Harry Bodaan, owner of La Mansion Inn and President of the Chamber of Commerce Industry and Tourism for the Canton of Aguirre, shares stories of his life experiences that brought him from Holland to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, and the fascinating people he met along the way. This interview provides great insight into the current economic and political scene in Costa Rica, and the goals Bodaan has for the future here in the “happiest country on earth.” (Part II of III)
As a native of Holland, can you give us a brief background on how your career evolved?
Bodaan: [laughs] That’s an oxymoron. You’re taking a 40- year history and asking me to be brief? Basically, I met my wife in Frankfort, Germany and then I left for the United States where I got married. I worked for Hilton Hotels as Food and Beverage Director, and worked my way up to General Manager. In the early 80’s I ended up in Washington DC, as General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the National Press Club. During an average week, we had as many as 10 thousand visitors.
Isn’t that a big switch going from Hilton Hotels to the National Press Club?
Bodaan: No, because everybody eats and everybody drinks, although the Press Club was big–more than 40 thousand square meters occupying the top two floors of the National Press Building a few blocks away from the White House. We offered no less then 10 press conference rooms and people needed to eat and drink. We had bars, restaurant facilities and banquet rooms. But the job soon became something more.
You mentioned that you established relationships with over 300 international leaders. How did that come about?
Bodaan: At the press club we had 35 committees that I was interacting with and one of the most important was the Speakers Committee. Their task was to invite movers and shakers from all over the world to come and address the National Press Club.
After the White House and Congress, the National Press Club is the most sought after forum in Washington DC, if you want to make an address. Back then it was not unusual to have a press conference with as many as six hundred journalists present.
It was very exciting; I literally met hundreds of heads of states, ministers, and kings and queens.
What were the circumstances that brought you to Costa Rica?
Bodaan: It was a very important time in history for Costa Rica. During that time President Oscar Arias came to speak at the club, to address the US population about the injustices in his country by the CIA, and he spoke to Congress. Over 18 months, he came to the NPC three times, and we got to be acquaintances.
This was the time of Oliver North, John Poindexter, and the Iran Contra Scandal. The CIA operative John Hull was lending his landing strip in Guanacaste for the re-supply planes. These planes were used to make shipments to the contras in Nicaragua. This was the most tumultuous time between the US and the Costa Rican government because President Oscar Arias had the airstrip blocked by the Guardia Rural and the planes could not land anymore.
The last time Don Oscar came to speak at the club, he invited me to visit his country and so I took him up on his offer. At that time there were only 17 hotels in Manuel Antonio with a total of 163 rooms; that was it. When I saw Manuel Antonio, I fell in love with the area and hoped that I would retire here some time in the future.
But you moved from Washington DC to Moscow before settling in Costa Rica. How did that happen?
Bodaan: After almost 12 years at the Press Club in Washington DC, I had become a friend of the press attaché of Russia. I had helped him with the advance planning for some of the speaking appearances of their heads of state, like Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Because he knew me and because of our friendship, I would get notice of their upcoming visits before anyone else did. I remember the time Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin came to Washington; I got to know them personally, and was fortunate to be able to socialize with them.
Fast forward. What better way to show the rest of the world that Russia was serious about Glasnost and Perestroika than to start an independent press club in Russia modeled after the National Press Club in Washington DC? I was selected to organize the club infrastructure from scratch which I slowly brought to fruition at the Radisson Slavijanska facilities in Moscow, the IPCC.M. When the International Press Center and Club, Moscow Club had reached 1000 members after about three years, I left Moscow to pursue my other dream in Costa Rica.
What did you do when you got to Costa Rica after such an exciting and ambitious background? It must have been quite a culture shock.
Bodaan: It was, but I joined a friend and his wife; they were building the El Parador Hotel – a 160-room hotel located just down the street which at the time was under construction. While in Moscow he had called me for help with the start-up of this project, and I later joined him as a minority partner. After five years I started my own place, La Mansion Inn.
You continue to be very involved in politics. What are some of your civic duties and responsibilities here in Costa Rica?
Bodaan: Well, since about four years I am the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry of Tourism of the Canton de Aguirre. I am also Advisor to the Mayor, and I am part of the Special Advisory Council to the Minister of Tourism (Comite Mixto) and Chairman of Sister Cities International for Quepos. We have a Sister Cities Agreement with the City of Fort Lauderdale. I also head of the Security Committee for the Chamber and am the Coordinator of the Quepos Law Enforcement Task Force. This is important, and if you ask people of the canton what is the primary concern of its citizens, it is security. I’m happy to say crime rates are at the lowest level in ten years and law enforcement is doing a great job.
It seems odd that Manuel Antonio is so up-scale, while Quepos appears economically depressed. These two inter-dependent neighboring areas are so dramatically different. What is the reason for that?
Bodaan: Yes, they are so close, and yet light years apart. The reason goes back generations– back to the time when the United Food Company came to Costa Rica. People in Quepos think that the people in Manuel Antonio don’t care about them, however nothing could be further from the truth.
