Below the Surface:
The Impacts of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
Sujata Narayan


Originally conceived in the 1960’s in response to declining environmental and economic conditions throughout the Developing World, ecotourism is described as tourism that has a low-impact on the environment, contributes to the local economy, engenders cross-cultural exchange, and fosters environmental education.  Since its conception, many governments within the Developing World have embraced and encouraged ecotourism as a means of attracting foreign investment and exchange.  Costa Rica, with its rich biodiversity and extensive ecosystem, is inarguably one of the leaders in this type of tourism, which is rapidly becoming the largest sector of that country’s tourism industry.

To be sure, the promotion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has led to several desirable outcomes.  For example, the continued expansion of ecotourism has created opportunities for income generation and employment, at both the national and local levels.  Additionally, ecotourism has provided greater incentives for natural resource conservation in the form of state-protected areas and private lands.  As a result, natural resource conservation is on the rise.  With nearly ½ million acres of land designated as protected areas, tourism to that country has surged, with scientific and nature tourists from around the world converging on this naturally endowed, tourist’s paradise. Finally, heightened emphasis has been placed on environmental education.

While the Costa Rican government has successfully stimulated economic growth and environmental preservation by marketing the country’s ecotourism destinations, recent studies suggest that it has not invested adequate attention or resources for the management of the natural assets which attract tourists or in the infrastructure required to support ecotourism.  As a result, fragile sites of ecological or cultural significance have been exposed to the threat of degradation by unregulated tourism development and over-visitation.  In short, while the tourist explosion has attracted world attention and new funds to Costa Rica, it has also put a strain on the country’s environment and population.

Clearly ecotourism is a multi-dimensional, complex practice that has resulted in tradeoffs, in costs and benefits for Costa Rica.  All the same, it is a practice that is being promoted with increasing fervor by the Costa Rican government and the tourism industry.  But how long can this practice sustain itself?  Is ecotourism sustainable?

The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions, to go “below the surface” and take a deeper look at ecotourism in Costa Rica, thereby facilitating a clearer understanding of the complexity of this phenomenon.  Specifically, this paper examines ecotourism’s impact on the economy and environment of the country.  For that purpose, tourism, environmental, and economic transitions are critically researched, with an emphasis on how these transitions interrelate.   Findings and conclusions around the benefits and disadvantages of ecotourism are presented.  Based on these findings, this paper attempts to articulate creative and proactive policy measures for mitigating the drawbacks associated with ecotourism.

What Is Ecotourism?
Before entering into a detailed description of the various dimensions of ecotourism in Costa Rica, it is useful to have a clear understanding of what ecotourism is.  As mentioned earlier, ecotourism is a concept that originated in the early 1960’s, at a time when significant criticism was being levied against traditional tourism, otherwise known as mass tourism. Essentially, critics believed that mass tourism -- characterized by package deals to familiar destinations, limited interaction with local populations, high levels of security, and a contrived experience with local life and culture -- was resulting in adverse ecological and socio-cultural effects, the results of which were only beginning to be observed.

These critiques emerged at a time when a larger, more global environmental movement was beginning to take shape.  Eventually, this movement culminated in the creation of the 1987 report of the Bruntland Commission, which introduced the world to the notion of sustainable development.  This report also provided the first working definition for environmentally sustainable tourism, also known as alternative tourism, which differs from mass tourism in that it is characterized by a higher degree of risk, novelty, and interaction with local cultures.  Essentially, this tourism can be defined as “tourism which is developed and maintained in an area (community, environment) in such a manner and at such a scale that it remains viable over an indefinite period of time and does not degrade or alter the environment” (Butler, 29).

Ecotourism is a form of alternative tourism which aims to achieve economic gain through natural resource preservation.  While they disagree on its exact definition, many tourism experts generally agree that ecotourism is characterized by “ecological and socio-cultural integrity, responsibility and sustainability” (Cater, 3).  For the most part, the success of this form of tourism in different locations depends on a variety of factors including the area’s political stability; the host governments’ and local communities’ commitment to ecotourism; the extent of its promotion by local governments and tour operators; the area’s image; ease of travel in the respective area; and “product” demand.

