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article imageFive things to know about Costa Rica

By AFP     Feb 2, 2018 in Travel

Costa Rica, which hold presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, is a tropical tourist destination in Central America that boasts of being an eco-friendly nation.

Here are five things to know about the small country, population 4.9 million.

- Clean energy -

Costa Rica draws in around three million tourists a year -- nearly half of them Americans -- with its offer of beaches, volcanic mountains and jungles hosting a variety of animals.

Although the country accounts for just 0.03 percent of the Earth's land surface, it holds close to six percent of the world's biodiversity, according to official figures.

More than a quarter of its territory is given over to national parks and reserves.

Hunting for sport is banned, and since 2011 there has kept in place a moratorium on oil prospecting and exploitation.

The past three years have seen the country rely on renewable sources for 98 percent of its energy production, mostly through hydroelectric dams on its many rivers.

- Stable, with no military -

Costa Rica is deemed to have one of the most stable democracies in Latin America.

In 1949, following a 48-day civil war the preceding year triggered by fraud allegations around an election, the government abolished its armed forces and laid the foundations for a modernization drive.

Its system of democracy, with presidential elections every four years, survived intact through the 1990s, when other Central American countries were being torn by civil war.

- Economic growth, growing deficit -

The country's economy has been steady in recent years, with growth of around four percent. According to the World Bank, Costa Rica's GDP expanded 3.9 percent last year and is expected to grow 3.7 percent this year.

Nevertheless, there is stubbornly high unemployment of more than nine percent, and its fiscal deficit is starting to pose a serious problem. It reached 6.2 percent of GDP last year.

Public debt stood at 65.1 percent of GDP in 2017, which "presented vulnerabilities for macroeconomic stability," in the words of the country's central bank.

The outgoing government -- like the three before it -- was unable to push through tax reforms to counter the growing deficit.

- Record murder rate -

The country last year recorded its highest number of violent killings in its history: 603, most of them attributed to gang clashes and drug trafficking.

That equates to a murder rate of 12.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, an unprecedented ratio for Costa Rica, and potentially a dampener for future tourism growth.

- Socially conservative -

The elections are in part being influenced by the population's socially conservative tendencies, brought to the fore by a debate over whether to make gay marriage legal.

An evangelical lawmaker, Fabricio Alvarado, has leapt from obscurity to the front of a pack of 13 presidential candidates by sharply opposing same-sex unions, despite an exhortation last month by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that they be allowed.

Opinion surveys over the past two years suggest the country is divided on that issue, as well the recreational use of marijuana, the secularization of the state, and whether abortion should be permitted following rape.

Around two-thirds of the population has conservative views opposing those subjects, while a third are in favor.

"We are talking here of a conservative, religious country," said Felipe Alpizar, a political analyst and the head of the CIEP institute that carried out many of the surveys.

He said that questioning has shown that 80 percent of Costa Ricans say religion is important in their lives, and 70 percent identify themselves as Catholic.

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