Manuel Antonio is a tourist area, and Quepos is quite the opposite. But what people have to understand, is that for Quepos to improve, people are going to have to pick themselves up by their boot straps, nobody is going to do that for them. They have to unite.
Going back to the United Fruit Company, decades ago, they came here from the United States and built enormous banana plantations. People came from all over the country to find jobs here. The United Fruit Co, which was taken over by Palma Tica, provided work for literally thousands of people, and the company took care of them, you know, like modern slaves.
People lived in compounds and they were fed through the company cafeteria. They received minimum wage but at least they had a job and were taken care of.
Over the decades people got used to not thinking for themselves. It’s not the same as it was for people in San Jose, even though they are Costa Ricans – but the people and the coastal mentalities are completely different. The same phenomenon took place on the Caribbean coast. That’s where the large Banana plantations were. So, over the years people have gotten used to hand outs. If you had a problem, you talked to your supervisor. If your wife was sick, the company doctor would care for her. If you needed a loan, you got an advance on your salary, etc. etc.
Even today, people are talking about this problem, but they are not moving to resolve it, and there is a sense of feeling helpless on the part of the people in the area of Quepos. Sometimes I feel they act like children, because it seems that they are waiting for someone else to solve their problems. Now they turn to local leadership and the Chamber [of Commerce] for example, to solve their problems for them, but as I said, they lack initiative. They don’t realize that if you want help, you first need to help yourself.
Downtown Quepos seems small for such an important area. What is the population of this area and what are the major industries that support the region?
Bodaan: Right now in Quepos proper, we have about 8-9 thousand people, but the population is very spread out. The canton Aguirre covers an area of about 493 sq. kilometers, almost 340 sq. miles, and has a population of about 28 thousand. The mayor of Quepos is truly the mayor of the entire canton region, and most are employed in the tourist industry, agriculture, fishing industry and Palm industry.
Palma Tica, the second largest employer in the Canton de Aguirre (after Tourism) has 1,500 employees. The third largest industry is Martec (commercial fishing), with 250 employees. They generate about 23 million dollars in income for the region.
What is the average income of people living in this area of Costa Rica and how does that compare to neighboring countries?
Bodaan: Most people are getting at least minimum wage, and on an annual basis the per capita income is about eight thousand dollars. In San Jose, it’s up to about 11 thousand per year, which is the highest of any of the seven Central American countries. So the economy is quite strong here.
Three or four years ago, just before the economic crisis, we had over a billion dollars in new investments for the canton of Aguirre. The investment climate is quite good. Now, as a result, we have 180 rental houses as well, some of which fetch as much as $15 thousand a week in rental fees – although many of them are illegal.
$15 thousand per week is expensive, and they are illegal? Who owns these properties?
Bodaan: When I say illegal, I mean they are not registered. Many are ex-pats who have come here and built their million-dollar dream house and then they decide to rent them out. Take a look at Trip Advisor and double source it, you will see and incredible amount of houses for rent. Yesterday we had 124 listed on Trip Advisor alone.
As President of the Chamber of Commerce, what is the process of getting things done? Is there a lot of bureaucracy or do things run pretty smoothly?
Bodaan: For anything to work, I always split things in three. If I ask the local government to be of assistance on a project, and the federal government, we need to have the support of the private sector as well. You need all three components for things to work.
If, for example, the private sector needs something and we have the support of the federal government but the municipality is against it, it’s not going to work. For that matter, if the local government wants something done and it has the support from the federal government but not the private sector, then that too is not going to work. You need cooperation from all three to get things done.
Is there an issue or situation the local government is facing now that will help illustrate how this ‘trilogy’ comes into play?
Bodaan: We keep seeing examples of this. It’s no secret that there is a large movement right now of the transnational drug trade in this country. Tons of cocaine is being shipped though our country, and one-way to combat crime is to install a Camera Surveillance system throughout the region. The private sector came up with a 200 thousand dollar system that would be strategically located in 16 positions throughout the area and the private sector was on board to help.
But when we turned to the local government, but they did not have funds for that, nor was their willingness on their part to go forward with the idea. So, we condensed it from 16 cameras to 4 cameras in key parts of the city. The cost was 65 thousand dollars, and the private sector was willing to cover the cost. We set up a meeting with the federal government representatives, and they cancelled three times, even though we had a firm commitment from the private sector.
This is a perfect example, because we had support from the private sector, and the local government, but the missing like here was the federal government.
Do you think they did not want to participate because they are connected in some way with the drug trade, or are they getting bribes from some unknown source?
Bodaan: Perhaps, we don’t know. According to reliable sources 63% of the Mexican municipalities are infiltrated by one of the seven drug cartels – why not here? Is is a lot easier here than in Mexico. You know a lot of money is floating through Costa Rica right now.
You have another project to build a parking lot that would help the city generate revenue. Can you tell us about that?
Bodaan: Oh that is another example of how we need the three components for it to work. Building a municipal parking lot is one of our missions. I took a rather large Municipal Delegation, 17 people, to our Sister City, Fort Lauderdale to learn about how we could generate more revenue for Quepos. We met with the budget director of the Municipality of Ft. Lauderdale to discuss various sources of income. One of them was parking and parking fines.
