"Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints and Waste Nothing but Time"

TED Case Studies
Number 648, January, 2002

The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Julie Dasenbrock

I. General Information
II. Legal Cluster
III. Bio-Geographic Cluster
IV. Trade Cluster
V. Environment Cluster
VI. Other Clusters

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

Ecotourism is currently the fastest growing sector of the world's largest service industry, tourism. While environmentalists are weighing the pros and cons of ecotourism, many developing nations are looking to cash in on the growing demand for this new trend in travel. The poor nations of Central America, with its cloud forests, active volcanoes, and wide variety of flora and fauna, appear ideally situated to take advantage of the growing demand for ecotourism with Costa Rica leading the pack. Although Costa Rica has been lauded for its development of a lucrative, yet environmentally friendly, ecotourism industry, economists and enivoronmentalists alike debate whether or not an economy centered around tourism can be sustained. The idea behind ecotourism is to preserve a nation's natural resources while profiting from them. However, in this quest for profits, some nations, including Costa Rica, have allowed their ecotourism industry to become ecologically damaging. By allowing unlimited numbers of tourists into protected areas and encouraging the construction of high-rise hotels and resorts over small-scale toursim development, ecotourism industries, such as Costa Rica's, could be on the path to self-destruction.

2. Description

As avid travelers bore of hotel lined beaches and crowded theme parks they turn to the more exotic adventures offered by ecotourism. This relatively new trend in tourism takes travelers to remote corners of the globe exposing them to diverse wildlife and cultures that have been developing in isolation from the modernized world. Although a relatively new trend in travel, ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry - the world's largest service industry - with an average annual growth rate of 20 to 30 percent. (Egan, 2001). This incredible growth is due in part to the increasing number of environmentally conscious consumers who have taken to ecotourism because it combines an exotic travel experience with the self-satisfying notion of being socially and environmentally responsible. (Garen, 2000, 222). Developing nations, in particular, have been eager to take advantage of this rising demand for ecotourism, as they find that preserving their natural resources may be more profitable than clearing the land for farming, logging, mining, or industrial development. Costa Rica especially has taken advantage of the ecotourism boom and the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica has increased steadily for years. (see Table 1).
Table 1
Number of Visitors to Costa Rica
Tourism Revenue (Millions of Dollars)
(American Embassy, San Josť, 2001)    

Although ecotravel appears to be a flawless way to preserve our world's most precious resources while bringing jobs to the developing world, many still debate the long-term sustainability of ecotourism. These debates over the environmental, economic, and cultural benefits and drawbacks of ecotourism take center stage in Costa Rica, one of the world's leading ecotourism providers. In recent years Costa Rica has developed one of the world's most successful ecotourism industries and has been praised for its attention to conservation. However, although the small Central American nation began it's ecotourism industry with small scale development and attention to conservation, some environmentalists worry that as profits have grown, environmental protection has become a secondary consideration. Therefore, while Costa Rica's tourism industry undoubtedly has been economically lucrative, its continued benefits to the environment are questionable. In this manner, a look at the successes and failures of Costa Rica's ecotourism industry can lend insight into similar struggles taking place throughout the Third World, as nations attempt to produce rapid economic growth without sacrificing their natural resources and cultures.

What is Ecotourism?
Although there are several competing definitions of ecotourism, a commonly accepted explanation is it is "purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment; taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem; producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people." (Garen, 2000, 221). Under this definition, ecotravel could range from a day-trip to a wildlife preserve to a week camping in a rainforest. (McLauren, 1998, 97). Because ecotravel can encompass such a wide variety of activities, the potential for corruption and deception in the form of the "Greenwashing" of environmentally damaging travel services, is considerable. As environmentalist Deborah McLauren describes it; at its best, ecotourism can help protect a delicate ecosystem while providing economic benefits to locals, and at its worst ecotravel can be, "environmentally destructive, economically exploitative, and culturally insensitive "greenwashed" travel." (McLauren, 1998, 98). For instance, in some brochures and websites a high-rise, high maintence hotel can appear as "eco-friendly" as a small, low-waste lodge.

