Responsible tourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rica comes across as something of a Central American theme park. This tiny nation draws over a million tourists each year thanks to the abundant wildlife of its forests and coast, and the promise of safety and comfort – on its zip lines, in its ecolodges, along its manicured jungle trails. It’s a slice of real, raw nature without the malaria, crime, leeches or day-long drives on unpaved roads. In short, it’s nature’s Disneyland.

But the most impressive thing about Costa Rica is not just its nature – it’s the lengths that it has gone to in order to protect it; creating national parks, wildlife reserves and conservation projects – and becoming a pioneer in ecotourism that the rest of the world has scrambled to follow. However, as perspectives on conservation have developed and grown, the concept of ecotourism has given way globally to the more holistic responsible – or sustainable – tourism. Conservation can only be truly sustainable when local communities are involved, and this is the vital piece of the puzzle that, until now, was missing in Costa Rica’s master plan. As ecotourism is reaching its capacity here and lessons are being learned, making people as much a part of your Costa Rican holiday as the wildlife will be a smart move, and one which will have the greatest impact on the country’s culture and nature for future generations.

People & culture

The indigenous struggle

Costa Rica’s excellence in environmental conservation has often come at a cost to the preservation of its local cultures. They may hardly be Amazonian hunter-gatherers – but 60,000 indigenous Costa Ricans still live in largely traditional communities in isolated, rural areas. They depend on the forests and rivers in their daily lives – gathering fruit, fishing, and using forest materials for traditional medicines and in the construction of their homes.

Somewhat shockingly in the context of Costa Rica’s inclusive, democratic society, indigenous people were only given the right to vote in 1994, meaning they had virtually no say in the control of their land – which was handed over to ranchers and farmers. Support for indigenous communities is increasing and they have reserves set aside for them – although close to 40 percent of this land has been acquired by non-indigenous landowners. Modern challenges include mining, petroleum exploration and a proposed hydroelectric dam, which would flood vast regions of their territory.

With the loss of land, the encroachment of the Western world and few opportunities in their native regions, families and communities have become fragmented as people leave to seek employment elsewhere. Those that do stay may end up working in low-paid manual jobs which are particularly risky; the early deaths of young men have been blamed on the high use of pesticides and fertilisers used on the banana plantations where they worked.

What you can do

Ask around about community tourism in Costa Rica, and you could end up believing it doesn’t exist. But it’s a growing movement, and one which has often been initiated by the communities themselves, as another great example of Costa Rica leading the way in sustainable tourism at grassroots level. We think that learning about the communities that have inhabited these forests and mountains for centuries is just as fascinating as discovering the animals that live alongside them.
If you’re still not convinced – have we mentioned that chocolate grows on trees around here…? And there is only one real way to find out how to prepare it…
Tenille Moore, from our Costa Rica holiday specialists Geodyssey, visited a Bribri community in the Talamanca Mountains. It was one of the most memorable highlights of her Costa Rica tour: “You can take a boat up a mist-covered river right along the border with Panama to visit a Bribri community in a tiny village called Yorkin. Traditionally, men from the community have worked on banana plantations and many have been over-exposed to pesticides, causing life-long health problems. Owing to this the women decided to open the village to tourists in order to create an alternative income. You can learn how they make the roofs out of palm fronds and use cocoa to produce various food products; it’s a really special insight into life in that part of the country. You just don’t get to meet the indigenous population elsewhere in Costa Rica. It’s so sensitively done and so special, it really stuck with me. You can also go on a half-day trip to a Keköldi village and learn about a green iguana rehabilitation project, walk through their grounds and have a typical lunch of root vegetables with chicken baked in banana leaves. All our travellers who have done it have been delighted to meet the local people.”
Speak to your tour operator when planning your trip and let them know you would like to visit an indigenous community. There are a number of organisations now which promote rural and community tourism, including ACTUAR (the Costa Rica Association of Community-based Rural Tourism) and ATEC (the Talamanca Association of Ecotorism and Conservation). ATEC are based in Puerto Viejo, in the southern Caribbean, and offer Afro-Costa Rican cultural experiences (including music, cooking and surfing workshops) as well as indigenous community tourism further inland. Community tourism is often set up by local women – who have few economic alternatives. This is an excellent way to support them, and there are many ways for the women to get involved in the the development of community tourism, including cooking, crafts and hospitality, which all create much-needed income in these rural areas. Community tourism also promotes cultural traditions such as chocolate production, weaving palm leaves, wood carving and music and dance – as well as language, which would otherwise die out as communities disperse.
Read more about community tourism with the Bribri on the Cultural Survival website.