Ft. Lauderdale takes in about 12 million dollars each year in parking fines. One of the things we wanted to do here was set up a Municipal Parking Facility. The Mayor of Quepos at that time was in favor of the project. But the Mayor that replaced him was not, even though our proposed parking structure would bring in about $100 thousand per year to offset the municipal budget, which is currently running at a deficit.
But who would pay those fees? If the locals are already working at minimum wage, where would the income come from?
Bodaan: No, no, it’s not that. Those who have a car can afford 500 colones ($1) to pay for parking. And currently, we have a big problem of congestion in Manuel Antonio.
The plan is to build a municipal parking lot in downtown Quepos where the tourists could safely park their cars and then take a shuttle bus that would be paid for by the parking fee – basically to whisk people to Manuel Antonio and back.
That was the plan but it never went anywhere because someone was against it. It seems like a logical solution to a big problem. The city was short $40 thousand dollars to pay for the project, so the private sector stepped up and offered the municipality to raise the shortfall. But even then nothing was ever done.
The new Marina will certainly generate tremendous income for Quepos and the canton of Aguirre. Can you tell us about that project?
Bodaan: Harold Lovelady, from Texas, started the marina project. He retired from the IT industry, and wanted to dock his boat here, because Quepos was once known as the best place to fish in the world, and he brought his boat but there was no place to dock. He wanted to build a marina for 5 or 6 boats, and the plan took off. That was about 10 years ago. Now it’s a mega project that once finished will offer 306 slips for boats –all different sizes to accommodate sport fishing boats and larger yachts – the type of mega yachts you see in Ft. Lauderdale. It’s about a third of the way done now. It’s been taken over by a Costa Rica/Nicaragua conglomerate that took the ball and is running with it, so there is no longer any financial interest from the United States.
They are building this beautiful marina which will help me, as president of the chamber, achieve my goal, which is to double the per-capita income within the next 5-7 years
That seems awfully ambitious, is that possible in such a short time?
Bodaan: It’s already happening. Costa Rica is one of the most advanced economic areas of the region. The per-capita income is increasing due to the I.T. Industry, Free Trade Zones, On Line Gambling Centers and number of Foreign Call Centers that keep expanding around San Jose.
Yes, you mentioned that Amazon and American Express are here. What other companies are based here?
Bodaan: Citibank is here, and Intel, which has almost 5 thousand employees. And the largest export product of Costa Rica, which no one ever guesses, is microchips, which is a two billion -dollar industry. This is helping Costa Rica tremendously.
In addition, I believe President Laura Chinchilla is doing a wonderful job for the country. Last year alone she attracted more than 2.1 Billion dollars of foreign investments to the country. You know she just came back from China, and she just secured more funds. On top of the 65 million dollars received for the National Stadium, she secured another 25 million for the National Police Academy. That is in addition to the nine million dollar donation for discretionary spending. So slowly but surely, the US influence here is waning, and the Chinese are basically taking their place.
How do you feel about that? Is the China influence a good thing for Costa Rica?
Bodaan: Well, it’s not for the United States. But in world politics and concerning the global economy I believe it’s good. You know, it will make it a more balanced playing field.
What do feel is the greatest obstacle, or challenge Costa Rica faces in these times of global economic stress?
Bodaan: Once again, my biggest fear is that Costa Rica follows the example of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, where the divide between rich and poor is becoming bigger and bigger which has caused unrest amongst the masses resulting in changes in government and anti-Americanism. Last week in the Tico Times, there was an article about something I’ve been talking about for years: The top 20 % of Costa Ricans earn almost as much as the per-capita income of the United States. The top 20% of Costa Ricans earn close to $45 thousand per year, whereas the average income in the United States is $48 thousand.
Now, on the other hand, the bottom 20% earns less than $400, so there is an incredible difference, which is problematic. Therefore, my goal as president of the Chamber is to level that, whereby every middle class Costa Rican can afford his or her own house, his or her own car, just like the US.
Are these goals shared by people with money in Costa Rica?
Bodaan: Unfortunately, a lot of people who own those big expensive houses don’t give a damn about the local economy, so they don’t participate in anything and they don’t contribute to the tax base. A lot of these funds are paid off shore, so a lot of the money never makes it to Costa Rica. I’m not asking for much, just for some money to help the school, to help the kids, to help the educational system. But somehow, there seems to be a considerable number of ex-pats who leave the United States and leave behind their social responsibility.
Sadly, this is the problem we are facing. You can’t blame kids for wanting an iPhone, jeans or sneakers. But the parents cannot provide that, so what you see is a large percentage of high school dropouts. The kids get into drugs or prostitution to get what their counterpart gets in the United States.
For this reason, my advice for American families is to take their kids to Costa Rica. If you have nagging children, come on down and see what kids have here. What little they have to enjoy their life with. And yet, Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world.
(This is part II of III articles about Harry Bodaan, and life in Costa Rica)