COSTA RICA AT A GLANCE
Costa Rica is one of the oldest democracies in the Americas. It is a country proud of its heritage and tradition of negotiation over confrontation, social development over military spending and tolerance over hostility. It is the home to many international organizations such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the University for Peace of the United Nations and the Earth Council.
In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made the first European landfall in the area. Settlement of Costa Rica began in 1522. The Spanish optimistically called the place “Rich Coast.” Finding little gold or other valuable minerals in Costa Rica, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture.
For nearly three centuries, Spain administered the region as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under a military governor. The small landowners’ relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population’s ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica’s isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes all contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. An egalitarian tradition also arose. This tradition survived the widened class distinctions brought on by the 19th-century introduction of banana and coffee cultivation and consequent accumulations of local wealth. Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain.
Costa Rica abolished its military forces in 1949 and since then has devoted substantial resources to investment in health and education. It is a country that has placed a high priority in investing in public education, including the university system, as well as technical and vocational training. Its population of 4.4 million people enjoys a literacy rate of 96% and a life expectancy of 79.3 years.
The Costa Rican government is ruled by a series of constitutional controls. The executive responsibilities rest on the President, supported by two Vice-presidents and a 57 Congressmen cabinet; all of them are elected every 4 years. The country has a strong legal system managed by the ‘Judicial Power’, which ensures law compliancen and covers both nationals and foreigners within the country’s territory.
The 2008 World Bank Study for Global Governance Indicators ranks Costa Rica in the first place within Latin America for political stability.
Costa Rica is blessed with impressive scenic beauty a fact that is not lost on the more than one million tourists that visit each year. Located in Central America in an area that covers 51.000 square kilometers (19.729 square miles), Costa Rica possesses approximately 6% of the world’s biodiversity. Because of Costa Rica’s small size, a diverse array of fabulous sites is within easy access. A trip to Costa Rica affords the opportunity to visit 12 different life zones, 20 national parks, 26 protected areas, nine forest reserves, eight biological reserves and seven wildlife sanctuaries. Costa Rica is the birthplace of ecotourism. The country is often sited as a model for conservation in harmony with community development and economic growth.
Today Costa Rica is one of the only developing countries to have adopted a tax on hydrocarbons, partially funding the only national system of payment for environmental services, and becoming the largest buyer of forest carbon in the world. Moreover, Costa Rica has set the goal to become a carbon-neutral country by 2021.
It is not surprising that tourism is Costa Rica’s main source of income and hard currency. Costa Rica receives over 1.7 million tourists per year, the majority of whom come from the United States and Canada. Earnings from tourism amount to more than $1.7 billion US dollars per year. It is estimated that up to 80% of all visitors to the country come to do eco-tourism related activities.
One of the pillars of Costa Rica’s economic development has been trade liberalization, which has allowed exports to surpass its 30% ratio of GDP in 1980 to a current 50% rate. This trade liberalization has been followed by a series of structural changes resulting in productivity growth, diversification of the economy and a higher level of investment. Today, Costa Rica exports thousands of distinctive products to the world and is highly recognized as one of the top 30 leading exporters of high-tech products. Foreign investors remain attracted by the country’s political stability and high education levels. All these changes have translated into important social achievements. In the last 20 years poverty was reduced from 40% to less than 20%.
In 2009, Costa Rica was considered the country with the highest rate of happiness (Happy Planet Index).