Ecotourism in the Developing World
As a form of tourism with smaller-scale infrastructural needs and less “sophisticated” consumer demands, ecotourism is ideally suited to the Developing World.  It does not necessitate multi-billion dollar investments.  Local, small businesses and entrepreneurs can successfully fulfill the demands of ecotourism, especially in the areas of lodging and food services.  As a result, ecotourism has become incredibly popular within the Developing World, particularly as a means of stimulating economic development.

Struggling with severe balance of payments difficulties, ecotourism provides these countries with the opportunity to earn foreign exchange without destroying their environmental resource base. For the most part, countries in the Developing World have something of a “comparative advantage” when it comes to ecotourism, in terms of the vast biodiversity and extent of pristine, natural environments in those countries.  According to the World Wildlife Fund for nature, that “comparative advantage” translated into nearly $12 billion in ecotourism revenues for Developing Countries in 1988.  Overall tourism earnings in the Developing World for 1998 were $55 billion (Cater, 71 The Earthscan Reader).  This segment of tourism is reported to have been growing at a rate of 10-15% per year, whereas mass tourism is said to average only a 4% annual growth rate.

Ecotourism’s popularity among Developing World countries has only increased since 1988, as evidenced by the proliferation of specialized ecotourism tour operators and by the increasing number of ecotourism conferences in those countries.  For many destinations within the Developing World, ecotourism is becoming the most important tourism market segment.

An Introduction to Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one Developing Country that has taken advantage of and benefited from the promotion of ecotourism.  That success is illustrated in a variety of ways.  For example, since 1964, tourism revenues in Costa Rica have grown significantly as can be seen in Figure 1 (Tourism Transition in Costa Rica, 1964-1995, International Receipts).  In 1995 alone, Costa Rica generated $661 million in tourism receipts.

Similarly, from 1964-1995, international tourist stayover arrivals skyrocketed, as illustrated in Figure 2 (Tourism Transition in Costa Rica, 1965-1995, International Stayover Arrivals, Source:  Europa World Yearbook Selected Years.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).   A comparative analysis of select tourism destinations in the Caribbean Basin highlights the fact that, despite its relatively small size (51, 100 sq. km), Costa Rica attracts a significant portion of tourism to that region of the world (refer to Figure 3). (Tourist Stayovers in Select Caribbean Basin Destinations, 1989,  Source:  Europa World Yearbook Selected Years.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).

Although most of the findings above reflect gains made within tourism as a whole in Costa Rica, it is reasonable to assume that a large percent of the general growth in tourism is the product of specific growth within the ecotourism sector, since that is the kind of tourism for which Costa Rica is known.  That point is substantiated by results from a survey conducted by the ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) during the peak travel season of 1986, when nearly 75% of tourists who were interviewed indicated that they had come to Costa Rica primarily because of its natural beauty.  36% stated that they had specifically come to Costa Rica to observe its nature.  For that year alone, nearly one-third of all peak-season tourists were ecotourists.  (Budowski, 52).

A similar informal survey conducted in 1995 indicated that over 40% of American and European (excluding German) visitors to Costa Rica came to the country for nature-related activities (refer to Figure 4, Purpose of Visit to Costa Rica, Selected Results of 1995 Visitor Survey, Source:  TTI, 1996d.  Taken from  Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).

These facts about ecotourism in Costa Rica demonstrate the important role it has played in bolstering the country’s tourism industry.  However, a few questions persist.  For example, why is ecotourism so popular in Costa Rica?   What has made tourism the largest generator of foreign exchange there?  Why has the Costa Rican government so aggressively promoted ecotourism?  The following sections provide greater insight into these questions.

The Development of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
Around the same time the global environmental movement was galvanizing in the 1960’s, the Costa Rican government was being criticized for its environmental policies, or lack thereof.  Essentially, Costa Rica had no effective environmental policies, which was resulting in widespread deforestation of the countryside.  As a result, a number of scientists and environmentalists who had studied and experienced, first-hand, the spectacular biodiversity and variety of environments in the country began to apply pressure on the government to create more proactive, aggressive environmental preservation programs.  These same people began to lobby various international environmental organizations, such as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and governments to intervene and take part in helping to protect the environment within Costa Rica.

