Learning lessons in tourism from Santa Cruz’s Central American doppelganger
A day in the town of Montezuma, Costa Rica, is reminiscent of one in summertime Santa Cruz. You can peruse organic produce at the weekly farmers’ market, lounge on the beach, eat at delicious and overpriced vegetarian restaurants and catch an evening yoga class. Even the reputations are similar—
Montezuma’s unofficial nickname is “Montefuma” (the verb fumar meaning “to smoke”), and a striking number of its residents rock dreadlocks. The town’s website, montezumabeach.com, says the area is comparable to “Maui 50 years ago, or Santa Cruz, California, but with monkeys and warm water.”
The town, known to many as a tropical hippie haven, is a growing destination for counterculture expats and young drifters, alike. Geoff McCabe, site master of montezumabeach.com, also does real estate in the area. He says that, although real estate is down pretty much everywhere, Montezuma continues to grow because of its appeal as an alternative refuge.
“Most of the people moving or retiring here are either young couples or ex-hippies who are now in their fifties and sixties,” he says. He digresses for a moment to tell me about one such ex-hippie, a client he met recently who used to watch Carlos Santana play music in his dorm room in the 1960s.
“Montezuma is attracting a lot of people like this who are tired of the craziness of the U.S. and want a better life,” he adds.
Artisans and borderline bums line the small streets with merchandise booths, selling handmade jewelry and trinkets to the constant stream of meandering tourists. After the sun sets on the sleepy town, a nightly drum circle forms in the single intersection. Fire dancers take turns spinning flaming poi balls as onlookers gather, refreshing cervezas in hand.
“The art, culture and food in Montezuma, along with all the various festivals happening in the area, are attracting some amazing people,” McCabe says. “Everyone seems to fall in love with this place!”
To say Montezuma is small is an understatement: there is no post office, police station or bank (unless you count a permanently out-of-order ATM machine), only a smattering of restaurants, gift shops, hotels and one bar. The establishments, of which there are few, are there for the tourists, of which there are many.
Two million foreign visitors traveled to Costa Rica in 2008, according to La Nacion newspaper. Twenty years earlier, in 1988, this number was only 329,000. In 1999, it reached one million and has been steadily increasing ever since. According to the Costa Rican Board of Tourism, 1999 also marked the first year that tourism earned more than the country’s three main cash crops—bananas, coffee and pineapples—combined, officially becoming the nation’s biggest industry. The ever-growing tourism industry brought in $2.2 billion for Costa Rica in 2008, up from $1.9 billion in 2007.
The pros and cons of development and foreign influence aside, tourism was jumpstarting the nation’s economy that, as of 2006, still had 16 percent of its population living below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. But all good things come to an end—or at least an intermission. Sunny skies and a contagiously friendly culture wasn’t enough to shield Costa Rica from the pervasiveness of recession.
I lived la pura vida in Costa Rica for one month this winter. I was keen on forgetting, as McCabe calls it, “the craziness of the U.S,” economic and otherwise, and did not sense the slightest reverberations of the turmoil in my peaceful, equatorial surroundings. It turns out Ticos are just better at keeping their cool—the week I left, The Tico Times, “Central America’s Leading English-Language Newspaper,” published several reports that pointed to economic recession. More than 20,000 jobs had been lost between November 2008 and January 2009, which can be detrimental for a country with a population that is not even twice the size of San Diego County. Unemployment is expected to climb from 5 to 8 percent by the end of 2009.
Tourism is inevitably suffering. The National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) conducted a poll of hotels and businesses in January, reporting that 60 percent of respondents were experiencing drops in reservations in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same period in 2008. As I read over this report, I was increasingly glad with my pick in travel destinations: the larger, more established tourist towns that I had opted to bypass were struggling to maintain their flow of visitors, while the small, funky beach villages I stayed at were just as cozy and happening as ever. Montezuma, for example, seemed to be doing something right.
Chris Johnson, co-owner of Luna Llenna (“Full Moon”) hotel in Montezuma, put it this way, “In Montezuma, we have held on to the small, out-of-the-way mystique. This has helped keep tourism healthy. Larger markets like Jaco, Tamarindo, and even Santa Teresa, are seeing large decreases, as they rely on the uninformed masses with deeper pockets.”
There were no vacancies at Luna Llena for the entire 10 days I was in town; luckily I had reserved several nights before arriving. Built into a lush hill on the north outskirt of town, the quaint establishment has 11 rooms, all private, two fully equipped kitchens and a communal area where the cross section of guests mingle over coffee or watch American news on the big-screen TV. At $15 to $40 a night, the rooms were a smidgen more expensive than the more basic backpacker hostels I’d stayed at, but the extra bucks spared me from finding any more cockroaches, giant toads or drunk college kids in my room.
Referring to the Tico Times report on tourism, Johnson says that Luna Llena is in the 15 percent of Costa Rican hotels currently enjoying an increase in business.
“We have positioned ourselves in the low to mid range of accommodations,” he says. “This helps, as we see guests trying to not spend so much as previous years.” Hostels and low-budget hotels aren’t just for shoe-string backpackers anymore; families, retirees and honeymooners are filling up rooms and joining the bargain party.
Another saving grace for Montezuma tourism is its popularity with the Canucks. While 46 percent of travelers visiting Costa Rica are from the United States or Canada, according to the Costa Rican Board of Tourism’s 2006 Annual Survey, Americans are tightening their expenditures and decreasing their presence as tourists. Canadians, and Europeans, according to McCabe, are filling that void.
“The economic crisis in Canada isn’t nearly as severe as in the U.S., so we’re seeing lots of Canadians here, and many are looking at real estate too,” he says. “Montezuma has always been very popular with Canadians because many of the first foreign settlers here (long after the Spanish, of course) were from Canada.”
He notes that this has helped Montezuma remain “a little more immune to these crises than other parts of Costa Rica.” McCabe, who has been living in Montezuma for five years, sees further hope for the town in its growing “green culture,” which he recalls as one of his primary reasons for relocating there in the first place.
“I saw Montezuma as a center of alternative/green culture in Costa Rica and thought it had potential to grow even further in that direction, and it has,” he says, mentioning his own eco-development business, puravidasunsets.com. “There are so many amazing projects being planned for the area by various eco-warriors from different countries. It’s very exciting.”
Things may look bright for Montezuma now (comparatively, at least), but the rainy season has yet to come. For tourist towns across the country, the low-season will be the true test.
I can’t help but continue drawing parallels between this magical place and the one I call home. Tourism is the biggest industry for the city of Santa Cruz, also, raking in about $513 million a year. Knowing what happened in many areas of Costa Rica this high season—and what it took for Montezuma to avoid such downturns—made me wonder how Santa Cruz will fare come the summer tourist season.
According to Maggie Ivy, CEO of the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council, hotel occupancy saw a 10 percent decline from the year before. Echoing the plans of many Costa Rican counterparts, Ivy says that Santa Cruz is preparing to push a spring tourism campaign that will stress affordability and creative reasons for visiting Santa Cruz.
She says, “When the tourism industry thrives, the community thrives.”