Ecotourism Costa Rica – The Impacts on Three Guides

It is hard to deny that ecotourism has benefited the nation of Costa Rica in a great number of ways. 

The ecotourism boom began in the mid-1980s and really took off in the 1990s with 800,000 foreigners visiting the Central American nation in 1995, 1.03 million in 1999 and an astounding 2.34 million in 2012, the last year for which there are accurate statistics.  Those high 2012 numbers generated $2.4 billion USD in income for Costa Rica.

For tourists coming to Costa Rica, nearly half put their money into ecotourism activities such as hiking, bird and wildlife watching, seeing the country’s vast array of flowers or visiting rural communities.

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Birdwatching in the Savegre Watershed

Ecotourism has helped Costa Rican economic growth to chug along at a healthy 4.7% per year on average since the early 1990s. As of 1999, the tourism economy brings more foreign money into Costa Rica than bananas, pineapples and coffee exports combined. Since 2010 tourism has been more than 5.5% of Costa Rica’s entire GDP. Costa Rica has a diversified economy, relatively low-crime, political stability, a high literacy rate and a life expectancy matching the most economically developed of nations.

The environmental benefit has likewise been real. Costa Rica rates fifth in the world on the Environmental Performance Index and brags an impressive 25% of its land under some sort of protective status.  “Revenue retention” programs makes sure entrance fees to parks go to benefit those parks.  Contracts with local communities have allowed restaurants, arts and crafts shops and employment generating attractions to flourish. Indigenous communities have found the ecotourism can help them keep legal title to their land while ensuring that many of their traditional practices can thrive.

(when visiting Costa Rica you can be sure to make your dollars have the most positive impact possible by supporting businesses certified under the Certification for Sustainable Tourism Program)

Quetzal Best1 001 Ecotourism Costa Rica   The Impacts on Three Guides

The Quetzal. Thousands of people come to Costa Rica each year just to see this rare bird.

But beyond the numbers, how has the ecotourism boom affected the quality of life of individual Costa Ricans who work in that economy? I interviewed three guides I met while traveling around the country in December 2013.

Here is what they had to say.

(NOTE: Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translation done by myself. Any and all mistakes are entirely my fault)

~ ~ ~

Rosa Fernandez, Guayabo

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Rosa Fernandez, my excellent guide to Guayabo National Monument.

“When I started my work as a guide in 2000 I had no idea what I was getting into.  I was just moved by my own strong interest to explain to people visiting this archaeological site that is here that these are not just stones.

Before being a guide I sold souvenirs outside the Guayabo National Monument leather goods with the designs of petroglyphs, monoliths, flora and fauna and I always explained to people buying something about the meaning of the designs and hence people increasingly asked more and more about the features of the place so I trained as a guide.

At that time did not charge for my tour but as my knowledge grew people started to tip that and that motivated me even more. I saw the guiding as a source job to help my family because in my town there are not many options for employment – especially for women – other than farm work and that is not well paid.

I’ve always been interested in flora and fauna and to talk about it is just wonderful.  I can leave a positive message about nature conservation. Part of my goal is to discuss and engage about the environmental part of pre-Columbian history so it is definitely the perfect mix.

I always say that guava, for example, is a complete package offering culture and nature. For indigenous people the forest was the pharmacy, grocery store and a natural school. And for me whenever I learn about the natural history of an individual species there is always something miraculous to be found.

I love to share with people and I have learned a lot with my visitors about their way of thinking and customs. I learn a little of their countries and about their contact with nature. Talking about our indigenous societies delightes me as it certainly represent our true identity and national origin.  I emphasize this, in my tours with children from the schools who visit us. Usually I close my tours with this sentence ” A people without history is like a tree without roots, a people without being reminded of thier history dies. ”

Costa Rican tourism is one of the most important sources of income. Field guide are like me are general guides who have more opportunity for economic growth. Speaking other languages ​​makes your chances higher.  Its hard to support a family on a part-time job but I like what I do so I am selling some souvenirs also to make it work.

I’ve been learning English for three years and that has helped me a lot since I can tend to foreigners who visit us and do tours to other companies as Explornatura but I need more practice, learning a second language has not been easy for me, but that depends on me to have a better job prospects.

Being a guide is my passion so as far as I can see I will stay doing this or in a field related to tourism.”

~ ~ ~

Gustavo Vega, San Jose

“My relationship with the ecotourism industry is crucial because in addition to transporting customers to their

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Gustavo Vega at La Selva Biological Research Station

destinations during the trip I work to provide information about what they are seeing and experiencing. Costa Rica is a country with great variety of flora and fauna that make the landscape a wonderful thing to admire.

“Our training as guides made us aware of the cultural diversity of our country. During the tours I conduct daily to various destinations I have time to admire and appreciate what we possess as a nation.  It has helped to make me more proud of my country.

“The tourism sector continue to be the country’s second economic input and many families like mine benefit from a reliable, decent job. Over the past few years working in this sector I’ve come to really enjoy my job and I plan to continue in this profession.”

~ ~ ~

Rodolfo Alvarado, La Selva Biological Research Station

“My work is quite interesting because despite working in a biological station I help develop the natural history program for incoming tourists. That program makes for a unique type of tourism where visitors who come from a wide range of interests and knowledge get what they are looking for. Just like with students from universities, each tourist group is different and that makes each experience richer for the visitor.

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Crossing the Rio Puerto Viejo at La Selva Biological Research Station

For many years my dad and brothers worked in areas related to nature (Organization for Tropical Studies and La Selva Bio Station) so I grew up in a situation conducive to having good taste for nature and the environment.

My job requires constant learning. I spend my work days with experts from all different fields of natural science which keeps me to keep in touch with the people who generate the information so we guides are able to have new and first hand scientific information.

In my case most tourism generates income in my family. But economy is not the only positive part. For the families of Costa Rica there is importance in sustainability. Tourism generates conservation and conservation generates tourism.

I would like to continue in the field of tourism but in a more aggressive form that allows me to give back to the environment with an environmental education program directed to the communities where I help develop ecotourism.”

Things Aren’t All Rosy However

Still, it is dangerous to be pollyanish about Costa Rica. Ecotourism hasn’t solved all the issues facing the nation and has actually caused a number of new problems like child sex-trafficking, destructive coastal developments, sewage treatment problems as well as challenges with the sheer number of people coming to the country – and of course there are always those who want to take advantage of the tourism for short-term profit via overdevelopment.

Also, despite the impressive numbers listed above, not everyone has benefited from this tourism economy.  Many communities complain that they have simply been left out of the tourist boom.  Others note that the tourism economy has actually disrupted small economies and resulted in lower paying service sector jobs for people who were previously more gainfully employed.

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Human-watching in the Savegre Watershed. Don’t mess it up….

Costa Rica’s unemployment rate also remains stubbornly high. Costa Rican macro-economic policies stifle local businesses under a burden of high taxes and over-regulation while dishing out tax and regulatory benefits galore to multinational corporations. Without altering those policies that benefit the elite at the expense of the majority Costa Rican poverty numbers will continue to stagnate no matter how well the tourism economy chugs along.

Environmentally it has to be said that many of Costa Rica’s national parks are suffering visitor over-capacity, deforestation still occurs at alarming rates in some areas and Costa Rica is one of the largest users of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in Latin America.

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Braulio-Carillo National Park

Ecotourism Costa Rica: Don’t Mess It Up

So yes. There is work to do. But the fact that Costa Rica had the wisdom to abolish its army in 1948 and stands out as the most stable democracy in Latin America attests to a bright future.

Costa Rica aims to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021. Citizens plant millions of trees a year. Tens of thousands of Costa Ricans have had their quality of life improved through ecotourism and still more need to be included in the benefits of that economy. If they aren’t included Costa Rica’s grand experiment will prove only a marginal success if not a failure.

If managed correctly, Costa Rica can hold on to its status as one of the top ecotourism destinations in the world.

~

Sources:

- Weaver, D.B. (1996) [1998]. Ecotourism in the Less Developed World. London: Cab International. p. 52.

The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism in Costa Rica 

Benefits to local communities – particularly indigenous people

Untamed Path: Benefits of Ecotourism

Sustainable Ecotourism in Costa Rica: The Monteverde Example

Ecoturismo y turismo médico, otros ‘clusters’

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 Check out these other excellent Ecotourism Costa Rica (#EcoCostaRica) articles:

Who is Protecting The Jungles of Costa Rica?

Lankester Botanical Garden

Wildlife Safari in Tortuguero National Park

19 Responses to Ecotourism Costa Rica – The Impacts on Three Guides

  1. Jessie Voigts February 11, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

    I love this, and that you talked with the people that are the most invested in it. Bravo!

  2. Ann Creed February 12, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    Hello Jim..Another GREAT article on eco tourism in Costa Rica! However, Cost Rica does not exactly have a low crime rate. The bars you see on all the windows and guards stationed in front of the Mc Donalds and the Banks, and other businesses…well…I lived there for 8 years and I know first hand.
    Keep up the excellent photos and articles on eco tourism In Costa Rica. I really enjoy them all. http://www.costaricalearn.com

  3. Therese February 11, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    This is such an interesting take – to actually interview guides and tell their stories is truly fascinating. Wonderful to look through their eyes at what’s going on and how it all impacts them and their lives. I’ve visited Costa Rica many times in past years, but nothing too recent, so I’m anxious to return and measure the changes from what I saw ‘way back then’ to what you and others are reporting about now. Thanks for taking us on the journey with you.

    • Jim O'Donnell February 12, 2014 at 6:32 am #

      Terry, thank you for your comment. I’m very curious how these large socio-economic movements impact people on the ground. The individual lives. While I was there I didnt have the time to do any sort of exhaustive study. I’d love to interview a wider range of people to see both the positive and negative impacts of the ecotourism movement. That said, my impression is that the good outweights the bad by far. I havent been able to find detailed employment statistics. I’d be curious to see that too.

  4. Jim O'Donnell February 12, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    Ann, I think you bring up a very good point. When writing that I looked at crime stats from other Central American countries and should have written "comparatively". In fact I will put that in there. You are correct. In fact, in the past few years, several Americans have been murdered in CR. That said, I felt very safe there, even in San Jose.

  5. Jim O'Donnell February 12, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    I would have liked to look at it all alot closer Jessie. Its very interesting to see how the whole process has impacted individuals.

  6. Bret @ Green Global Travel February 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Excellent work here, Jim! Love the well-researched statistical data on the front end, as well as the more personal insights into ecotourism you got from interviewing the three guides. Also appreciate the fact that your balanced piece shows some of the downsides of the ecotourism boom, because it reminds us that ecotourism can have negative impact when it’s not well-managed. All in all, it’s one of my favorite #EcoCostaRica stories to date… and I wish I’d thought of the concept! LOL

    • Jim O'Donnell February 14, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks Bret! I’d really like to get out and get some more interviews with other guides. I love all the individual stories and how they highlight the individual points within the macro-movement of eco-tourism…so to speak. My impression is that Costa Rica needs to be careful and thoughtful now as it goes forward. There are alot of positives to be had but also so much to be lost.

  7. Turtle February 12, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    Fantastic! I love hearing from the guides on the ground about how ecotourism has impacted them… but then you’ve got some good points there about the general effect it is having on the country. It seems it’s very hard to have any large positive change without some negatives being created as well. That’s just the way humans are. So the key thing to look at is how citizens and governments then react. In the case of Costa Rica, I am relatively optimistic.

    • Jim O'Donnell February 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

      I agree. There always seems to be winners and losers in these sorts of things. The question is, how far can the arrangements go to include as many as possible? I think Costa Rica can go further. Things like the proposed airport in the Osa is a bad idea and leaves me concerned which way they will go.

  8. Matthew Karsten February 16, 2014 at 5:36 am #

    What a well thought-out article Jim. The insights from Costa Rican guides were particularly interesting. Great idea.

  9. Taos Rag February 17, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    Jim – In 1948 (year of my birth) Costa Rica disbanded its army. What they did with the money was to have universal health care for all Costa Ricans. And not the bull-shit bandaid we are implementing that keeps the rip-off insurance companies in the loop. We could certainly learn from these Central Americans. This is why they have a high life expectancy.

  10. Taos Rag February 17, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    Jim – In 1948 (year of my birth) Costa Rica disbanded its army. What they did with the money was to have universal health care for all Costa Ricans. And not the bull-shit bandaid we are implementing that keeps the rip-off insurance companies in the loop. We could certainly learn from these Central Americans. This is why they have a high life expectancy.

  11. Mike Martin February 17, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    I like to remind people of the Minoans. You don't need to warmonger.

  12. Mike Martin February 17, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    I like to remind people of the Minoans. You don't need to warmonger.

    • Jim O'Donnell February 18, 2014 at 8:25 am #

      Mike. I dont quite understand your comment. Could you please clarify? Thanks!

  13. Marc d'Entremont February 23, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    Incredible photo of the Quetzal (and of course well written!) Having not traveled to Costa Rica but having just returned from Nicaragua it’s interesting to read about one country in the midst of a tourism/expat boom and another just at the beginning. 2013 saw 800,000 tourist in Nicaragua – their highest number yet. I don’t know where it’s heading but they do have the same positive factors – second lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere (believe it or not!), friendly beyond belief, great food, etc., etc., yet second poorest in the W.H. It’ll be interesting to witness/experience Nicaragua’s development, and I plan to do so.

    • Jim O'Donnell February 25, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

      Thank you Marc! I’ve been curious about Nicaragua for a long time. Who did you go with? Panama is on the same track. They finally are seeing the benefits ecotourism has brought to Costa Rica and are thinking about how they can access that market. What worries me is that if it all develops too fast, the very reasons that people go to places like Panama, CR and now Nicaragua will be destroyed. Tourism can do alot of great things but it can also cause so many problems.

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