Why Ecotourism? The Case of Costa Rica
While many Third World nations are focusing on rapid industrialization and urbanization, Costa Rica has turned to ecotourism as its key to economic development. Although a small country about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica has incredible biodiversity with scenic beaches, lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes, and exotic wildlife. The nation's tourist industry brings in about 1 million visitors annually and generates approximately $1 billion a year, making it Costa Rica's second largest source of income after silicon chip production. (Dulude, 2000). In terms of bringing in foreign currency, tourism is second only to the electronic components sector led by INTEL, and it earns more foreign exchange than the nation's former staple exports, bananas and coffee, combined. (Country Commercial Guide, 2001). Costa Rica's tourism industry has excelled so quickly for several reasons.

Costa Rica has been able to develop a solid ecotourism industry and capitalize on their natural resources. However, although Costa Rica's ecotourism sector has received support and praise from environmentalists, politicians, and economists, not to mention avid travelers, there are many who believe that ecotravel has been overrated as an environmentally sound development tool. One of the chief criticisms is that most ecotourism projects are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable in the long-run. Blame for this shortsightedness is often placed on developers or government officials who become more focused on turning large profits than on conservation. While Costa Rica's ecotourism industry has largely been excluded from such criticisms, its development has also suffered environmental pitfalls, especially in the industry's later stages of growth after the market proved to be a high profit earner. For example, the Papagayo project will turn Costa Rica's Bay of Papagayo on the Pacific Coast into a mega-resort area with high-rise hotels, golf courses, and malls. This development project deviates from the nation's typical encouragement of small small scale construction by locals over resort development by foreign investors, and critics argue that it signals the end of truly sustainable ecotourism in Costa Rica. (McLauren, 1998, 105). In the following analysis of Costa Rica's ecotourism industry we will look at the costs and benefits its development has had on the nation's environment, economy, and culture.

Table 2
The Main Sources of Travelers to Costa Rica
Percentage of Total Number of Tourists
1. US 48.7%
2. Canada 5.3%
3. Colombia 4.8%
4. Mexico 4.1%
5. Spain 3.2%
6. Germany 2.9%
(American Embassy, San Josť, 2001)  

Ecotourism and the Environment
While the success of any ecotourism venture relies on the condition of a nation's ecosystem, some environmentalists believe that the economic benefits ecotourism are not sufficient motivation for true environmental conservation. For instance, while Eva Garen believes that the ideals behind ecotourism are laudable, she claims in the end ecotourism does more harm than good. (Garen, 2000, 222). Deborah McLauren offers a more radical critique of ecotourism, arguing that ecotravel is an oxymoron since travel, at its base, is detrimental to the environment. She sites the fossil fuels used and pollution that jet airplanes emit as evidence that international travel and environmental protection are mutually exclusive by their very nature. (McLauren, 1998, 97-98). However, despite its inadequacies, ecotourism offers one of the most environmentally friendly travel opportunities available, and perhaps should not be discarded so quickly. Claims that air travel accelerates global warming will not stop a traveler's desire to explore the world, and a trip to a rain forest in Costa Rica is overall much more environmentally sound than a week stay at a 4,000 room beach resort in Cancun. Thus, while it is important to identify the environmentally harmful aspects of ecotourism development, the industry should not be disregarded outright as a valid means of environmental protection.

Environmental Benefits
The environmental benefits of ecotourism development in Costa Rica have been far reaching. Since 1963 when the first environmental protection reserve was created, Costa Rica's conservation initiatives have expanded to include 70 protected areas or national parks covering 21% of the nation's territory, as well as the creation of Costa Rica's National Park Service in 1970. (Weaver, 1998, 87). It can be deduced that this incredible increase in the area marked for conservation would not have been possible without the economic incentives of ecotourism. As locals were relocated and logging industries shut down, Costa Ricans were able to turn to the tourism industry for employment. This would not have been possible if Costa Rica had adhered to former protectionist measures that tended to wall off protected areas from the public. (Garen, 2000, 223). Besides offering an economic incentive for conservation, ecotourism has benefited Costa Rica's environment in several other ways, detailed below.

Environmental Costs
While the environmental benefits of ecotourism are rather clear cut, the costs are much more subtle and sometimes difficult to detect. For that reason governments sponsoring ecotourism development must be vigilant in the protection of their national parks and meticulous in safeguarding against corruption. By and large Costa Rica has been responsible in the development of ecotourism, but there is room for improvement. (Lizano, 1997).

Ecotravel may be accelerating even faster than the tourism industry as a whole, leaving some environmentalists wondering if ecotourism development is being done carefully enough. (Fennell, 1999, 152). Eva Garen argues that most programs are created by elites and foreigners who pay more attention to profits than conservation and are not adequately analyzing an area's ecosystem before going ahead with development. (Garen, 2000, 228). However, before condemning a nation's entire ecotourism industry, it is important to distinguish between the problems that apply to actual ecotourism projects and the problems of travel service providers that deceive the public by mistakenly identifying themselves as ecotourism. (Weaver, 1998, 22). For instance, the problems facing Costa Rica's ecotourism industry stem chiefly from the latter, which largely can be eradicated by a stricter certification program. Therefore, discounting the environmental benefits of Costa Rica's ecotourism industry would be a mistake since the nation's conservation policies are far better than they would be with any other industry development.

Economic Costs and Benefits
Ecotravel has become a very lucrative sector of the service industry, but some of those who study the industry worry that the economic benefits of ecotourism may not be reaching the local community. For instance, B. Wheeller believes that "pure" ecotourism is incompatible with business because every form of tourism entails an element of exploitation. He argues that companies are motivated by short-term profits, while tourists are looking for mainly a self-satisfying vacation and local communities are seeking to obtain the maximum economic benefit from tourists. (Weaver, 1998, 22-23). Similarly, Deborah McLauren claims she has never come across a true ecotourism project that could pay for itself, proving that the industry is not economically sustainable. (McLauren, 1998, 101). However, P. Wight is more optimistic about the economic potential of even the most environmentally focused forms of ecotourism, stating that with careful monitoring and planning, the problems cited by Wheeller and McLauren can be overcome. (Weaver, 1998, 23). In this light, this section will look at where the business side of ecotourism can and has gone wrong in Costa Rica.

Economic Benefits
The expansion of ecotourism has undeniably boosted Costa Rica's overall economic development with tourism revenues last year totaling $1.1 billion - an incredible figure for such a small nation. (State Department, 2001). Ecotourism has brought employment opportunities to often previously disadvantaged rural populations, and a significant amount of the industry remains in the form of small scale projects that can be funded by locals. Currently, 75% of all licensed tour agencies are owned by Costa Ricans and 85% of all of Costa Rica's hotels have fewer than 50 rooms. (Weaver, 1998, 84-85). Besides these general economic benefits to local communities and the Costa Rican economy in general, ecotourism has contributed to the nation's financial well-being in other manners. For example, although the Papagayo Project may be criticized by environmentalists, continuing development of the resort area is bringing in a lot of foreign investment and creating thousands of jobs for Costa Ricans.

Economic Costs
While one of the standards of ecotourism is to generate domestic employment and economic opportunities for locals, if not carefully monitored, profits can leak out of these regions into the hands of elites and wealthier nations. In addition, if development projects are monopolized by rich businessmen looking for short term economic gain, both the local environment and peoples could pay the price. (Garen, 2000). While Costa Rica's ecotourism industry has been careful to avoid this pitfall thus far, as the industry accelerates, more and more development contracts may be awarded to foreign corporations and wealthy investors, which can lead to profit leakage and exploitation.

All industries are prone to budget problems, exploitation, instability, and poor management, and ecotourism is not an exception. Careful regulation is needed to ensure that the most lucrative positions are not monopolized by foreigners and elites, or the consequences could undermine the environmental, as well as the economic, goals of ecotourism. For example as Garen points out, if locals feel excluded from the tourism market, they will have no incentive to participate in conservation. (Garen, 2000, 221). One safeguard is to set legal limits on the amount of jobs and revenue that must remain in the local community. Although such regulations can be viewed as unjust protectionism or a hindrance to economic development, these consequences can be tolerated if the end result is an ecotourism industry that is both environmentally and economically sustainable and culturally sensitive.

Costa Rica has developed an environmentally sound and lucrative ecotourism industry that has allowed it to protect its vast natural treasures while bringing economic opportunities to typically disadvantaged rural areas. While the industry has faced difficulties in reconciling its environmental ideals with the growing demand for ecotourism and the temptation for profit-seeking, the environmental and economic benefits of ecotourism have far outweighed these drawbacks. As Martha Honey, the author of Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who owns Paradise? and former resident of Costa Rica, puts it, "They do ecotourism very well in Costa Rica." (Egan, 2001).

Given the lofty environmental goals and social ideals of ecotourism, it is easy for skeptics to criticize the industry, claiming that the world's delicate ecosystems cannot be adequately protected by a profit oriented business. These critics may argue that wildlife reserves and natural areas should be strictly preserved, rather than open to the public. However, although such conservation goals are laudable, they are not realistic. As Honey explains, "We're not going to stop the movement by people to the last unvisited places on the planet." (Egan, 2001). Once this fact is accepted, environmentalists can look for ways that tourism and conservation can coexist. Although ecotourism may not be able to preserve these untouched areas as they would if human contact were prohibited, it can help protect them from the dangers of destructive agricultural practices, mining, and industrialization. The flora and fauna may be bothered, but at least it will not be destroyed.

Developing countries face tough choices in the race to join the modernized world and frequently environmental resources are seen more as tools of progress than treasures to be guarded. However, as Costa Rica's ecotourism industry has proven, conservation and economic growth can go hand in hand. The overhead costs of training, infrastructure construction, and promotion can be a burden on poor nations, and the risks can be considerable; but the growth potential and environmental benefits of ecotourism make the investment worth the while in the long run. Development of ecotourism industries have sprung up throughout Central America and the developing world in general, and I think this development trend is a positive one for our environment and our people.

3. Related Cases

For more on the effects of Tourism and Ecotourism on cultures and environments check out:


For more on Costa Rica look at:

4. Author and Date:

Julie Dasenbrock

November 7, 2001

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and In Progress

The General Agreement on Trade in Services
As an active member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Costa Rica's tourism industry is bound by the tenants of that body's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). While Costa Rica has generally been open to the general principals of the GATS, and WTO in general, this section will discuss the aspects of the nation's ecotourism industry that could be in conflict with the general rules and regulations of the GATS.

Environmentalism vs. Trade Liberalization
The GATS, like many WTO agreements, encourages trade liberalization through such policies as privatization, cuts in government spending, market regulation, and free trade. These trade guidelines give big business and international investors a lot of influence in the development of Third World economies, which some environmentalists believe could be detrimental to the conservation ideals of ecotourism. The issue of privatization of national parks is one particular area in which the principles of ecotourism can clash with the tenants of the GATS. For instance, most environmentalists agree that the conservation efforts required by sustainable ecotourism programs necessitate strict government regulation of national parks. However, government owned parks may not always be economically efficient, leading some trade liberalization advocates to argue that the less profitable protected areas be turned over to the private sector. (Fennell, 1999, 165). While as of yet privatization has not been a huge issue in Costa Rica, if the recent downturn in the tourism industry due to the terrorist attacks of September 11th continues, it may become a topic of debate in the future, as some of the nation's less popular parks face budget crises.

The National Treatment Principle
Under the national treatment principle of the GATS, member nations must extend equal investment opportunities to foreign investors as domestic service providers. Although some exceptions to this rule are permitted, some of Costa Rica's zoning laws and nationality requirements could be construed as unfair trade practices. (http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/serv_e/gatsqa_e.htm) For instance, Costa Rica uses local ownership and residency requirements to maintain domestic control of the tourism industry, especially in the development of beachfront tourism projects. (Country Commercial Guide, American Embassy San Jose, 2000). Given the importance of tourism to the nation's economy, it is no wonder that the government would want to enact some limited protectionist measures in order to protect the industry from foreign control. However, to truly keep with GATS regulations these investment limitations would not be in place, which would leave local small businesses and the informal economic sector of the tourist industry in danger of extinction.

Eco-Labelling or Discrimination?
Another area in which Costa Rica's ecotourism could be called in violation of GATS regulations is in eco-labelling of environmentally friendly hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and other businesses associated with tourism. These labels are to protect against the "greenwashing" businesses that misuse an environmental label in order to attract ecotourists. One program that Costa Rica to avoid uses "greenwashing" is a government-run accreditation program that rates hotels, tours, and other travel services by their environmental awareness. (Fennell, 1999, 152). However, if these accreditation programs favor domestic over foreign businesses, they could be viewed as an unfair trade barrier under the GATS.

The accusation that environmental protection programs are actually excuses for protectionism is not an uncommon one among members of the WTO. However, the trade organization has been reluctant to settle disputes over environmental protection, which it believes should be settled within multilateral environmental agreements or other organizations. This reluctance reveals the WTO's desire to remain a primarily trade and economic oriented institution, and leave environmental issues to NGOs. But, with issues of environmental protection becoming further and further entwined in trade and globalization, this may not be a role the WTO can avoid for much longer.

6. Forum and Scope: Costa Rica and Multilateral

7. Decision Breadth:

8. Legal Standing: Law

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: North America

b. Geographic Site: Southern North America

c. Geographic Impact: Costa Rica

10. Sub-National Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: Tropical

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Import Standards

Environmental Protection or Protectionism?
In order to keep their beaches relatively unspoiled and safe for the native wildlife, Costa Rica's has specific environmental regulations on the development of beach front property. For example, to avoid the negative ecological and aesthetic consequences of condo-lined beaches similar to those of many American beaches, beachfront property in Costa Rica is considered public property for a distance of 200 meters from the high tide mark. In addition, unlike American beaches, private ownership of beach plots, used by some hotels to allow exclusive access to their patrons, is not allowed in Costa Rica, and the public has complete access to the beach area within the first 50 meters of the shoreline. The next 150 meters are restricted, but temporary property permits are available if the developer presents an acceptable "regulatory plan" for the land. These regulations help protect Costa Rica's beaches from the possible ill effects, on both the environment and local businesses, of rampant foreign investment. (http://www.incostarica.net/docs/commercialguide, Oct. 3, 2001). If the nation's valuable beachfront property were left unprotected from these "import standards," undoubtedly hotel and restaurant chains would now line Costa Rica's now untamed beaches, putting the local tourist industry out of business and doing irrevocable damage to the ecosystem

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Direct

The "import" limitations Costa Rica places on investment in its tourism industry have a direct impact on the trade in travel services.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes, Tourism

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes, Habitat Change

15. Trade Product Identification: Ecotourism

Ecotourism, encompasses more than the upkeep of parks and lodges, but as with other tourism industries, extends into sometimes little thought of service providers such as taxi drivers, street vendors, waiters, and shopkeepers, hotel owners, and airports, among others.

16. Economic Data

International trade in travel services has been on the rise in recent years (up 6% since 1990) and is now the largest service industry worldwide. (WTO, Chart IV.17). Ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of this industry, with an average annual growth rate of 20 to 30 percent. (Egan, 2001).According to WTO data, travel services make up 56% of Latin America's service exports, more than any other commercial service industry. (WTO, 2000, Table IV.87). Although Costa Rica's travel services industry may be much smaller than its overseas competitors, this small nation has become a popular destination for an increasing number of overseas travelers. (See Table 1) According to State Department statistics, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica has shot up from 780,000 in 1996 to more than 1.1 million in 2000. Last year, tourism brought in $1.1 billion, and since 1997 the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica has increased by at least 6% annually. In terms of bringing in foreign currency, tourism is second only to the electronic components sector led by INTEL, and it earns more foreign exchange than the nation's former staple exports, bananas and coffee, combined. (www.state.gov/r/pa/bgn/index.cfm?docid=2019, Oct. 1, 2001)

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: Low: Despite Costa Rica's minimal protection policies, the nation's tourism industry is booming and foreign investment in tourism and ecotourism is on the rise.

18. Industry Sector: Services

19. Exporters and Importers: USA and Costa Rica

The developed nations of North America and Western Europe make up most of the top ten importers and exporters of travel services. The ease of travel throughout Europe, the many historical, cultural, and artistic treasures of this region, and the wealth of Western Europeans puts Europe at the top of international tourist trade. Western Europe enjoys the largest share in the global trade of travel services, and travel within Europe encompasses about 46% of total world imports and 43% of the exports of this service industry. (WTO, Chart IV.18).

Table 3a    
Top Tourism Exporters
Value of Industry(billions of $)
Share in World Exports %
1. United States 87.1 19.7
2. Spain 32.4 7.3
3. France 31.4 7.1
4. Italy 27.4 6.2
5. United Kingdom 23.1 5.2
6. Germany 16.7 3.8
7. China 14.1 3.2
8. Austria 11.1 2.5
9. Canada 10.2 2.3
10. Australia 8.2 1.8

Table 3b    
Top Tourism Importers
Value of Industry(billions of $)
Share in World Imports %
1. United States 62.0 15.1
2. Germany 48.4 11.7
3. United Kingdom 36.4 8.8
4. Japan 32.8 8.0
5. France 18.6 4.5
6. Italy 16.3 4.0
7. Hong Kong 13.2 3.2
8. Canada 11.3 2.8
9. Netherlands 11.2 2.7
10. China 10.9 2.6

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Habitat Change

Deforestation - Costa Rica's diverse flora and fauna are protected in 24 national parks, covering 21% of the country's territory (28% if the nation's indian reserves are included). However, not all of these conservation areas are completely under government control and 44%of the 3.2 million acres marked for protection remain in the hands of their previous residents and owners. Because enforcement of conservation efforts in these areas are minimal, some of these "protected" lands have been turned into undercover logging projects. (Dulude, 2000). Logging and agriculture have long depleted Costa Rica's forested regions (Table 4), and while the public purchase of the nation's forests is a step in the right direction, it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure that this centuries old deforestation trend does not continue.
Table 4
Time Period
% of territory covered by forest
Prior to Colonization 99.8%
1950 53%
1981 31%
1987 27%
(Weaver, 1998, 83)  

Endangered Species- According to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Costa Rica is home to five critically endangered species, 21 endangered species, and 31 species considered vulnerable (Table 5 ). Among these endangered wildlife are several species of turtle, various seabirds, and some primates. In addition, Costa Rica has 527 endangered plant species, which is about 4.3% of their total plant life. (International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN)).

Biodiversity - By and large ecotourism in Costa Rica has played a positive role in the protection of the nation's incredible biodiversity, endangered species, and lush forests. The expansion of protected areas and ecotourism's economic incentive for conservation has allowed Costa Rica to minimize environmentally degrading industries such as logging, poaching, and some types of agriculture. For instance, Tortuguero National Park is charged with protecting the nesting area of several endangered and vulnerable types of sea-turtle, some of which are unique to Costa Rica. These turtles and their eggs have long been a prized food source for local residents and were routinely poached before their nesting areas were protected. Although enforcement at Tortugeruo National Park is not as strict as it should be, the park has helped keep these turtle species from extinction. (Chant, 1992, 91-92).

While Costa Rica has had a laudable environmental track record thus far, if the government is not careful to regulate and closely monitor the development of its ecotourism industry the nation's biodiversity could be seriously injured. Ecotourism puts travelers in direct contact with sometimes endangered plant and animal species, and if a park or protected area does not have the funds to employ enough guards and tour guides, conservation rules can easily be broken as tourists may be tempted to physically contact or even harass the ecosystem's most delicate flora and fauna. (Garen, 2000, 225).

Table 5  
Level of Endangerment
Number of Species
Critically Endangered 5
Endangered 21
Vulnerable 31
Lower Risk - Conservation Dependent 3
Lower Risk - Near Threatened 49
Lower Risk - Least Concern 98

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Although a small country (about the size of West Virginia), Costa Rica has incredible biodiversity with 20 "ecological life zones" encompassing scenic beaches, lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes, and exotic wildlife. (Weaver, 1998, 81). Costa Rica is home to so many diverse environmental treasures, chiefly because of its geographic location and wide range of climatic and vegetation conditions. Costa Rica's chief ecological advantages enabling this diverse growth are:

  1. It's location between just 8 and 11 degrees north of the equator,
  2. Borders with both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, and
  3. Altitude ranges from sea level to 3,819 meters. (Chant, 1992, 90).

This diverse ecosystem of mountains and rainforests has created hospitable living conditions for:


22. Resource Impact and Effect: Low and Scale

23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and Twenty Years

24. Substitutes: Virtual Ecotourism

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:

The Tourism Impact
An unregulated influx of foreign tourists into Costa Rica's remote rural areas can have an effect on both the region's environment and culture. This tourism impact has been increasing steadily in Costa Rica, as the numbers of tourists going into protected areas has gone largely unregulated. David Harrison has rated the tourism impact of various nations by dividing the number of international tourist arrivals by the country's population and multiplying by 100. For 1988, Harrison calculated this figure to be 12.2 for Costa Rica. (1992, 12). If we use the same equation today, the tourist impact ratio more than doubles to 31.4, revealing that Costa Rica's tourism industry may be accelerating out of control. (see Table 6). For example, if the rapid growth in the number of foreign tourists visiting Costa Rica may not have allowed local residents in popular travel destination enough time to adapt to the change. David Fennell witnessed evidence of this phenomenon while on an ecotourism tour in Costa Rica. A tour guide led Fennell and the rest of a tour group to a secluded area in which they could view the miracle of a green-sea turtle laying her eggs. But, what was not part of the scheduled tour was that after the birth was over and the turtle began its way back to the ocean, the tour group caught site of a local man jumping on the turtle's back as part of a hunting ritual. What Fennell discovered then was that these turtles and their eggs have long been a staple part of the local diet, and that Costa Ricans living in this region had not adapted well to their government's new species protection efforts. This event shows the disjuncture between the Costa Rica that tourists experience and the Costa Rica that locals live in, and perhaps reveals that the progressive environmental ideals of the industry have not had the chance to catch up with cultural traditions.
Table 6
The Tourist Impact for Costa Rica
Foreign Visitors
Tourist Impact
2.87 Million
1.1 Million
3.5 Million

In addition, sustained contact with foreign visitors can have a variety of disruptive effects on local populations. For instance, some believe that the constant flow of wealthy, white American and European tourists into areas populated mainly by indigenous peoples and mestizos can enforce a "colonial mentality" that indigenous peoples are subservient to whites by their very nature. For instance, many lower class locals working in travel services find themselves cleaning up after, cooking for, and generally serving white, wealthy tourists. While for the tourist, being waited on is all part of a relaxing vacation experience, for locals this situation only emphasises the class, and possibly racial, differences between themselves and the foreign visitors. (Weaver, 1998, 59). Also, to accommodate tourists, resident populations may alter their traditional artistry to so-called "airport art" so that it is more acceptable to foreign travelers. The same can be true of customary foods, dances, and other traditions. (Harrison, 1992, 20). Finally, while one of the hopes of ecotourism is to advocate respect of other cultures, during this cultural exchange locals may pick up bad habits from the foreign visitors. The "ugly American" syndrome can rub off on a region's impressionable younger generations, and locals may develop a taste for conveniences of the modernized world which they cannot afford, or could pick up the wasteful behaviors of some of their less-environmentally aware visitors. (Weaver, 1998, 27).

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No

27. Rights: No

28. Relevant Literature

"50 year partnership between USAID and Costa Rica." USAID press release, 1996 http://www.usaid.gov/press/releases/960723.htm, Nov. 4, 2001.

Adams, Lisa J. "Panama Makes effort to Challenge Costa Rica as Rich Ecotourism Area." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 26, 2000.

Brenes, Daniel. "Coffee Crisis: Costa Rica Coffee Growers are Turning to Tourism as World Prices for Brew Sag." The Ottawa Citizen. March 17, 2001.

Chant, Sylvia. "Tourism in Latin America: perspectives from Mexico and Costa Rica." Tourism and the Less Developed Countries. Harrison, David ed. Belhaven Press: London, 1992. 85-101.

Country Commercial Guide, American Embassy San Jose, 2000. http://www.incostarica.net/docs/commercialguide, Oct. 1, 2001.

Dapin, Mark. "Eruptin Volcanoes and Poisonous Frogs are no Problem - It's the Tour Guides you Should be wary of." The London Times. April 21, 2001.

Dulude, Julie. "Trouble in Paradise: Critics say lack of Protection Endangers Costa Rica's Famed Nature Preserves." The San Francisco Chronicle. December 28, 2000.

"Endangered Plant Species." International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN). http://www.iucn.org/ October 15, 2001.

"Endangered Species Lists (Both Animal and Plant Life) for Costa Rica." Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). October 15, 2001. http://www.cites.org/

Egan, Timothy. "Uneasy Being Green: Tourism Runs Wild." The New York Times. May 20, 2001.

Fennell, David A. Ecotourism: An Introduction. Routledge: London, 1999.

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