Retirement homes and medical care: the future for Costa Rican tourism?

We saw a blue-feathered quetzal high in the Monteverde cloud forest, watched monkeys leap from tree to tree, paddled in the Pacific at Playa Hermosa, admired the painted ox carts of Sarchi, and hiked on the slopes of an active volcano, Rincon de la Vieja.

Brilliantly coloured quetzal (from Wikipedia)

Costa Rica in Central America is famous for tourism, especially ‘ecotourism’, which is perhaps a slightly misleading word given that the energy costs of travelling to and from the country are excluded from the equation. More than 60% of visitors to Costa Rica are from the USA, from which it is separated by Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The flight times from continental USA to San Jose are shorter than the ten or 11 hours from Europe — two and three quarter hours from Miami, four fours from Dallas, seven hours from New York – but the rising costs of air travel are a worry for the tourism industry in Costa Rica, as they are for destinations around the globe.

The label ‘ecotourism’ may be more of a sop to the traveller’s conscience than an accurate description of tourism’s environmental impact, although the use of local construction materials, low-energy light bulbs, and home-grown food does help to limit the ecological cost of catering for large numbers of visitors. A record of almost 2.1 million visitors came to Costa Rica in 2010, the Tico Times reported in January.[i] Visitors come for the sun, beaches, flora, fauna, and landscapes, and will continue to come all the time that their disposable incomes are high enough to afford air travel.

Sea, sand and colours, Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste.

Sunset at Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste.

Costa Rican vista, from Santa Elena to the Gulf of Nicoya.

The Costa Rican government, only too well aware of the likely damaging impact of scarcer oil on holiday travel, has reacted with advertising campaigns in the USA to make more vacationers aware of Costa Rica, and also by focusing on persuading tourists to spend more – a great deal more, if they come to Costa Rica to buy medical treatment, a second home, or a retirement home.

Travelling through the Guanacaste province in northern Costa Rica on our Fair Trade trip in February, we noticed smart villas rising on construction sites, with information boards in English, destined for buyers from the big country to the north. Liberia in Guanacaste has a new international airport, near unhurried, undeveloped Pacific beaches. Developments of new holiday and retirement homes took a battering in 2008 and 2009, but the market seems to be slowly reviving. Several of the properties advertised online in March 2011 are discounted from their original asking prices, but are hardly cheap. The prestigious residences marketed by Karen Ebanks[ii] include Casa Crystal Waters Chateau, a five-bedroomed mansion in a five-star location for $10 million; a fortress-style four-bedroom complex, palatial but far from homely, for $847,500, reduced from $1.3 million; and a rambling five-bed house on a 1.3 acre plot in a gated development for $1.45 million.

Who buys these tropical mansions? Rich Americans, mainly. Frank Biden, ex-White House staffer and brother of the US vice-president Joe Biden, and his business partner Craig Williamson are developing 1,311 homes on 2,604 acres to create the Guanacaste Country Club, a residential-cum-sports complex featuring a Jack Nicklaus golf course, a Mark Spitz swimming pool, a Jim Courier tennis academy, and all the fitness, hiking, mountain biking and restaurant opportunities that American seniors could dream of.[iii] It will be eco, of course, with renewable energy (probably geothermal energy from the nearby Rincon de la Vieja volcano park), wildlife corridors and waste recycling.

Estate agents look to the Middle East, as well. The Saudi royal family has holidayed in Guanacaste[iv], and that $10 million property could well appeal to an ex-potentate.

The influx of retiring Americans and other super-rich will need health care, and this is the focus of the Pacific Plaza Health and Living development, a few minutes from Liberia’s airport. The residential, shopping and leisure development is centred on a new CIMA[v] (Center of International Medicine Advanced) hospital, which caters for the growing numbers of US citizens coming south for medical treatment. The first CIMA hospital, in the capital San José, even contains an office of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, to assist ex-members of the military who seek health care in Costa Rica. CIMA says that 15% of the visitors to Costa Rica come for medical treatments, which would be about 315,000 a year. I think this figure is probably an over-estimate, but the numbers of medical tourists are certainly growing.

They come because of the sun, the warmth, the very well educated medical staff, but mainly because medical treatment is currently much cheaper than in the USA, between a quarter and half of the price. I picked up an old tourism industry magazine, dated March-June 2008, when in Monteverde, and read an article headlined ‘Turismo medico: la gran oportunidad’, which put the cost of a heart bypass at $25,000 in Costa Rica compared with about $100,000 in the USA. There is cosmetic and dental surgery too: a dental implant at $1,000 is one-third the cost in the USA. The article pointed out that 46 million people in the US lacked medical insurance, that 108 million did not have dental insurance, and that across the world’s wealthiest nations, 220 million ‘baby boomers’ the post-1945 generation, will be in need of major medical attention before 2015. Costa Rica’s reputation as a leading centre for medical tourism gains another boost in May 2011 when from the 2nd to the 4th, the SecondMedical Travel International Summit will take place in San José and Guanacaste.

New development, Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste.

Maybe the ideal for Costa Rica would be an influx of prosperous US baby boomers, buying villas overlooking the ocean and seeking medical care in the well-equipped hospitals, golfing, swimming and playing tennis regularly enough to give them a long, comfortable retirement while they benefit the Costa Rican economy without piling on those polluting and oil-depleting air miles.

The outlook for medical tourism is rosy, provided that the climate does not worsen appreciably. Last November, torrential rains made the roads impassable. As the world warms, intense storms become more frequent, and do more damage. Drug trafficking is another anxiety. Costa Rica is part of the drug corridor through Central America from Colombia to the USA, and in September 2010 Barack Obama added Costa Rica to the US list of the world’s 20 major drug trafficking and producing countries, 14 of which are in Central and South America and the Caribbean.[vi] Costa Rica axed its armed forces in 1948, and relies on the police force for security, but the drug runners have money and arms, boats and planes. Nicaragua, also on the drugs list, is accused of annexing a portion of Costa Rican territory on the southern margin of the San Juan river, raising the temperature in its peaceful neighbour, which relied on the International Court of Justice to deliver a fair verdict. That decision came today, March 8th, but only as an interim measure requiring both sides to keep the disputed zone free of military, police and civilian personnel.[vii]

The border dispute may turn out to be nothing more than a minor local difficulty, but the drugs trade is a big concern, and one of the reasons why so many Costa Rican homes, especially in San José, are protected with metal fences, iron grilles and rolls of barbed wire.

The developer’s typical answer is to build gated communities – incorporating homes, healthcare, shopping and leisure — for the migrants from the north. Not the real Costa Rica, but sunny and comfortable nevertheless.

Note: Yes, it is hypocritical to fly to Costa Rica and then complain about long-haul tourism!


[i] www.ticotimes.net, January 28th 2011. The inhabitants of Costs Rica call themselves Ticos.

[ii] www.karenrealestate.com.

[iii] http://www.revistautopia.com/Guanacaste-takes-off-again.aspx.

[iv] as previous note.

[v] http://www.cimahospital.com.

[vi] White House memorandum 2010-16, September 15th 2010.

[vii] Edition.cnn.com, March 9th 2011, Court bars Costa Rica, Nicaragua from disputed area.

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