Initially, the Costa Rican government was not very responsive.  Up until this time, environmental protection had been a low priority for the Costa Rican government due to financial constraints, and that continued to be the case despite the rigorous lobbying efforts. However, when various foreign governments got involved and threatened to cut development assistance to the country if it did not implement environmental preservation programs, the Costa Rican government responded.  In 1970, the government officially established the National Park Service, whose mission it was to consolidate natural lands into parks.  The first four national parks were established between 1970 and 1971.  These parks were created with the express mandate of preserving Costa Rica’s biodiversity.

In 1987, during a reorganization of the Executive Branch of the government, the National Park Service was incorporated into the newly created Ministry of Environment and Energy.  This agency was restructured in 1990 and became known as the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mines (MIRENEM).  MIRENEM was created as a response to increasing social demands to develop institutional guidelines for the protection of the country’s natural resources.  Finally, in 1995, the development of the Environment Organic Law delineated a more specific role for MIRENEM with regard to natural resource management, and it officially became the Ministry of Environment and Energy which it is known as today.

Since the establishment of the first four parks in 1970, the system has expanded to include over 70 entities, comprising approximately 1,000,000 hectares or 21% of the national territory (refer to Figure 5, Costa Rica, Selected Protected Areas,  Source: Boza, 1998; Rovinski, 1991; and Carey & Jones, 1993.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D. B. Weaver).  Within this system, the level of preservation differs, with just over one-half designated as completely protected national parks, biological reserves, and national wildlife refuges.  The rest is comprised of forest reserves and protective zones, which accommodate a limited amount of lumbering and other extractive activities.

Since its creation, one of MINAE’s primary objectives has been the consolidation of the conservation areas into a more organized system, in order to facilitate better management of those areas.  To that end, MINAE has established the National System of Conservation Areas (Sistem Nacional de Areas de Conservacion – SINAC) which is a decentralized and participatory government agency that assembles MINAE’s responsibilities regarding protected wildlands, wildlife, and forested areas.  SINAC’s overall goal is to plan and carry out the processes necessary for achieving sustainable management of the country’s resources.  To help achieve that goal, SINAC has established eleven conservation areas, or territorial units which are managed, in principle, under the same set of strategies (refer to Figure 6, MIRENEM, Areas of Conservation, Source:  1998).  These are administrative areas where private and government activities come together around issues such as the use and conservation of natural resources, while sustainable development alternatives are sought as part of a collaborative effort with the citizenry of Costa Rica.

From the creation of the first four national parks in 1970 to the establishment of over seventy parks in the early 1990’s, Costa Rica has come quite a long way with regard to environmental preservation.  The government’s most recent administrative undertaking, SINAC, is just further evidence of the progress the country has made.

Why Is Ecotourism So Popular in Costa Rica?
When the Costa Rican government first started setting aside land for the creation of a system of national parks, reserves, and protected zones, it did so under a mandate of preservation.  Over time, however, the protected-area system has “emerged as a focal point for the Costa Rican tourism industry, as evidenced by the proportion of visitors spending at least some time within such areas and by the exponential pattern of visitation growth with the system” (Weaver, 89).  This phenomenon can be linked to a variety of factors.

First, Costa Rica’s location is unique in that it is situated in the Central American isthmus, the only region of the world which is both interoceanic and intercontinental (refer to Maps of Costa Rica in Figures 7 [Source:] 1998 and 8 Source:  1998).

The resulting bottleneck effect helps to explain why Costa Rica has such amazing biodiversity, despite its relatively small size (51,000 sq. km).  The tropical setting and extreme variations in altitude also help create a situation where diverse plant and wildlife species can thrive.  “Evidence of this biodiversity includes the presence of 20 ‘life zones’ (ranging from mangroves and coastal rainforest to subalpine grassland, containing at least 850 bird species, 1260 tree species, 1200 orchid species, 237 mammal species, and 361 species of reptiles and amphibians” (Weaver, 81).  Topographically, Costa Rica is covered by a series of young mountains, including several active volcanoes, running along the entire length of the country.  These mountains are interrupted by the existence of a centrally situated plateau known as the Meseta Central.  Extensive lowlands line both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

It is the exceptional biodiversity and such great variety of ecoregions that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to Costa Rica each year to participate in some activity related to ecotourism.  The Costa Rican government has responded to the tremendous growth in this sector of the tourism industry by enhancing preservation efforts within the national parks system.