Wildlife & environment

Save what you see

With over a million people now visiting Costa Rica each year, it’s more crucial than ever that the tourism that happens here happens in the right way. Fortunately, most of the money spent on tourism in Costa Rica stays in the country, and this has played a significant role in the reduction of poverty levels, which have dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent in the last few decades – as well as the preservation of a third of Costa Rica’s land. This shows that tourism, when well managed, really can have an enormous impact.

While the Ministry of the Environment manages the national parks, a citizens’ branch of the ministry called the Committee for the Vigilance of Natural Resources brings the parks’ neighbours together to report environmental crimes, bring environmental education into schools, start recycling initiatives and tend to organic gardens. This really is a land of bottom-up conservation.

What you can do
Where to begin? Costa Rica’s environmental protection schemes are as abundant as its wildlife, and encompass day tours, guides, community tourism and volunteer projects. So here are a few pointers to get you started:

Asociación ANAI is a nonprofit organisation with numerous community-based conservation projects in the southern Caribbean region. Working with local Afro-Costa Rican residents, they have set up a marine conservation initiative to protect sea turtles along the Talamanca coast. The income from sea turtle tourism has created seven times more income for local families than the harvesting of turtle eggs. They have also supported 16 community tourism initiatives, including ecolodges and a guides association. See their website for more tourism and volunteer opportunities. If you’re not able to visit this region, you can still support the project by adopting a sea turtle. If booking a tour with a local company, find out if they are accredited by CST – the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica. COOPRENA is an association of development and tourism organisations. They offer training, funding and promotion of small, rural community tourism projects which have environmental protection and education as an integral part. Their website is only in Spanish.

Incredible ecolodges

Hand in hand with responsible tours is responsible accommodation – and once again, Costa Rica is a land of five star eco-lodging.
Tenille Moore, from our Latin America holiday experts Geodyssey, explains more:
“We get people requesting to stay in places that are sustainably run, but it’s actually one of the countries that you don’t need to worry about as much in that respect. Many hotels are actually part of the NCST – National Sustainable Tourism Certificate. It’s quite rigorous, there are lots of checks and rules on how they manage waste, how they deal with energy saving, and the hotels are graded from 1-5 depending on how well they are doing with that. It’s not all about the small ecolodges; a lot of the bigger resorts are very keen to have the certification, as although they are huge, they are employing local people and reducing waste and energy usage. It’s something that they’re really proud of and it’s very common for hotels to be part of that. And even if they’re not certified, they still have their own little eco agenda. It’s something they really strive to have countrywide.”
What you can do

Look out for places certified by accredited by CST, as above, as well as by Rainforest Alliance. Smaller accommodations may not have joined one of these schemes, but if they have any environmental policies they’re bound to be shouting about it – with posters, signs, on their websites and in person. If they’re not… it may be that they have something to hide. Check out our handy list of questions to find out if they are truly green – or simply greenwashing.

The tale of the golden toad

Once a symbol of Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity, the golden toad has become a sad poster child for the threats that some of its most fragile species face, including climate change, urbanisation and encroaching tourism. As one of the most phenomenally species-rich regions in Costa Rica, Monteverde has been recognised and studied by scientists since the 1960s. Conservation efforts increased throughout the 1970s when it became a private reserve, and this helped to protect species such as the golden toad – which was found nowhere else in the world.

