By Shannon Farley
From mid-October to mid-April, almost every other day, there is a cruise ship docked in the Port of Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast.
Each carrying on average from 1,800 to 3,500 passengers, cruise ships are an important industry bringing economic benefits to a historically impoverished region.
Limon is the fourth largest out of seven provinces in Costa Rica in territory size, but sixth in terms of population, which is approximately 386,862 people. The provincial capital city of Limon has about 60,000 residents. It has historically been one of the poorer provinces in the country.
So, the fact that Costa Rica is number one out of 36 Caribbean basin cruise ship destinations for shore excursions means a great deal to Limon. An October 2018 study by Business Research and Economic Advisors, prepared for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, showed that Costa Rica has the highest percentage of passengers who purchase a shore excursion.
Cruise ships bring over 200,000 visitors to Limon annually, and more than 90% of the shore excursions stay within the province, said Marti Jimenez, co-owner of Veragua Rainforest Eco-Adventure Park, a popular Caribbean region attraction.
“This is a very important benefit because there is a whole value chain from transport suppliers to drivers to guides to cooks to artisans who sell their crafts,” said Jimenez. “Cruise passengers value Costa Rica’s shore excursions. People want to come here, and they want to see the rainforest. It is very popular.”
Costa Rica has become a favorite port of call for cruises to the Panama Canal, Central America and Western Caribbean. Overall, 400,000 passengers per year dock in Costa Rica mostly between the Port of Limon and the Port of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. And the cruise industry continues to grow every year globally, reported Jimenez.
“The cruise ship industry is one of the fastest growing segments of the global tourism industry. And the largest destination market for cruise ships is the Caribbean,” he said. “European cruise lines have been adding Limon into their itineraries and U.S. cruise lines are strong. So, for Costa Rica, it is a huge opportunity since we are part of the Caribbean region.”
Limon, whose economy relies on bananas, pineapples, shipping and tourism, receives ships from over 10 major cruise lines from the U.S. and Europe and also a few smaller lines during the six-month cruise season. The average number of passengers is 2,200 per ship, who spend in general $80 per person. The result is a gain of an estimated $20 million per year to Limon, including the port authority, municipality and all the tourism businesses, noted Jimenez. Local stakeholders are hopeful the port can be renovated soon in order to keep Costa Rica’s competitive position in the cruise industry.
The most popular shore excursions for Limon cruise ship passengers are the rainforest, canal tours in the Tortuguero National Park, river rafting, coffee plantation and tropical fruit plantation tours.
Veragua Rainforest Eco-Adventure Park, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2018, is one of the most sought-after shore excursions. It offers an introductory experience to the rainforest with wildlife habitats, adventure activities and scientific study labs.
“Veragua is very well placed because we are within one hour of the Port of Limon and you can do many activities in one single place,” said Jimenez. “In a beautiful Costa Rican rainforest, you can go on walks, see butterflies and frogs, enjoy bird watching, canopy zip lines, a sky gondola, enjoy a river with waterfalls, and see the scientific research that we do. We offer a perfect combination of rainforest activities close to the port.”
“Plus, nearly the entire park is wheelchair accessible and is designed to be safe and simple for all ages to get around,” he added.
In addition to half-day and full-day tours at Veragua’s rainforest park, they offer a shore excursion that combines a visit to Veragua Rainforest with a canal cruise in the Tortuguero National Park.
Jimenez said the company now offers more shore excursions like bird watching tours, a tour of the Tortuguero canals combined with a visit to a sustainable cacao plantation to learn about making chocolate, and a cultural and gastronomic tour of historic Limon that is operated in conjunction with the Limon Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.
There is also an authentic cultural and sustainable tour of the rural community of Las Brisas, near Veragua Rainforest, which Veragua helps support. Tour participants get to join in milking cows, picking fruit in an organic orchard, preparing (and eating!) traditional Costa Rican snacks, planting a tree in a reforestation project, and shopping for original handicrafts from indigenous community members.
Jimenez said that by hiring local transport from Limon for their tours and giving preference to Limon suppliers, they keep the positive economic impact local.
And when tourists visit Veragua Rainforest, their entrance fees help support the important scientific research, education, and conservation work that they do. Additionally, donations to the Veragua Rainforest Foundation are tax free for U.S. citizens through the Amigos de Costa Rica Foundation, the U.S. affiliate of the Costa Rica United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA) in Costa Rica.