To be sure, Costa Rica’s reputation as a premier destination spot has only been further enhanced as a result of its social and political stability which has given it the image of “Switzerland of Central America.”  Similarly, the fact that nearly one-third of all national tour operators specialize in ecotourism and that the government has spent a considerable amount of money on infrastructure related to tourism has only made travel for ecotourists in Costa Rica easier and more attractive.

The  Benefits of Ecotourism
The promotion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has had positive impacts on the environment and the economy within the country.  As already mentioned, while not the case initially, over time ecotourism has become one of the main justifications for preservation of natural areas throughout Costa Rica, resulting in rapid expansion of the national park system which now includes seventy different entities.  Looking at it from a different perspective, close to 14% of the country has been designated as national protected areas, which puts Costa Rica among the leaders in environmental preservation throughout the Caribbean (refer to Figure 9, Comparative Perspective on % National Land Area Protected--Caribbean Basin).
Similarly, the emphasis on natural preservation for the sake of ecotourism has helped stem the widespread deforestation of the countryside.  Although deforestation in Costa Rica is still problematic, Figure 10 (Total Deforestation in Costa Rica, 1980-1995) illustrates that such deforestation has decreased over time.

In addition to fulfilling its mandate of promoting environmental sustainability, ecotourism in Costa Rica has also generated significant economic development, at both the national and local levels.  As already mentioned, since 1964 international tourism receipts have risen considerably.  Since 1984, international tourism receipts have grown from $117 million to $136 million in 1987, and $577 million in 1993 (Weaver, 83).  Such phenomenal growth has made tourism the leading source of foreign exchange in Costa Rica; it surpassed the banana trade in 1992.  This trend has certainly been felt at the national level, where the GNP has literally taken off (refer to Figure 11, Costa Rica's Gross National Product in US$, 1970-1995).

Specifically, since 1970, Costa Rica’s GNP has grown from approximately $1000 million to roughly $9000 million in 1995.  At a more micro level, Costa Rica’s GNP/capita has risen from around $1500 in 1978 to nearly $2000 dollars in 1992 (refer to Figure 12, Costa Rica's GNP per Capita in US$, 1978-1992).

While the growth of the GNP is ostensibly linked to many factors, the fact that tourism is the greatest source of foreign exchange in the country makes it a prominent factor in Costa Rica’s economic growth.  To illustrate this point, Figure 13 (Tourism Revenues as Percent of GNP in Costa Rica, 1970-1994, Source:  World Resources Institute  1994-1995) represents the percentage of Costa Rica’s GNP that is derived from tourism revenues.  As can be observed in this figure, since 1970, when ecotourism was just beginning to take off in Costa Rica, tourism revenues have comprised an increasingly significant portion of GNP.  Specifically, tourism revenues as a percent of GNP grew from 2% in 1970 to around 8% in 1994.  Clearly, then, the Costa Rican government’s efforts to promote ecotourism have “paid off” in terms of the national economy.

The benefits of ecotourism have not been felt just at the national level, however.  At the more local level, parks have spawned a number of ecotourism-related activities in adjacent communities, such as the Talamancan Ecotourism and Conservation Association (ATEC).  ATEC is an organization that was established by local communities in south-eastern Costa Rica to service visitors to the extensive park network of that region by providing trained local guides, food and lodging.  While the full economic activities of the Talamancan initiative have yet to be determined, some indication of the effects of ecotourism can be derived from a 1990 study of Tortuguero, a village of 211 residents bordering the park of the same name.  According to this survey, most tourism activity was indeed related to ecotourism, and additional surveys revealed that most residents were highly satisfied with the development (Weaver, 91).  Other similar studies indicated that in several instances, ecotourism-related activities have raised the standard of living within certain local communities.

