Costa Rica Country Profile

Market Overview:

Focus Economics reported in May 2020 that the Costa Rican economy will contract this year as coronavirus containment measures drag on activity.  However, fiscal and monetary policy stimulus should soften the blow.  Moreover, the country’s accession to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) should provide a longer-term boost as investors view Costa Rica more favorably.  Focus Economics panelists project Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to contract -3% in 2020, which is down 1.3 percentage points from April 2020’s forecast, before growing 3.4% in 2021.

  • The real value of private final consumption rose by 1.6% in 2019 and a fall of 4.3% is expected in 2020.
  • Consumer spending will be hampered by the lockdown and social distancing measures in 2020, with expenditure on larger items being deferred.
  • Costa Rica has solid investment prospects thanks mainly to its high levels of human capital.  More than two-thirds of the inflows of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) come from the US.
  • Comprehensive reforms in the 2019 budget should curb public spending and bolster tax revenues. Growth prospects will be damaged if business investment is crowded out.  Real GDP will bounce back to record growth of 3.4% in 2021, and is expected to rise to 3.5% per year through 2027, similar to the medium-term potential growth rate.
  • According to the World Bank, just 12% of the population was considered poor in 2014 and only 4.6% were extremely poor.  This is about half of the Latin America and Caribbean average.

Tourism is the country’s largest industry, employing around 13% of the workforce and accounting for approximately 13.1% of GDP.  It is also the country’s largest earner of foreign exchange.  Eco-tourism makes up nearly 40% of the industry’s revenue in a typical year.  An estimated 26% of Costa Rica consists of natural reserves and park systems that help to safeguard much of the world’s biodiversity and the burgeoning eco-tourism industry.  Approximately 40% of all visitors are from the U.S.  The real value of inbound tourist and business travel receipts rose by 3.8% in 2019 but the performance will be limited by travel bans in 2020.

Costa Rica has been experiencing a population boom which will gradually decelerate in the medium term.  Between 2000 and 2030, total population will increase from 3.9 million to 5.5 million.  Costa Rica’s potential workforce (those between 15 and 64 years) will be growing slightly faster than total population as a result of the prolonged population boom.

Costa Rica’s fertility rate was well above replacement level for many years.  It began to fall in the 1990s but did not drop below replacement (2.1 births per female) until recently. In 2019, the fertility rate was 1.7 children born per female and the indicator will remain at that level through 2030.  Women have begun to marry somewhat later in life and therefore are having fewer children.  Other reasons for this trend include a longer period of education and a growing number of young women who enter the workforce.

As growth of population slows, the percentage of elderly will rise.  In 2020, 8.7% of all Costa Ricans were more than 65 years of age and the share will rise to 13.2% in 2030.

USDA’s Office of Agricultural Affairs, OAA, in San Jose, hereinafter referred to as “Post” tells us that the United Sates is Costa Rica’s largest trading partner and Costa Rica’s largest foreign direct investor.  Market prospects for U.S. consumer-oriented products such as beef, pork, poultry, dairy, wine and beer, snack foods, ready-to-eat meals, frozen food products, condiments, and pet food continue to increase with impressive growth.  Costa Rican consumers trust and enjoy the excellent reputation of U.S. food, beverage and ingredients products, and demand has increased since Costa Rica’s implementation of the Dominican Republic - Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2009.  

Proximity with the United States is a major advantage for shipping time and for U.S. exporters who wish to visit or communicate with potential customers.  In 2019, U.S. agricultural exports to Costa Rica reached a US$716.5 million and Costa Rican agricultural exports to the United States were valued at US$1.5 billion.  Additionally, U.S. food products and food companies continue to permeate the market in Costa Rica as the Costa Rican public is both receptive and accustomed to U.S. food products.  American food companies, restaurants, and supermarket chains, have been highly successful in Costa Rica and have a strong presence in the country.

With such a high degree of trade, especially with the U.S., Costa Rican importers are well accustomed to working with foreign partners in this market.  Many business people in Costa Rica are bilingual, thus, are able to facilitate business negotiations with Americans.  However, the business culture in Costa Rica can be less fast-paced than in the U.S. and those wishing to do business in here should be prepared for this cultural difference.  U.S. exporters should also note that export procedures and processes in Costa Rica go through many levels of bureaucracy that can, at times, slow the importation process for food products.

