After 10 American travelers and two local crew members died this week when a charter flight in Costa Rica crashed on a remote hillside, tourism operators are mourning the tragedy and assessing its impact on travel to one of the world’s most established ecotourism destinations.
The Dec. 31 crash killed five members of the Steinberg family of Scarsdale, N.Y., and four members of the Weiss family from Belleair, Fla., as well as their tour guide, Amanda R. Geissler, who was working for the active travel company Backroads. The crash is still under investigation. The group was traveling aboard a single-engine turboprop plane charted from Costa Rica-based Nature Air from Punta Islita on the Pacific Coast to San Jose, the capital.
“Backroads has been running active travel adventures in Costa Rica for more than 25 years. We are extremely heartbroken over this horrific loss of life and are working with the local authorities to understand the cause of the crash,” the company said in a statement.
Costa Rica is home to four international airports and more than 130 public and private landing airstrips servicing charter flights, according to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, making flying a common way to get around.
Since the accident, tour operators have been fielding inquiries from current and future travelers inquiring about alternative transportation options.
“In the short term, the good news is anywhere you can fly to, you can drive to,” said Dan Austin, the president of Austin Adventures, an adventure travel company that is active in Costa Rica.
Just the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica abounds in diversity from volcanoes and cloud forests to surfing beaches and rivers popular for white-water rafting. In 2016, some 2.9 million visitors traveled to Costa Rica, a 12.8 percent increase over 2015. Americans made up the largest sector at 1.2 million visitors, a 14.5 percent increase over the previous year.
Natural beauty and biodiversity, proximity to the United States, nonstop flights and the propensity of workers in the tourism industry to speak English all helped generate that traffic, according to Denise May, a group sales specialist at Texas-based Rico Tours, a wholesale tour operator that specializes in Latin America. “Basically, you’re on the ground on the same day you leave home so you don’t lose a lot of time to travel,” she said.
Although all-inclusive resorts have worked their way onto the beaches in Costa Rica in recent years, the bedrock of its allure is nature and ecotravel.
“Its unique appeal is due to its remarkable mosaic of well-preserved habitats, plus a vast wealth of wildlife and easy opportunities to see them,” wrote Christopher P. Baker, the author of the guidebook “National Geographic Traveler Costa Rica,” in an email. “Given Costa Rica’s small size, it’s possible to visit several distinct ecosystems in one day. Cloud forest. Lowland rain forest. Coastal mangrove. Plus it helps that Costa Rica is renowned as a neutral country with no army and a high standard of living. It’s a very huggable country.”
Costa Rica has been a leader in ecotourism, which exploded in the 1990s to become one of the country’s leading industries. The government established its first national park in 1971. Today the park system covers 70 preserves protecting over 3.2 million acres as tourism mushroomed as an economic driver in the country.
Martha Honey, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit organization advocating for sustainable travel, said the nascent ecotravel industry in Cuba is looking to Costa Rica as a model. “For a tiny little country, Costa Rica has an outsize influence in sustainable ecotourism globally,” she said.
Costa Rica has also been embraced by travelers concerned about their carbon footprint. According to the tourism board, Costa Rica produces more than 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and 26 percent of its territory is protected natural land. A government program rates hotels, tour operators and rental car agencies based on their environmental standards.
Although it is too soon to tell whether the accident will affect demand this year, it was certainly strong in 2017. Costa Rica is the top-selling destination for Austin Adventures, which is introducing a new glamping trip this year. Intrepid Travel, which recently opened a new operations base in the country said that business grew 21 percent last year in Central America, driven by demand for Costa Rica. This year, Access Trips plans to add a new culinary tour to Costa Rica.
“Costa Rica is a steppingstone to perhaps more exotic destinations,” Mr. Austin said. “We see a progression. If you’re new to adventure travel you might start domestically in Yellowstone. You can look at it as a gateway drug. You have a great time then you go to Alaska. For your first international trip, Costa Rica is easy to get to, it’s got a great reputation, it’s safe and the Ticos, the locals, are extremely welcoming.”
Many tour operators, including Wild Planet Adventures, eschew flights in Costa Rica in favor of ground travel. The trade-off is time. Abundant rain commonly causes potholes or muddy roads and distances that flights can cover in 30 minutes may take (a scenic) four or more hours to drive.
“Once you’re out of San Jose, it’s beautiful,” Ms. May said. “There’s not a turn you’ll make that isn’t absolutely stunning. You drive through different climates from sea level up to the mountains and can see clouds in the cloud forest hanging low between the sky and the top of the mountains. If you’re adventurous, I think a car is the way to do it.”
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