It is evident, then, that ecotourism has had positive impacts, both large and small, on the environment and economy of Costa Rica.  Certainly, such outcomes are embraced by a country that has worked diligently to promote this segment of its economy.  However, as with any type of tourism, ecotourism has also had negative impacts on Costa Rica.  The following section describes those impacts in greater detail.

The Costs of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
While there have been many benefits associated with ecotourism in Costa Rica as outlined above, there have also been costs.  One of the more fundamental issues surrounding ecotourism is the lack of standards regarding its practice.  Presently in Costa Rica, there are few national laws and regulations that dictate who can rightfully engage in ecotourism and how it must be carried out.  Similarly, there are no licensing procedures.  Therefore, any tourism outfit can claim to conduct ecotourism even if it has little to no experience in that kind of tourism.  Such unrestricted practice of ecotourism by inexperienced tour operators has inevitably resulted in types of ecotourism that do not adhere to its basic principles of environmental sustainability and local income generation.

Several other problems related to ecotourism are the byproducts of inadequate funding, poor park management, and insufficient monitoring and evaluation of programs.  For example, while significant investment has been made in creating a national park system geared towards ecotourism, overall funding falls severely short of the amount necessary to support adequate park management, infrastructure, and programming.  As a result, problems such as trail deterioration, habitat disruption, pollution, and litter are becoming more commonplace.

Over-visitation is yet another factor that compounds the problem.  Although policies in Costa Rica direct ecotourists into areas expressly designated for that purpose, thereby alleviating the pressure on other more fragile environments, the fact is that even the ecotourism designated environments are also fragile.  That reality is precisely one of the reasons so many people converge upon such areas; they cannot experience such unadulterated nature in their own countries.  What has happened, then, is that areas that are already strained are becoming more strained by the presence of humans.  Figure 14 (Visitation to Select Costa Rican National Parks, 1996) represents the total number of visits to various national parks in 1996.  As can be seen in this figure, there are some areas that receive well close to 200,000 visitors a year.  Together, they account for close to 65% of visitation to the national parks.  These parks, however, are negligible in terms of their share of the protected land area.  Clearly, there is an issue of carrying capacity in these parks.  How many more visits will these parks be able to sustain before trail deterioration, litter, pollution, and habitat disruption become even more problematic?

In addition to the ecological and biophysical problems related to ecotourism, there are other, economic and socio-cultural problems .  For example, while ecotourism can be attributed with generating some economic development at a local level, quite often, it has resulted in disruption of local economic activities.  Not only does ecotourism disrupt the local economic activity, often times, the economic benefits of ecotourism in a particular area do not accrue to the local community.  In those cases, the income is repatriated to some national tour operator, and quite often, to an international tourism agency.

In a similar fashion, high levels of visitation by foreign tourists have led to disturbance of local cultural practices and lifestyles.  Essentially, many communities that were previously isolated have had to adapt to the constant presence of strangers in their backyard.  While the exact nature of the effects of ecotourism on cultural and lifestyle practices are yet to be determined and quantified, given the prominence of ecotourism in Costa Rica, there is sufficient reason to believe that it has had and will continue to have fairly significant socio-cultural implications.

Clearly, the aforementioned points beg one question: Is ecotourism in Costa Rica truly a sustainable practice?  Has it fostered community empowerment, local income generation, and linkages with existing communities, while promoting environmental sustainability? While on paper, this may seem to be the case, when one looks under the surface and studies the evidence, it does not appear as if ecotourism in Costa Rica has achieved those goals.  Moreover, it does not seem that ecotourism in its current form will be sustainable in Costa Rica.  So what measures should the government take to ensure that ecotourism is a more positive force in the county and that it fulfills its original mandate – that of, promoting and protecting the environment into the future as a means of generating economic development?  The following section contains a series of ideas and suggestions on how the Costa Rican government can revise its policies around ecotourism, thereby making it a sustainable option for economic growth and environmental preservation throughout the country for many generations to come.

Mitigating the Con's, Emphasizing the Pro's
In many ways, ecotourism is a desirable model for achieving environmental prosperity and environmental sustainability.  However, in Costa Rica’s case, the ecotourism model has to be seriously revisited and revised if it is to be beneficial.  The following suggestions provide a working framework for how the Costa Rican government can initiate the process of practicing ecotourism more sustainably.

