Are Small Hotels & Lodges still the Backbone of Costa Rica Tourism?

Earlier this month, we were interviewed by Ana Baez and her team of consultants about the role that Cayuga and its owners Hans Pfister and Andrea Bonilla have played in development of sustainable tourism in Costa Rica in the past 20 years.  During the interview, the concern about the impact of large branded/all-inclusive hotels came up in the discussion.  As a result, we dug a bit deeper and were able to compile the following information from the Costa Rican Tourism Ministry ICT.

81% of lodging operations in Costa Rica (hotels, resorts, lodges) have less than 60 rooms and average about 19 rooms per hotel.


Latitude 10 Resort in Santa Teresa
Latitude 10 is a six room resort in Santa Teresa.  The experience of staying at a small local hotel or lodge cannot be compared to one in a 400 room all inclusive hotel.  Not only in terms of the guest experience, but also in terms of social and environmental impact.

The Costa Rican Tourism Model is unique in the way that visitors most often visit three to four hotels during their stay and therefore getting to know several parts of the country.  This model is often referred to as “democratic” as it spreads the tourism dollar between several players.  The different small hotels, the transport provider between hotels, the attractions and tours in the destination, the restaurants and shops.  This is very different from the mass tourism model that is prominent in destinations such as the Mayan Riviera, the Dominican Republic or the coast of southern Spain.  But it seems like this model has gained ground in Costa Rica.

10% of hotels and resorts in Costa Rica (a total of 48) with more than 100 rooms represent over 44% of all hotel room inventory in the country.


All inclusive hotel
Most of the large all-inclusive branded hotels are located in the province of Guanacaste on the northwestern coast of Costa Rica.

This concentration is in sharp contrast to the way that Costa Rica promotes its brand and experience.  Most guests that stay at a large all inclusive or branded hotel will be transported from the airport to the hotel and back and not leave the premises unless it is a tour organized by the hotel.  The contribution to the local economy is not as direct and beneficial for small businesses on the ground.  We have voiced our concern about this model in the past in this blog.
Rodbin, Hedmi, Adrian and Alexis. Local management at Arenas del Mar Resort in Manuel Antonio.  Contrary to most big branded resorts, the smaller hotles and and lodges employ locals also in management positions.

What is even more worrisome is the impact of “residential” tourism.  Visitors from abroad that make it into the statistics of the 2.5 Mio+ tourism arrivals each year, but that do not stay at hotels or lodges but rather rent condos, apartments or houses.  The problem here is that these transactions are not taxed and the staff at those operations are often part of an informal economy where labor regulations, social benefits and taxes are simply ignored.  We might look at this topic in more detail in one of the next blogs.

Lapa Rios Eco Lodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica
Guest Room at Lapa Rios Eco Lodge located in the rain forest of the Osa Peninsula.  An example of a local eco lodge that has promoted a sustainable tourism model in Costa Rica for over 20 years.

This month’s opening of the 400+ room Dreams Resort in Guanacaste and the 150+ room Crocs Casino in Jaco might have shifted the balance further towards the big resorts and make it more difficult for smaller hotels and lodges to compete.

There are a lot of great organizations in Costa Rica though, that continue to promote the Costa Rican model of “Small is Beautiful”.  Besides the Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels & Lodges, there are the Greentique Hotels, Enchanting Hotels, Small Distinctive Hotels, Pacuare Lodge and Grupo Islita that have done a great job in creating high quality sustainable tourism experiences.

solar panels next to infinity pool
Kura Design Villas in Uvita is a small locally owned luxury hotel with a strong focus on sustainability.  A great example of sustainable development in the south of Costa Rica.

We would love to hear your feedback and experiences. Send us a note to [email protected].


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *