Thursday, January 31, 2008

Costa Rica's Hotel Allegro Papagayo ordered shut down for sewage problems

By Dave Sherwood
Tico Times Staff

Health officials ordered the Hotel Occidental Allegro Papagayo to begin preparations for closure yesterday after discovering pipes dumping unidentified wastewater into an estuary adjoining its grounds.

Health Minister Maria Luisa Avila confirmed that the 300-room all-inclusive hotel, located in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, had received the orders and would soon be required to escort guests from the premises.

The announcement comes after repeated warnings and sanitary orders from local officials, who had kept tabs on the hotel since April, when an inspection revealed the hotel's sewage treatment plant had failed.

Shortly after the discovery, hotel manager Guillermo Guerra, in a letter signed and dated April 24, wrote that the problem had been "corrected," and that officials could “rest easy” knowing that it "would remain definitively eliminated in the future."

Following Guerra's assurances, officials discovered trucks leaving the hotel at the rate of 50 or more a day, carrying and depositing sewage in small-scale, sometimes archaic treatment plants that either lacked permits, or lacked the capacity to handle the loads.

The foul-smelling deliveries reached fever pitch in December, as sunny skies ushered tourists to Guanacaste's hotels.

Residents in the nearby towns of El Gallo and Santa Cruz, where the sewage was being delivered, cried foul, filing dozens of complaints, holding protests and blocking roads to prevent passage of the often unmarked trucks.

"The hotel was desperate," said Liberia municipal environment inspector Augusta Otarola, who last month outlined its seemingly panic-stricken activity in a meticulous detailed summary. "It should have been shut down long ago."

The issue was the lead story in Friday's Tico Times, which revealed the chain of events and the government foot-dragging that had allowed the hotel to operate despite countless irregularities.

Copies of The Tico Times article were forwarded by activists and concerned Costa Rican citizens to Health Minister Avila, as well as Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, and a Spanish-language translation was distributed to municipal officials.

The Allegro Papagayo, part of the global Spanish chain Occidental, is one of 25 concessionaires in the government-sponsored and directed Papagayo Tourism Project, the largest such development in Central America, and one which for decades has touted itself as "eco-friendly."

Activists have long decried the government's plans to up the total number of rooms in the 2,000 hectare (7.7 square mile) project from the originally proposed 1,500 to 26,450. They question whether the region could sustain the pressure.

Gadi Amit, of the well-established Guanacaste Brotherhood Fraternity, a local environmental group that has long highlighted lack of water and sewage problems in the region, said the recent discovery and closure puts the development situation in perspective.

"This kind of growth is simply not sustainable, and this is proof. Before the government invites more investors here, it needs to regain control and put a more realistic plan in place," he said.

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