Affectionately known as the ‘Coconut Milk Race’, the sailing passage from the Americas to Australasia sees hundreds of yachts making the passage each year as owners chase the sun. Near the mouth of the Panama Canal, Costa Rica should have been a prime spot on the road, but its restrictive marina laws meant the country had long been bypassed for the neighboring coasts of Panama and Mexico. . But that is all about to change as a new maritime law is set to transform Costa Rica into a must-see destination for yacht owners and charter guests.
The Costa Rican Legislative Assembly (Congress) has taken an important step forward by agreeing for the first time to open the country to international superyacht operations. The reform will make entry by water easier and more flexible and allow vessels over 24 meters (79 feet) to legally charter and stay in Costa Rica for up to one or even two years at a time.
The country, with its incredible biodiversity, beautiful national parks and tropical coastline spanning 800 miles, has long been a natural destination for luxury yachting. The news has been well received by the global superyacht industry which expects the country to follow the lead of emerging superyacht hubs like Greece, Turkey and Montenegro.
The bill is expected to be finalized by September 2021 following long-standing lobbying by the Association of Marinas of Costa Rica with the advice of an advisory board of Fraser Boats and the support of the President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado Quesada. “Opening our country and our waters to overseas chartered vessels over 24m is an important step in allowing you to experience the nature, the way of life and the people that make Costa Rica unique,” said the president. Alvarado Quesada. “On behalf of the people of Costa Rica, we welcome you with open arms. Your time spent here will be a time you will never forget.
To find out what the new law means for Costa Rica and the global superyacht industry, I speak with Jeff Duchesneau, President of Marina Pez Vela and Board Member of the Costa Rica Marina Association.
How does Costa Rica compare to established luxury yachting destinations in the Caribbean?
Costa Rica is a beautiful country that has so much to offer, especially in terms of wildlife. Once ashore, from any marina, you are probably five minutes away from seeing monkeys, sloths or scarlet macaws. Everything is fine there. Is Costa Rica ready to offer you white glove service? I do not think so. I just think we don’t have enough experience in this game. But a unique, fun and high class family adventure? I think we can play very well in that. A few weeks ago we had Bill Gates and a few others here. They established beautiful anchorages in Costa Rica, took the helicopter to explore the island, and their crew and support staff used the marina and all facilities to take care of the owner. This is another very typical type of facility – our marinas and infrastructure form the basis for you to provide and care for the owners, but then they spend a great deal of their time ashore.
How is Costa Rica configured to accommodate superyachts?
Costa Rica has five marinas: Papagayo and Los Sueños in the north, Pez Vela in Quepos, and Bahia Golfito and Banana berry in Golfito in the south. Papagayo and Golfito have a lot of space and they are built for megayachts and superyachts. They can take 350 foot yachts on their docks. In Papagayo, you also have all the amenities and accompanying infrastructure with the Papagayo Peninsula and the Four Seasons, and Liberia International Airport where you can separate your private jet. Here in Quepos, in central Costa Rica, we have different breakwaters. I can only take a 200ft ship here, but you can drop anchor and drop anchor. The south, meanwhile, is an untapped jungle. You won’t have all the services and facilities at Golfito, but you are almost off the grid, with the jungle all around and natural wildlife. It’s an experience.
Which route do you think rental yachts would take in Costa Rica?
I think if you were here for two weeks you would go north, center and south so you could see all parts of the country and then you would go to Cocos Island. It takes a day and a half to get there, but once you get there it’s a pristine Jurassic Park style island, much like the Galapagos. I think the logistics to get there are a bit easier than in the Galapagos. From there, you’ll know if you’re heading back down the canal or continuing to the Pacific.
How has the charter market reacted and how will Costa Rica fit into the “coconut milk race”?
There has been a lot of interest. Everyone wants to participate in the very first official licensed charter in Costa Rica. I think we will be part of this new Pacific Travel Network. I think there is a Pacific destination route that is going to emerge. I think Panama is part of it because of the canal. Costa Rica is now one of them. If you were to go north I think Mexico is part of it and maybe Vancouver and Alaska. If you were to go south, maybe Peru and Chile, and if you go west to the Pacific then you will go to Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia.
Why did the new marinas law take so long to pass?
Costa Rica is a wonderful and beautiful country, but it is very slow to change. It took a while to get here and I think the pandemic helped. We have the Spanish expression “no hay mal que por bien no venga”, which translates simply as “there is nothing bad that never happens that does not bring something good with it”. I think we’re going to come back to the pandemic and realize that this was one of those moments that helped transform Costa Rica’s shipping industry. This has forced the country to think about what we need to do to develop a new segment of tourism, and we had the opportunity to do so with the new marinas law.
What are the main advantages of the law?
There are three aspects that are important to understand. The first person he helps is the private boater – owners who own their own boat and want to come into the country and explore with their own boat. Before this law, you only had 90 days on your boat, and then you had to get your boat out of the country for 90 days before you could come back. It was ridiculous, especially since our fishing and tournament seasons are five months long. Taking your boat to a foreign country on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal and then being told you have to get out of here when you are a wonderful paying customer was not the right attitude. The law now grants you temporary importation status, six months from the time you arrive here, which doubles the time. It is then renewable up to three times, up to two years.
Another part of the law opens up the country to charter. Before the law, if you didn’t have a Costa Rica flag on your boat, you couldn’t do any lucrative business in Costa Rica, including chartering. You can now take a charter of 24 meters or more, obtain a charter license from the Costa Rica tourist office and charter your vessel. However, the vessel cannot be used for fishing activities in order to avoid disrupting the local fishing industry.
The third aspect of the law is what it has done for marinas like ours. They have extended our concession period – we used to have a 35 year concession, now we have a 40 year extension and our renewal periods are now 20 years instead of 15 years. So, as the owner, I have more of an incentive to build the new phase or to build a hotel. I like the law for this reason. He helps marinas, he helps luxury charters, and he helps passing boats and private owners.
What is the expected economic impact for the country?
The reform will have enormous economic benefits. When these guests, who spend $ 250,000 to $ 1 million a week to charter a yacht, come to Costa Rica, eat at the best restaurants, visit spas, buy groceries, hire help – they have a great impact on the community. And it’s not just about the owners or the guests. When the yacht is in town, the crew will travel to town, book canopy tours, and make expeditions. Everyone benefits.