By far the most FAQ of all of the Frequently Asked Questions since March has been “¿When will Costa Rica reopen for international travel?”
The Short Answer is 2021
Despite Costa Rica’s early containment of Covid19, currently cases are rising quickly. Costa Rica re-opened to travel from Europe, the UK and Canada at the beginning of August.
The border closure for foreigners was originally scheduled to be lifted on April 13th. Of course that didn’t happen and has been followed by a painful trickle of extensions (
May 1st, May 15th, June 15th, July 1st).
As of August 1st travelers/flights from the E.U., U.K, and Canada are permitted. Borders remain closed indefinitely for the U.S. and others.
REQUIREMENTS FOR ENTRY
- Negative test result received within 48 hours prior to arrival.
- Travel insurance covering all medical care and extended hotel stay in case of exposure/quarantine.
- Tourists must complete a survey about their potential exposure.
- Tourists must follow the same driving/dining/shopping restrictions and beach closures as locals (beaches in orange zones remain closed, beaches in yellow zones will have expanded hours opening from 5a until 2p).
Land and sea borders will not re-open, only airports.
None of these countries have reciprocated by adding Costa Rica to their “safe” list and the tourism minister projects 5 or fewer total flights per week (about 180 visitors per day). The limited arrivals represent abut 2% of the numbers of international travelers compared to the same time last year.
The Re-Opening that Wasn’t…
The ministries of health, immigration and tourism studied the situation carefully for months before announcing the reopening but unfortunately the plan is basically untenable. The testing and insurance requirements are proving impossible for travelers to fulfill in the real world.
- Numerous would be visitor reports and our own inquiries to travel insurance companies reveal that Covid19 related claims are being excluded. This is no surprise since insurance companies are not in the business of losing money. The risk is simply too high that they would have to pay out tens of thousands of dollars for weeks of hotel quarantine and health care so you simply cannot purchase the insurance that is required to visit.
- Awaiting clarification on testing. It is not clear if the sample must be taken within the 2 day window or simply that the results must be timestamped within 2 days.
This requirement will almost certainly have to change since it’s nearly impossible to comply. Most countries are experiencing waits of 3-10 days for rPCR test results. Even if the ambiguous statement was intended to mean that you have to receive the results within 48 hours that’s impossible as well. Anyone who’s ever had a medical test knows you get the results whenever they’re ready to send them, not when you want to receive them.
The “quick test” (antibody) is not usable for this requirement because it will be positive for both active infections and recovered individuals.
- The statement implies that the restriction is flight based not passport based. For example someone from the U.S. arriving on a flight from Germany would be permitted but someone with a German passport arriving on a flight from Houston would be turned away. The logic is that other countries (Germany in the example) have barriers to travel from outbreak countries (the U.S. in the example) so the nationality is of the traveler is less important than where the flight originates.
- It’s logical (though not confirmed) that Costa Rican citizens and residents arriving from these same countries will be permitted to skip the currently required quarantine since it’s not required of tourist but there was no guidance provided.
- Many (all?) tourists may (will?) be required to quarantine for two weeks after they return home since Costa Rica is not currently included in their home country safe lists.
The initial announcement of E.U. countries was later corrected to include all Schengen zone countries which adds Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, & Vatican City.
Costa Rica is still included on Germany’s “high risk” list.
Costa Rica escaped the first months of the pandemic nearly unscathed with under 1,000 total cases and single digit fatalities. Openings of national parks, beaches and other infrastructure began in May and expanded in June; but only for people already in Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, after limited re-opening there was a sharp increase in new cases in June and ten times more cases per day by July. The resurgence was initiated by illegal immigration of infected agricultural workers from Nicaragua and amplified by the re-opening of businesses without any requirement for mask use.
By the end of June the government announced some limited mask requirements and regional reinstatement of restrictions.
As of June 30th the border closure for all foreigners was officially re-re-re-extended until at least August 1st.
…the magic 🎱 ball says…”Reply hazy, try again later”…
We don’t know and neither does anyone else. Since the beginning of the crisis we have suggested not making plans to visit Costa Rica until at least Christmas.
The official strategy has been optimism, followed by a dose of reality, followed by delay while optimism builds again.
Initially there was support for the government position of absolutely zero risk. As the economic impact mounted and it became apparent that new cases would be imported by illegal immigrants whether legal visitors were allowed or not frustration grew as well. Many in the tourism industry are expressing anger as the closure creeps into a fifth month without a plan.
Some of the hints we are using to guess a realistic opening date.
- The EU did not include Costa Rica on it’s list of “safe” countries that it’s citizens could begin to visit in July.
- On June 30th in a typically non-committal government statement Costa Rica extended the border closure until August 1 with no indication of which countries or what protocols might be required for re-opening.