Over the 1980s, the concept of ecotourism developed, and visitor numbers increased from 2,700 to over 40,000 in the space of a decade. However, golden toad numbers, did not follow the same pattern. Scientists had counted around 1,500 adult toads each breeding season since the 1960s. In 1988, however, only 10 were seen. The following year, a single, lonely male was spotted – and since then, none have been seen. The golden toad has now been declared extinct.*

No-one knows the real reason behind the toad’s disappearance. Amphibians are indicator species – susceptible to minute fluctuations in temperature, precipitation and humidity. Fungus has been blamed, as have El Niño and a reduction in rainfall. Some have even argued that the increase in ecotourism during the exact period that the toads ceased to exist is no coincidence. Whatever the reason, it does prove that, even in this hyper-protected landscape, many challenges still remain, and complacency is not an option.

Recommended reading: Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?, by Martha Honey

Responsible tourism tips

Tenille Moore, from our tailor made Costa Rica travel specialists Geodyssey:
“Tourism is the main industry and Costa Rica is massively promoting the responsible side of it – especially as there are a lot of North American travellers who come just for the beaches, and aren’t so aware of that. So it’s good to see that beach resorts are joining certification schemes and trying to be as sustainable as possible. There’s a lot of promotion, so if you are staying there you’d be really aware of what’s going on, signs telling you to recycle, and how they manage things. It’s very visible.”

Costa Rica has strong artisan traditions; if you want to bring home local souvenirs we encourage you to buy it directly from a community, or from a market or workshop where you can see the artists working. This ensures the craftspeople benefit directly. Many larger markets, including San Jose’s Mercado Central, will be selling imported goods. We recommend Sarchi, an artisan-filled town near San Jose for a selection of typical crafts, and the village of Guaitil, in Guanacaste, for ceramics made by the Chorotega tribe. Never buy items made from the fur or feathers of endangered wildlife, and don’t buy any coral. Crafts may not be as cheap as in South America, for example – but the cost of living here is considerably higher. Be careful to offer a fair price if haggling in markets – and only request a discount if purchasing more than one item from the same stall, for example. Tips are greatly appreciated – 10 percent is standard in good restaurants; otherwise, just round up your bill and leave the change. If going to watch dolphins off the Caribbean Coast, take a look at our responsible travel guide to dolphin watching to ensure you choose a responsible operator. There are some great restaurants in Costa Rica, but be sure to sample some local food – and local life – at a soda, a small cafe offering set lunches. It’s a fabulous cultural introduction as well as saving you some money. Coffee production may have slowed in recent decades, but plenty is still grown here, and a coffee tour is a fascinating way to learn about the process from bean to cup – as well as gaining an insight into local culture. David Orrock, from our Latin America specialists Pura Aventura: “They grow a lot of coffee here, but if you do a tour, try and go to Doka coffee estate. It’s much less commercial than Britta, which is the brand you see everywhere.” In a country as tiny and beautiful as Costa Rica, we really think there is little reason to fly, but if you must – consider using Costa Rican airline NatureAir. In keeping with the ethos of the rest of the country, they have increased efforts to reduce carbon emissions by optimising routes and their ground vehicles use biofuel made from recycled vegetable oils. They also donate funds to forest conservation and to their own NatureKids Foundation. Costa Rica has some wildlife and adventure heavyweights, and while it is well worth spending time in popular places such as Monteverde, Tortugero and Arenal, we also highly recommend taking a trip or two into more remote regions of the country. As well as getting away from other tourists and expats for a few days, you will discover more genuine Costa Rican culture as well as bringing tourist dollars to the people who need it most.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jay Iwasaki] [The indigenous struggle: Everjean] [Incredible ecolodge: vasse nicolas, antoine] [Golden toad: Charles H. Smith]