of communities. There is a strong focus by the tourism board to give the capital, San Jose, a transformative makeover with the hope of exposing more of their sites of cultural and historic interests.

The value of tourism

According to ICT’s tourism case study, called the National Plan for Tourism Development in Costa Rica 2017-2021, a tourism system is an adaptive type of system in which a significant group of actors participate over the years in a complex web of relationships that allow the system to evolve and adapt to the environment’s variables with good success.

Costa Rica’s competitiveness thus far is a reflection of the evolution of this model, and the consolidation of the different tourism facilities, establishing relationships among them. As a result of this process, a particular model of tourism has been created and strengthened by a combination of natural, social and financial capital promoting a series of differentiated and highly competitive tourism products in international markets.

The evolution of Costa Rica’s tourism system has achieved a sort of meeting point on the commercial, social, environmental and political dynamics of tourism, generating a kind of checks and balances based on three fundamental principles that define the essence of the model and ensure its continuity and future existence: sustainability, innovation and inclusion (see the report for further reading on each of these topics).

Tourism Model of Costa Rica

Development of Costa Rica as a tourism destination has expanded a range of tourist services and products, including ecotourism, sun and beach, adventure, rural tourism, wellness, meetings and more (ICT, 2009). This characteristic of flexibility gives dynamism and allows many local actors to join the tourism activity with innovative products by generating two distinctive characteristics of the model: the diversity of activities that are offered and their wide dispersion in the national territory.

The key to this success is based on the following fundamental aspects:

– The wide distribution of natural and cultural attractions that include the National Parks and equivalent reserves, private reserves, and the land maritime zone (ZMT) represent a good piece of the tourism space of the country protected by specific environmental legislation, protecting the legacy of local tourism.
– A very wide distribution of hotels throughout the nation, thereby generating distribution of tourism services and productive chains.

What makes Costa Rica different?

Costa Rica has worked to consolidate a differentiation strategy and ICT has designed a public policy plan that includes certifications, programs and instruments appropriate for the tourism sector and in accordance with the attractions and services. Over the past 30 years, these programs have focused on improving the promise of the country’s tourism brand by strengthening attributes, rational benefits, emotional benefits, services, quality, sustainability, shared values and nature of the destination.
The main programs that work to support the problem of differentiation include: the Tourism Sustainability Certificate, Ecological Blue Flag, and Code of Conduct for the protection of children and adolescents against commercial sexual exploitation in travel and tourism.

How Costa Rica promotes itself around the world

The positioning of the country as a tourist destination connected to nature and the protection and responsible use of the environment, has its origin in the same historical process of the last 30 years. By 1984, the country abandoned the strategy of promoting itself as a Caribbean destination (more focused on the concept of beach and circuits in the city and its surroundings) and in its place the ICT approved and implemented a new marketing policy to position Costa Rica as a destination of “soft nature,” with the development of a first international tourist promotion campaign called “Costa Rica: It’s only natural.”

Between 1985 and 2014, the line of international promotion has remained focused on campaigns that highlight natural attractions, local culture, comfort and being a destination that offers many possibilities to visitors. They emphasize the campaign “No artificial ingredients” focused initially on nature, and national parks, to which later elements of sustainability and comfort are added.

More recently, 2013’s campaign “Costa Rica: Gift of happiness,” focused on the values of local society, who share their nation with visitors but without leaving aside the differentiator of nature. The 2015 campaign “Save the Americans,” focused on nature and society as values to share and offered a destination with lots of possibilities to practice different activities in a natural setting.

Finally, the most recent branding, “Essencial COSTA RICA,” was launched internationally with the aim of promoting tourism, boosting exports and attracting investment in a joint manner. ICT seeks to position Costa Rica as a site that, in addition to being recognized as an undoubted destination for natural beauty, is also home to an industry of high technology and innovation, with a broad export capacity of high quality products, thanks to the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of the people.

Global tourism projections

– It is estimated that tourism represents 9% of world GDP, and about one in every 11 jobs are generated by tourism, which is capable of producing about 1.4 trillion dollars in exports of services, which represents about 6% of world exports and 6% of exports from the undeveloped countries (WTO, 2014).

– In this period of 30 years the international arrivals of tourists has grown by 290% from 278 million arrivals of international tourists in 1980 to one of the 1.87 billion tourists in 2013.

– Regarding world income, growth was close to 1000%, going from 103 billion dollars in 1983 to 1.159 trillion dollars in 2013 (UNWTO, 2014).

– In accordance with UNWTO projections for 2020 the number of tourists in the world will be around 1-400 million and by 2030 that figure will be around 1.800 billion, which means an average growth rate in the 2010-2030 period of between 3 to 4%; percentage that would add a figure close to 43 million new tourists every year from here to 2030. (WTO, 2011).