- On June 25th the Minister of Health said three months studying re-opening to tourism had not resulted in a usable plan. He hinted that general re-opening is many months away.
April MayJuly the government extended all tourist visas until July AugustNovember 18th. This implies that visitors who didn’t make it out prior to the borders closing may remain “trapped” in paradise at least that long.
- Although United Airlines has a few flights from the U.S. scheduled in June (Costa Ricans only headed south to a 14 day quarantine, other nationalities allowed northbound but cannot return) unrestricted flights aren’t scheduled until mid-November.
- September and October are normally the lowest travel months with occupancy 80% less than peak season. Inside information from most of the large resorts and many other businesses indicates that even if they are allowed to open sooner, they do not consider it economically viable to start up before the high season resumes in December.
We recommend planning a Costa Rica vacation for Christmas or New Years at the earliest.
At the beginning of June Costa Rica joined Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Norway, Denmark, Greece and the Czech Republic in a group called first movers. This is a group of countries that have contained the virus and begun to cautiously re-open their economies.
These countries also entered into negotiations with each other to possibly create travel bubbles and double bubbles. Costa Rica proposed the introduction of direct flights and quarantine free travel with New Zealand and Australia by 2021 although the two south Pacific countries account for less than 1% of Costa Rica’s visitors.
The hopes to cooperate with countries where transmission is controlled may be moot since Costa Rica may have lost membership with exponential growth in new cases heading into July.
When the EU announced the “safe” countries their citizens may visit, Costa Rica was conspicuously absent.
Costa Rica quickly reached what infectious disease experts call an “R” of less than one. Each existing infection caused less than one new infection and active cases headed towards R zero by mid-May… barely 8 weeks after travel was shut down.
It’s obviously one of the safest destinations in the world so why would we predict travel won’t recover for months? After dodging the bullet on the first round Costa Rica will have to wait until it can guarantee that incoming travelers aren’t carrying a second wave.
The Unknown Will Delay Normal Travel
The unknown is a huge factor. No one knows how accurate testing is, how many tests are enough, how long immunity lasts or how many people are asymptomatic carriers. It will take years to answer all of these questions and until then there will be risks associated with travel whether it’s down the street to the supermarket or to a beach in Costa Rica.
Hundreds of millions of tests are needed over many months post “recovery” before epidemiologists can determine what is statistically “safe”.
Quarantines & Testing Upon Arrival
Although the borders are closed to the arrival of foreigners, Costa Ricans are being allowed to return home. Everyone who arrives from outside the country is required to quarantine for 14 days. The obvious problem with that as a general solution for everyone is most vacationers don’t stay that long.
At the beginning of May Costa Rica began a shorter quarantine program for truck drivers at the border. They submit a swab sample to test for the presence of coronavirus DNA and are required to wait in holding areas for 24-48 hours for the results.
PCR amplification of DNA has been around for a long time. 25 years ago as biochemistry graduate students we did everything manually in less than a day but now robots are much faster. However, there are some problems extending this solution to tourism.
If a single person on a flight tested positive for the presence of the virus everyone on that flight would have to be rounded up and sent home or quarantined for 14 days.
There’s not remotely enough space for everyone to socially distance in the airport terminals and wait for results.
Selective Travel Ban Solutions?
One strategy to prevent reintroduction is choosing which individuals may travel but so called “immunity passports” are more than a year away.
Another option for partial opening might involve allowing travel from “recovered” countries while blocking those with ongoing epidemics.
Unfortunately, successful containment countries like Germany and New Zealand only represent a tiny fraction of tourist here. The U.S. accounts for more visitors to Costa Rica than the rest of the world combined but also has two million cases and climbing.
The real recovery in Costa Rican tourism will remain on hold until it’s safe to allow visitors from the U.S. which looks likely to take months.
The conversation about recovery is just beginning with phrases like “double bubble”, “distancing”, and “immunity passport” being tossed around as potential solutions. Ultimately it will require much more testing to allow a better understanding of what we face and a leader who steps up and unifies the world response.
Costa Rica is not a cheap destination and travelers’ finances have been devastated by the economic disaster accompanying Covid19. It’s hard to estimate the impact but with almost half U.S. households losing one or more jobs a whole lot of vacation funds were spent on groceries and rent.
Of course the wealthy will still be able to afford to travel so Costa Rica’s luxury resorts may recover sooner.
Some still have fantasies of a “miraculous” quick recovery. While high doses of hydroxychoroquine were proven useless as a treatment and only slightly less dangerous than the U.S. president’s suggestions of injecting disinfectants or somehow inhaling a tanning bed to expose the lungs to UV light there are some lucky breaks that might still come to our rescue.
