The deaths of two foreign visitors amid a growing crime wave has left Costa Rica fearing for its tourism-dependent economy.
The reputation of the most-visited Central American country took a hit earlier in the month when two female foreign visitors were killed in the span of two days and a third was reportedly raped a week later.
The crimes took place near the Tortuguero National Park, where a 31-year-old woman was found dead with strangle marks around her neck and at El Carmen beach in Santa Teresa, a popular holiday spot on the Pacific coast, where a 25-year-old woman drowned when two men attacked her and a friend.
Murders in Costa Rica have been on the rise since 2012, with a record 603 people killed in 2017. Authorities forecast an even higher number this year.
“We are very worried, the situation we are witnessing is critical,” Tourism Minister Maria Amalia Revelo said after the crimes happened. “We’d all like more police, but we all know the government’s fiscal situation.”
With a ballooning spending gap, Costa Rica’s government relies on tourism as its main source of income.
Nearly three million tourists visited the Central American nation last year, roughly half from the U.S. and Canada, bringing $3.9 billion for the economy, according to the tourism chamber. Growth in tourist visits started to slow in 2017 as the number of American visitors declined for the first time since 2009.
“There has already been damage done to the country’s image,” Security minister Michael Soto said.
The government said it will use $4 million from the Costa Rica Tourism Institute to increase police presence in tourist areas, conduct more “mega-operations” to catch criminals attacking travellers and launch a mobile phone application for tourists that contains crime data on areas they plan to visit.
“These incidents infuriate us,” President Carlos Alvarado has said, promising “intense work” to reverse the situation.