COSTA RICA IS TEMPORARILY CLOSED WIDE OPEN AGAIN
Four months ago, with the evolving Covid pandemic you could go out in Costa Rica and wonder if the Rapture had happened and nobody alerted you.
Streets were empty. Restaurants were shuttered. Towns looked abandoned. Even the crickets appeared to be in quarantine. But there’s a curious thing happening in the middle of Costa Rica’s worst tourism crisis ever:
The tourists are coming back.
COVID 19 restrictions and all, the world’s happiest country is reopening to the world.
Over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday, travel times between San José and coastal towns were doubled because of traffic jams from beach-bound vehicles. Little roads leading to beaches became gridlocked with cars inching forward at a snail’s pace looking for scarce parking. And once you made it to the beach, seemingly every shade tree had a blanket, chairs, a cooler and a family under it.
Travel always picks up during the November-April high season, and especially during the Christmas-New Year’s peak season. But there was no certainty that this would be happening in 2020-21, after months when the country was totally closed to visitors from March through July because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Well, this last peak season removed all doubt about that. Restaurants were packed, hotels were full, and tours were in full swing. In fact, popular tourism destinations seemed to be even more jammed than in normal years — as if a world fed up with quarantine was determined to get out no matter what.
Much of this tourism traffic came from Costa Rican nationals fleeing the landlocked Central Valley, where the vast majority of the population lives. In North America, people might dream of a white Christmas, but in Central America the holidays make people dream of palm trees, sea breezes and ocean surf.
The increase in international tourism, however, was also impressive. Compare these numbers in international arrivals to Costa Rica by air in the latter part of 2020:
This is well short of a full recovery, as in November 2019 there were 191,346 international visitors, so the November 2020 numbers were only 18% of that. But the signs are promising.
International Covid 19 travel restrictions
Here’s a review of some of the COVID-related restrictions that Costa Rica implemented last year, and how they’ve since been adjusted.
- Borders closed. Starting in March 2020, Costa Rica closed its borders to international travel with very little warning. This led to the virtual collapse of tourism, the primary driver of the country’s economy. It also put tens of thousands of people temporarily out of work. And it left some tourists “trapped” in the country during their vacations, requiring special evacuation flights to be organized to get them home.
- Borders reopened. In August, the country started gradually reopening its doors to select countries, though at first the U.S. was excluded from the list, and the U.S. is by far the source of most of Costa Rica’s tourism. Then travel was allowed from select states of the U.S. based on the severity of their COVID caseloads. Finally, by Nov. 1, Costa Rica opened its borders again to the entire U.S. and the rest of the world.
- COVID tests. Initially, Costa Rica required visitors to have proof of a negative COVID test administered within the past 72 hours. But in many places, it was very difficult to obtain such rapid tests, and this requirement has since been lifted.
Travel insurance required. The most onerous new restriction that remains in place is mandatory travel insurance to cover the possibility that visitors might come down with COVID while visiting Costa Rica. This is a problematic issue because it might require hospitalization that tourists can’t afford — but you can’t just let them get on a plane either. Also, whether hospitalization is required or not, visitors with COVID might have to be quarantined in Costa Rica for weeks, creating additional lodging costs that they might not be able to cover.
So at first, international travelers were required to buy very expensive health insurance from the government insurance monopoly, INS (Instituto Nacional de Seguros), covering both the possibility of hospitalization and the potential costs of additional lodging. After an outcry from the tourism sector that this insurance policy was prohibitively expensive, the cost was lowered substantially, and it was decided that travel insurance from other countries was acceptable if it met Costa Rican requirements.
- Epidemiological forms required. Visitors must now fill out a new epidemiological form, or health pass, affirming that they are COVID-free.
Internal preventive measures
COVID loves a crowd, so Costa Rica has adopted multiple measures to prevent big gatherings, enable social distancing and encourage people to stay home.
- Driving restrictions. Depending on the last digit of their license plates, most drivers were prohibited from driving on either Saturday or Sunday, plus one weekday. The weekday restrictions still remain in place, and then the weekend restrictions were repealed. And then, the weekend restrictions were restored, but reversed — so that someone who formerly couldn’t drive on Saturday now can’t drive on Sunday. The rules change so frequently, it’s honestly hard to keep up with them. However, these rules don’t apply to some categories of vehicles, including rental cars.
- Beaches closed, beaches open. At one point, all beaches in the country were closed. Then they were gradually reopened, but only from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. Then they were reopened until a later hour, and finally until an even later hour. Then all beaches were opened at all hours except late at night — but then for January 2021, a new restriction was imposed closing the beaches at 2:30 p.m.
- Yellow and orange zones. As a result of the pandemic, the country was divided into yellow and orange zones, with more restrictive driving rules and beach closures in orange zones. These zones still exist, though there are fewer orange zones today, and the rules are less restrictive. However, the designations frequently change.
- Temperature checks. Handheld thermometers suddenly appeared all over the country that could check someone’s temperature in a couple of seconds by holding it close to their neck. Today a temperature check is usually required to get into banks and certain other establishments.
- Can I at least drink? In one of the strangest anti-COVID measures, most coastal cantons in Costa Rica banned the sale of all beer, wine and liquor two or three weeks before Easter. Bootleggers multiplied, drinkers drank anyway, and after Easter, Costa Rica repealed this rule. But there’s talk that it may come back.
Current Costa Rica COVID restrictions
If you like going to clubs and dancing the night away, that’s not going to happen again anytime soon. If you’re a huge soccer fan who has to catch every game, then you’re going to need a television. Or if you’re Guns N’ Roses and you’re hoping to play to packed stadiums in Costa Rica again, this might be a good time to focus on your studio work.
Like almost every country, Costa Rica has banned the majority of big gatherings. If you were here for New Year’s Eve, it was probably the quietest ever, because all night spots were closed and most people weren’t allowed to drive after 7 p.m. (not that there was anywhere to drive to).
If you want to take a bus but you don’t have a mask, then you’re looking at a long walk. You can eat and drink in a restaurant without a mask, of course. And most adventure tours are open for business again, though you may have to wear a mask while ziplining through the canopy.
So how does Costa Rica compare to other countries in terms of containing the virus? The New York Times recently ranked Costa Rica No. 46 in the world in terms of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. At 20.9 new cases per 100,000, Costa Rica was far better than the United States (63.6) but worse than Canada (17.7).
COVID vaccines have already arrived in Costa Rica, and are now being administered to the highest-risk groups. Like most other countries in the world, Costa Rica plans to roll out the vaccines on a priority basis through the rest of 2021, and perhaps for years to come.
Are there risks in traveling to Costa Rica at this time? Come on, there are risks in leaving your home to go to your mailbox at this time.
But for those who are determined to travel, there are few better places to go than Costa Rica. When you’re ready to visit, Costa Rica is ready to welcome you!