Summer Relief from “Flu Season”
There’s no solid evidence that warmer weather will reduce the transmission of coronavirus but there’s no evidence that it won’t.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of considering coincidences evidence. For example, even though tropical Costa Rica was quite late taking action there were never many cases…maybe because it’s warm? Or looking at a world map and saying look at all these countries in the southern hemisphere with unexpectedly low numbers…maybe because it’s summer there?
It would be great if summer in the northern hemisphere is accompanied by a huge drop in transmission. It will be a welcome three or four month respite to try to ready a more reasonable response before fall and the return of “flu season” but there’s no evidence relief is imminent.
“Worse” hardly sounds like a miraculous quick recovery scenario but it is. Initial antibody studies at the end of April suggested that many millions more people were infected than detected.
It’s possible that the politicians actually caused this disaster by trying to prevent testing in order to reduce the number of known cases. If you don’t test you can’t know how many people are asymptomatic.
The math works like this. If you only test the very obviously ill then you’ll have a very high percentage of positive results along with an extremely inflated mortality rate. You’ll also miss the vast majority of infections (current studies say up to 96% missed) and the total number of detected cases will look very low. Now you can say “We have very low numbers of cases. I like the numbers being where they are.”
The whole “close the borders”, “stay at home” and watch the economy implode could have been avoided with massive early testing as opposed to denial.
Once a vaccine is proven it will almost certainly become a requirement for travel to Costa Rica. But the key is that immunity must be proven first and whether it’s from natural immunity after exposure or through a vaccine it will take years to characterize fully.
Immunity Passport is just a trendy new name for something that has been around for decades. International travelers have long been required to prove their inoculation history when entering countries susceptible to diseases from a place it’s prevalent.
In Costa Rica the only example was the requirement for a Yellow Fever vaccine for anyone arriving from an African, Asian or South American country where they may have been exposed.
However, stamping Covid19 immunity in WHO cards or on a separate document any time prior to about 2022 would be reckless and pointless.
The most important factor preventing immunity passports for coronavirus is that until a year or so has passed, no one can possibly have any evidence that there is any long term immunity anyway.
There are several other stumbling blocks.
Unless there’s been a massive underestimation very few would qualify based on having tested positive. In fact world wide it’s less than 1 in 5,000 so obviously not worth starting the airlines back up.
Families would be split up by immunity and probably won’t want to leave mom at home. There’s even concern that people might seek out infection in order to get immunity and thus a passport back to a normal world.
There may also be political difficulties even if the scientific ones are overcome. The U.S. has declined to participate in world health initiatives at least until the elections in November.
Without a proven vaccine that can be given to everyone the idea of limiting the risk by limiting movements based on immunity is not practical
It seems so simple I can’t imagine that we’re the first to think of this but I haven’t seen anyone else saying it so here’s our solution for safe international travel to resume in Costa Rica.
NOTE: we proposed the following in April and as of July many countries including the U.S. and Costa Rica are still struggling to find the political will to implement step 1 even though it’s become the obvious solution.
- Individual countries use masks and the social distancing and test/trace protocols already proven to drive transmission down to manageable levels.
- Everyone boarding a flight to Costa Rica submits swab samples and wears masks.
- While the plane is in the air the samples are tested for viral DNA by PCR and viral proteins by antigen testing
a. Any positive result and the plane turns around so everyone on board can be quarantined back in the country of origin
b. All negatives and everyone heads to the beaches and rain forest!
The detection rate for the combination of three layers of testing (one at home and two on the flight) would be nearly 100%. Of course Costa Rica would also continue their campaign of wearing masks and testing and tracing which would add a fourth layer of protection and the ability to quickly contain any infection that slipped through.
Having worked in biochemisty and the biomedical sciences I know these test can be quick and accurate at cost of a few cents each.
The Hidden Vulnerability of Incubation Time
The chink in the armor of this plan is incubation time. If a New Yorker is infected in a restaurant on Tuesday, the dry cleaner on Wednesday or while passing through JFK airport on Friday they would very likely show up negative on Iceland’s test and be allowed in. None of the tests will reliably detect anything for the first few days after exposure.
It might be a week or two of traveling around while the virus slowly multiplies to detectable levels before the visitor develops a fever or even worse becomes an asymptomatic carrier and unknowingly spreads the virus to dozens of others at all five “must see” destinations they visit.
Nothing is 100% perfect but this plan will work after the U.S. and other countries gain control over the spread and increase testing so that their citizens can be confident they are not carriers before they head to the airport. The idea would be that with effective test/trace no planes would ever need to turn around. Unfortunately, 97% of people in the U.S. still have not been tested five months after China first alerted the WHO of the virus in December of 2019.
In a couple of years when the vaccine is available and long term immunity has been demonstrated then the tests for the virus can be replaced with tests for human antibodies to the virus by high-throughput ELISA and the issuing of immunity passports.