In 2019, U.S. Consumer-oriented exports accounted for US$315.9 million, a new record high and an increase of 10% from 2018.  Costa Rica also imports an abundance of U.S. processed foods, totaling US$258.4 million in 2019, growth of 9% and another new record high.  Top U.S. processed food exports to Costa Rica in 2019 included:

  • Food Preparations
  • Snack Foods
  • Processed Vegetables & Pulses
  • Prepared/Preserved Dairy Products
  • Dog & Cat Food
  • Non-Alcoholic Beverages
  • Prepared/Preserved Meats
  • Chocolate & Confectionery

Advantages & Challenges for U.S. Food Exporters

Advantages:

  • The United States is geographically close to Costa Rica, which gives logistical advantages for marketing and trade.
  • U.S. exporters can supply different volumes according to local demand and maintain reliable supply throughout the year.
  • The United States now enjoys lower duties in almost every agricultural product as a result of CAFTA-DR. Tariffs on nearly all U.S. agricultural products will be phased out by 2020.
  • U.S. food products are competitive in terms of price and quality.
  • Costa Rica initiated a new on-line product registration system, which eventually will reduce registration times for new imported products.
  • A strong tourism sector (residential and traditional) provides opportunity for U.S. exporters and for development.
  • Retailers are interested in stocking more U.S. products, including private-labeled goods.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture will build new cold chain facilities in tourist areas to facilitate imports of perishables, chilled and frozen foods.
  • Costa Ricans are beginning to consume higher quantities of frozen and prepared foods.

Challenges

  • U.S. products from the Western United States and the upper Midwest face higher transportation costs relative to alternate suppliers from the rest of Central America.
  • Low volume shipments of high-value products face additional costs since they must go through freight consolidators in Miami or other ports.
  • U.S. food exporters are not geared to meet the needs of the “traditional” market (13,000 mom & pop stores), which sell items packaged in small sizes.
  • Many U.S. exporters are unaware that an Apostille can serve to validate the Certificate of Free Sale.
  • Costa Rica’s often slow and cumbersome bureaucracy poses a challenge to doing business in the country.
  • Strong competition
  • The Ministry of Health has specific requirements for the wording of Certificates of Free Sale. Failure to meet these requirements slows down product registration.
  • Local producers are increasing in the sector.  

Retail Sector:

Euromonitor reported that the retail sales value of packaged food was US$2.9 billion in 2019.  That represented a growth rate of 17.8% since 2015 and a dollar amount of US$448 million.  The forecast to 2024 is also promising.  They predict an increase of 23.5% and a value of US$768 million for a market size of US$4 billion.  High growth products in the forecast include:

  • Ready Meals
  • Processed Fruit & Vegetables
  • Breakfast Cereals
  • Savory Snacks
  • Baby Food
  • Sweet Spreads
  • Dairy
  • Ice Cream & Frozen Desserts
  • Sweet Biscuits, Snack Bars & Fruit Snacks

Post reports that the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has shaken the Costa Rican economy, and there is great uncertainty over about how quickly it will recover.  Measures at the border and restrictions within the country have disrupted much of the retail industry, while digital online platforms, ecommerce, and delivery services have grown in popularity.  There are market prospects for U.S. consumer-oriented products, including beef, pork (chilled/fresh), poultry, dairy, wine and beer, snack foods, ready-to-eat meals, frozen food products, condiments, natural/organic food products and cereals.

Before the pandemic, the Costa Rican retail industry growth had been modest.  It was partially driven by promotional activities, credit access, and increasing presence of e-commerce platforms.  As a result of measures imposed in response to COVI-19, many consumers changed their purchasing habits and social distancing measures led to emergence of a new commercial reality.  There has been a decline in in person visits to supermarkets and stores, and a sharp growth in home delivery services and the consumption of easy to cook meals.  It is unknown whether consumers will return to prior habits as measures are relaxed.

