What happened with the small language tourism business in Costa Rica?
The tourism industry has many (and probably the hardest) challenges ahead, but each subsector has to cope in a different way. The classrooms are empty at Academia Tica Spanish School’s two locations, but there is much learning going on after 4 months of pandemic in Costa Rica.
The small company is one of Costa Rica’s first Spanish language schools and one of the few solely dedicated to teaching Spanish (as opposed to many languages) and providing meaningful travel learning experiences. The school is also one of the few that dedicated exclusively to face-to-face classes before the pandemic. This represented a huge challenge when borders closed back in March.
“One day, online was the only option.” tells Manuel Al-Ghassani, Director at Academia Tica. “At first we had a couple of crazy souls staying with us for the first months and some students chose to finish their course online.”.
Although studying language in Costa Rica has been popular for decades, offering online lessons is quite challenging with all education suddenly moving online. “We hit the ground running and it was amazing to see our teachers raising up to the challenge and we have had an amazing response, mostly from our ex-students which really makes us feel that they trust us”. In their case, the school opted for private tutoring which makes sense given that their methods are geared towards practical skills.
The business model for language schools everywhere has good and bad things coming up. For most of them, the ability of maintaining classes online is a huge benefit over other tourism companies like hotels or restaurants, especially in strict lockdown.
However, these schools work almost exclusively with foreign students which are restricted by travel bans. It is still uncertain how many students will travel to learn a language when these are lifted. The industry as a whole is betting on local tourism as a lifeline while international travel picks up again, this doesn’t help schools.
What to do then? At Academia Tica, the bet has been on “keeping the pura vida flowing” and making use of the most abundant resource nowadays, which is time. Apart from offering online lessons, the school started a free “Conversation Club” to keep in touch with students, there is a small vegetable garden underway (all done with existing resources including their own compost) to share between the staff, a teacher training with international speakers in planning and online resources for students being designed.
“A school is 99% about the people: the staff and the students. This is why we have kept everyone from both campuses on the payroll. For us, it wouldn’t be possible to keep a company like ours going if our staff is not taken care of financially, healthy and keeping busy.” says María Alejandra Sarmiento who is Administrative Director at the school. In the meantime, they are in the long odyssey of finding financing with public and private banks and finding structure while navigating the changing schemes of restrictions put in place by the government. The next challenge will come when Costa Rica allows international travel again in August, although conditions remain to be seen.