In an unorthodox, but rewarding, Alternative Breaks trip, 11 members of the International Business Honors Society travelled to Costa Rica during spring break to help local business owners develop marketing strategies that will attract more visitors to the small, tourism-reliant town of Tortuguero.
Tortuguero is a lush, jungle-like village on the coast of Costa Rica that has no cars and only dirt footpaths on which to travel. It can only be reached by an hour-long boat ride.
Despite the lack of air conditioning and television in town, and the fact that most of the locals are struggling to stay afloat, life in Tortuguero is good and “has more to do with being in touch with nature and enjoying it as much as you can,” according to junior finance major Monica Calderon. “They have a saying, ‘pura vida,’ which means enjoying life.”
The townsfolk, whose businesses are mostly small, family-owned hotels and restaurants, rely on tourism for their income. Although Tortuguero can’t compete with the major resorts in Costa Rica, backpackers looking for a “jungle experience” in nearby Tortuguero National Park frequent the area.
The students’ goal was to help grow the local economy by teaching business owners how to use websites like Hotels.com and Expedia.com for advertising, as well as establishing better email communication with clients and customers.
After a meeting with locals on their first day in Tortuguero, the students devised a plan to rebuild the town’s website and make it a forum to promote all the businesses.
Rosa Garcia, assistant director of Management and International Business administration, accompanied the students and saw the positive reaction of business owners.
“They are all very excited about this,” she said. Until now, “They haven’t really gotten any help, and they don’t know how to make a website.”
One woman was so grateful for the students’ willingness to help with promotion of her restaurant that when the young people were distracted by the smell of her cooking during their meeting, she brought out a plate of food, which they devoured. Although the owner offered the meal at no charge, the students insisted on paying for it and again patronized the restaurant at dinnertime.
“Great food and great people,” Garcia said. “It motivated the students.”
Since coming back to Florida, the group has put together website options for the town to choose from. Once the official website is up and running, the students hope it will attract more tourism to Tortuguero, thus improving the local economy.
Now that a connection with Tortugeuro is established, a second trip is in the works for next year so the students can assess the town’s progress and continue the work they started this spring.
“It was a great experience and great to see how excited the students were,” Garcia said.
This column originally appeared in FIU News on April 24, 2015.