Supermarkets investments had been continuing.  In December 2019, the supermarket chain Grupo Gessa was purchased by the family of Kimling Yan Grou, a Chinese group. Walmart’s earlier bid for Gessa had been blocked by the government out of concerns over forming a monopoly.  In April 2019, Walmart began construction of four new stores located in Cartago, Bagaces and Goicoechea and other establishments under the Pali brand located in Desamparados.  This last operation generated 54 new jobs.  When all the stores are open, Walmart will have a total of 176 sales points in the country.  Retail sales declined between 60% and 80% between the end of February and the end of April.  Health measures obligated all supermarkets to implement new safety and hygiene protocols, and delivery services became more popular.  The large supermarkets had the opportunity to implement virtual platforms, which gave them a technological advantage over the smaller retail stores.

As of May 2020, there were no reported shortages of food products.  Even during the crisis, competition continues to drive retailers in Costa Rica to look for new ways to add value to their brands and attract more consumers.  In particular, several stores such as Automercado, PriceSmart, Sareto and Mas por Menos have sought to secure larger economy-of-scale savings, free deliveries and cleaning areas to pursue more competitive pricing strategies and offer discounts.  Those big chains and their small convenience formats also provide consumers an alternate option to visiting smaller markets during the week and avoid large quantities of people in the same area.  This is an option that Vindis, Fresh Market and AMPM are offering to consumers.

Auto Mercado, the Costa Rican owned chain, is known as a high-end supermarket chain with a wide range of imported products and trendy gourmet products.  Mega Super and Mas X Menos (owned by Walmart) carry some foreign products.  Pali, a supermarket chain also owned by Walmart, is a very basic market with limited imported goods.

Best Product Prospects:

In general, the most profitable prospects for U.S. exporters continue to be processed products, dairy products, snacks, sausages, sauces and condiments, beef, poultry, wine and beer.  High-value products also continue to offer good market opportunities.  Recent trends in consuming more convenience and health foods has resulted in good prospects for U.S. exports of fresh fruit (mainly apples, grapes, peaches and pears), processed fruits and vegetables (especially canned fruits), and snack foods (including chips, cookies and candies).  Processed fruits and vegetables, especially mixed fruits, mixed vegetables, yellow and sweet corn, peas, mushrooms, and garbanzo beans generate strong import demand.

Demand for healthy and/or gourmet snack items is increasing in Costa Rica.  Snacks with natural ingredients, dried fruits, whole wheat, and high-quality ingredients are gaining popularity with health conscious consumers.  This trend is not limited to snack foods; the demand for niche food items, such as organic products or gluten-free goods, is also expanding, which provides opportunities for U.S. exporters.

Food Service Sector:

Although in need of a strong recovery post Covid-19 Costa Rica’s strong tourism sector and its well-developed hotel, restaurant, and institutional (HRI) sectors provide for excellent opportunities for U.S. food and beverage (F&B) product exports to Costa Rica. Tourism is Costa Rica’s major economic driver.  40% of Costa Rica’s tourists, totaling 1.2 million, are from the United States.  According to the Government of Costa Rica, 8.8% of the Costa Rican jobs are related to the tourism industry.  F&B importers seek to meet consumers’ growing tastes and demands for high quality and trendy products.  As the tourism sector expands in the future Post expects opportunities for reliable U.S. food and beverage products to continue to grow.  The increase in Costa Rica’s tourism industry is a key influencer in U.S. food and beverage exports, especially for the following products: beef, pork, dairy, processed fruit, chocolate products, snack foods, prepared foods, bakery ingredients, pre-cooked frozen products, condiments and sauces.

Costa Rica has a population of 5 million with a per capita GDP of US$18,000 on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis.  The tourism industry grew by 1.2% in 2018, and tourism from the United States increased 6%.  Costa Rica’s proximity to the United States with direct flights from multiple U.S. cities, as well as biodiversity and natural beauty contribute to its growth in tourism.  Costa Rica welcomes over 3.2 million tourists per year (1.2 million from the United States), which in 2018 contributed US$3.8 billion to its GDP or around 13% of its overall GDP.  Costa Rica has 3,687 lodging establishments, which account for 56,334 rooms.  Costa Rica is developing new hotel projects in the Pacific and Atlantic regions.  For U.S. food service suppliers, this translates into excellent opportunities in the hotel, restaurant and institutional (HRI) food service sector.  In most hotel establishments, F&B buyers and traders speak English.  Much of Costa Rica’s economic growth is a result of foreign investment and its access to international markets.