Better Management   Key to the success of ecotourism in Costa Rica is better implementation, monitoring, and evaluation around this practice. Specifically, there needs to be the establishment of a system that considers all aspects of ecotourism ranging from the biophysical to the social.  To that end, more scientific studies related to the biodiversity of the parks, habitat and its disruption, park carrying capacities, pollution, visitation, and other similar issues will need to be conducted.  Similar studies related to income generation and economic development activities, as a result of ecotourism, must also be carried out on a regular basis in order to determine if local economic growth is indeed occurring.  Likewise, the government, in collaboration with different governmental and non-governmental agencies, needs to identify issues regarding ecotourism’s impact on the cultural practices and lifestyles of local communities, to assess and hopefully forestall any negative consequences.

Increased Funding   To be sure, many of these measures will require additional funding. To that end, the Costa Rican government needs to develop more creative ways to generate income for the maintenance of the parks system and for other issues such as the training of park rangers and staff.  One way the government could accomplish this goal is to set up a more comprehensive differential fee and admissions structure to parks .   Such a system is based on the principle of charging a higher admission rate to foreign tourists, who typically comprise the majority of visitors to the parks.  While it is being employed in some parks, such a system is not presently universal.  Standardizing the system would be justified on the grounds that it is largely the presence of foreign visitors which necessitates comprehensive park management.  Therefore, they should be required to pay for it.  Such a structure would also be desirable since it keeps the costs of admission for local residents low, thereby enabling them to also enjoy the parks’ natural beauty.

Stricter Standards   In addition to funding the parks better, the government needs to develop a more stringent set of standards and regulations regarding the practice of ecotourism.  For example, within certain protected areas, only visitors with trained guides should be allowed to enter.  Similarly, in other areas, the government should restrict the number of visitors that can enter the park each day.  Establishing such regulations would require a better understanding of the carrying capacity of each park within the system, which is something that the managing bodies should work towards.

The government could also set up a ratings system for all self-proclaimed ecotourism operators.  Such a system would essentially assign a rating to each operator, indicating its level of environmental sensitivity in its operations. This kind of system would provide a means for potential ecotourists to better align themselves with tour operators that are conducting ecotourism in a proper way.  Hopefully, such a system would result in more responsible ecotourism to fragile environments.

With regard to local economic development, the government needs to increase the involvement of local communities within various ecotourism enterprises. Studies in some parts of Costa Rica, and in other parts of the world such as Nepal, have proven that where local communities are actively involved in ecotourism, there is an evident increase in standards of living.  No doubt, the sociocultural impacts of ecotourism are not quite as severe, as well.

Development of Alternatives Eventually, the Costa Rican government will have to develop other sectors of tourism and the economy, thereby generating income.  In order to do this, the government can capitalize on its existing reputation as a prime tourist destination with one of the most stable economies in the region.  Developing other sources of income will mean less dependence on ecotourism as one of the primary means for economic development.  That will translate into less strain on the national protected areas.  Moreover, it will mean that more money can be spent on creating programs and policies to preserve the natural environment in other parts of the country.  Finally, the generation of other kinds of income will hopefully reduce the need of activities such as lumbering which have led to the deforestation of the majority of the country.

To be sure, in order to achieve all of these goals, the Costa Rican government will have to more earnestly commit itself to the environmental preservation component of ecotourism.  While it is evident that the government has seen the economic development value of ecotourism, it has not been as effective in supporting the preservation ideals inherent in the concept, as illustrated by the inadequate funding and management of the national parks system.  Basically, the government needs to start making preservation as high a priority as economic development.  Just as it spends significant money to promote ecotourism, it needs to spend greater money to support the infrastructure that supports the practice (i.e. the national parks).  Additionally, the government will need to take the lead in orchestrating cooperation between a wide range of actors including itself, NGO’s (especially environmental groups), tour operators, and local communities.  Moreover, all of these players will need to recognize the limitations of ecotourism.  However, with the sincere and earnest commitment and stewardship of all of these groups, ecotourism can become a means for economic development and environmental sustainability in Costa Rica, both now and into the future.


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