Post reports that since the food service sector relies heavily on importers to purchase their food products, there are many companies dedicated to the HRI food service sector.  The retail distribution sector generally follows U.S. business practices.  There are currently large department store chains, supermarket chains, and countless small and medium-sized family-owned firms that compete with the larger retailers.  Rural areas are served by the "general store," locally known as a "pulperia."

Distribution channels do not vary significantly for food/agricultural products.  Private firms import consumer foods, while several wholesalers are dedicated to the food import business.  The food product distribution chain to supermarkets and to medium and small stores is well developed.  Some of the larger supermarket chains import directly.  Costa Rican law provides for two main forms of representation – a representative and a distributor.  It is possible for one person to be both a representative and a distributor simultaneously.  The larger hotels, resorts and restaurants purchase their food and beverage needs through local importers, directly from U.S. suppliers.  Some hotels have even positioned offices in south Florida to facilitate shipment Costa Rica ports.

Best Product Prospects:

Post advises that the list of popular imports from the HRI sector includes: french fries; snacks, frozen or ready-to eat food, dairy (cheese, yogurt, and butter), vegetable oil, frozen vegetables, dressings and marinades, bakery ingredients, beef, poultry, pork and rice.

Food-Processing Sector:

Post reports that Costa Rica’s food processors are increasing their production capacity and food quality as they aims to catch up with international trends.  Such desires open a window of opportunity for U.S. exporters of ingredients such as herbs, extracts, condiments, spices and of course new trend ingredients such as gluten free flour, fibers, probiotics, organic seeds and acids, fibers, high oleic oils and antioxidant compounds used in food and beverage processing in Costa Rica.

Costa Rican consumption of organic and natural products has been on the rise and demand for ingredients for beverages, juices, teas and confectionaries are increasing in the market.  These sectors are expanding especially for suppliers that provide ingredients related to nutrition, health and wellness.  The use of spices has also increased following a gourmet trend in the preparation of homemade meals and desserts.  Restaurants and food institutions are also expanding their use of spices in cooking that has been traditionally simple in its use of spices in recipes.  Local processors are trending towards natural additives, preservatives, thickeners and sweeteners.  In addition, consumers are increasingly more health consciousness, influencing the development of healthier choices for packaged/prepared foods.  U.S. producers of herbs, spices, superfoods, condiments, extracts, Omega-3 fatty acids, fibers, and antioxidant compounds in particular can find opportunities in this market and food processors are looking to add these ingredients to their recipes.

Some larger food processors already import directly from the United States and many small processors rely on local distributors to import their ingredients. Most imported food ingredients is used for the manufacturing of confectionary and bakery products, sauces, dressings and condiments, sweet and salty premixes, dairy/by-products and beverages.

International players Unilever, Heinz and Nestle continue to dominate the sauces, dressings and condiments sector.

Apart from the major companies in this industry, the sector remains very fragmented, with a wide range of domestic brands generally.  Costa Rica’s top food processors in Costa Rican include; Cargill (poultry, processed meat, eggs, pork and animal feed); Del Monte (whole fruits, juices and canned fruits); Bimbo (bakery ingredients); Nestlé (dairy, confectionary); Demasa (corn and raw material for snacks); Sigma Alimentos (processed meats, dry meats, dairy pre-cooked meals, ready to drink coffees and other dry products for their foodservice branch); Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte (fruits, purees and concentrates); Unilever (processed foods); Riviana (flour, cereals, dried fruits, tree nuts among other bakery ingredients) INOLASA (Central America’s largest soybean processor, and user of USSEC’s Sustainable U.S. Soy trademark).

Best Product Prospects:

Post reports that the U.S. food ingredient exports with the best potential include:

  • Corn
  • Sugar, Sweeteners, and Beverage Bases
  • Soybean oil
  • Tree Nuts
  • Distillers Grains
  • Chocolate & Cocoa Products
  • Condiments & Sauces

 

 

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