Ecotourism in Costa Rica: A Country's Response

This topic submitted by Hallie Primrose ( at 10:15 PM on 5/18/03.

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Ecotourism – it may sound like the latest yuppy-jargon bandied about your local Starbucks, but it is in fact one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry today (Wight, 2001). Though there is no set definition, ecotourism is generally seen as responsible tourism that minimizes harmful effects on the environment, and contributes to the conservation and economy of the local community. More specifically, it involves travel to natural destinations, minimizes any affect on both the environment and local community, builds environmental awareness, provides direct benefits for conservation, provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people, and respects the local culture (Lopez-Espinosa de los Monteros, 2002). Ecotourism should not be confused with nature-based tourism, which is a term sometimes used in its stead. Nature-based tourism uses natural destinations to draw tourist and as a platform to entertain them. This often includes activities like kayaking and canoeing, mountain biking, fishing or even camping. This type of tourism may not contain the educational elements of ecotourism, and more importantly it may lack the conservational efforts and minimized environmental impacts. Ecotourism has grown so large that it can be further segmented into four subcategories: hard ecotourism, general or soft ecotourism, adventure ecotourism and educational ecotourism. Hard ecotourism is intense sometimes strenuous ecotourism that may involve non-hotel accommodations. Soft ecotourism is the most common form, where tourists hope to observe nature and culture closely, but casually. This more specific type of travel has raised the cost of transportation and accommodations, but it is an increase that ecotourists are willing to pay. Adventure ecotourism more high risk activities and is closely associated with nature based tourism. Educational ecotourism is usually organized by educational or other institutional organizations and involves lectures and research presentations. (Inman, 1998)

Costa Rica, a country ripe with offerings for the avid ecotourist, is one of the most biological diverse regions in South America. It contains a broad range of ecosystems including 12 different life zones (Menkhaus and Lober, 1995). It is estimated that 4% of all living species are found in Costa Rica, even though the country comprises only .01% of global territory (InBio, 2003). Indeed, tourists, especially from the United States have increasingly come to visit Costa Rica, 39% citing nature as their primary reason for coming (Menkhaus and Lober, 1995). The country has taken note of the attraction its natural resources provide for tourists, and was quick to protect it. Over one fourth of the country is located within 29 parks and protected areas, one of the highest protection rates in the world (Menkhaus and Lober, 1995). As tourism to the country grew, so did its effect on Costa Rica’s gross domestic product. By 1995 tourism was top generator of foreign revenues, followed by the banana, coffee, and beef industry (Inman, 1998).

For the most part, the country has done exceedingly well in supplying and maintaining the need for responsible, environmentally conscious tourism. The amount of protected areas has kept both tourist and local business venturists from compromising the integrity of the unspoiled nature found in Costa Rica. This sustains the main draw for ecotourists. Many local and governmental programs have been instituted to add the educational aspect and conservational benefits of ecotourism. An excellent example of this is the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, which boasts the Monteverde Cloud Forest Private Reserve, the Community Reserve of Santa Elena, the Butterfly Garden, the Orchid farm, the Community Art Center, CASEM, the Cheese Factory, the Frog Farm, and most notably the Sky Walk-Sky Trek. The Sky Walk includes seven suspended bridges and various cable rides across the cloud forest. These bridges allow for minimum impact on the actual forest, as tourist travel above it. Local guides accompany groups of tourists, adding an educational aspect. Importantly, the project was created by a local family and involved the entire community, giving them a sense of empowerment. This project has provided jobs for the community members and the profits benefit local schools, churches, and local road development. The Sky Walk-Sky Trek project embodies all successful aspects of an ecotourism enterprise and provides maximum enjoyment for tourists (Baez, 2002). This project, as well as other statistics garnered from ecotourism endeavors in Costa Rica, proves to refute what ecotourism critics have warned about. Some critic doubt that countries can receive much economic benefit from international tourism because most major expenses, like travel, are arranged though businesses outside of the country. Also, major franchise restaurants and accommodations may not return as much tourist profit to the country. Costa Rica actually has a relatively high rent capture compared to most countries. Almost 40% of the rent capture returns to operation owners, managers, guides and meal and hotel providers. This is not considered low taking into account that Costa Rica does not have airlines that could compete for a large percentage of international airline returns (Inman, 1998). Also, in the ecotourism industry, it is more feasible to have smaller, privately-owned hotel and meal accommodations rather than large franchise hotels and restaurants, both as a draw to tourists and to provide better service. This in turn offers more jobs to the locals, increasing the economic return.

As the ecotourism industry in Costa Rica grew, and because the term is somewhat loosely defined, the country has run into some problems with tourism-related business. To attract environmentally-minded tourist to their business, many promote themselves as ecotouristic. These businesses may not have any of the benefits that real ecotouristic businesses offer, and worse, may have a detrimental effect on the concept and environment. Inman refers to these businesses as “greenwashers” that abuse the draw the ecotourism has established. But in 1998 The Costa Rican Tourism Board launched the Certification for Sustainable Tourism that addressed “greenwashers” by initiating some standard for local hotels, restaurants, and tourism operations to adhere to to be considered ecotouristic. Their businesses must hold up to several criteria, which thereby homogenizes the countries ecotourism industry (Inman, 1998)

Another concern for Costa Rica as the ecotourism industry grows is how the country will sustain itself as tourism grows increasingly less-seasonal. Their efforts for conservation must be increased and adjusted for long-term and year round environmental impact (Inman, 1998). For example, year-round travel may affect the mating routine of local fauna. Also, Inman cites that image inconsistency may be a problem as ecotourism grows. A tourist’s mental image of the beaches of Costa Rica being pristine, quiet, and generally uncommercialized might negatively impact him when he comes to find the beach covered with other like-minded ecotourists. This hurts the international draw for the country. More seriously, with increased tourism, it is near impossible to maintain low-environmental impact. The hotels, lights, and visitor traffic has affected the experience of sea-turtle nesting, and the actual sea-turtle itself by causing it to change its pattern of nesting (Inman, 1998).

Overall, ecotourism has been a significantly positive industry for the country of Costa Rica. The government and local organizations have done well to perceive necessary guidelines to profit both economically and environmentally. Also, as the countries largest gross domestic product provider, ecotourism might be able to combat, again economically and environmentally, the rate of deforestation, which is one highest in the world. Local communities might find it more profitable to invest in ecotouristic endeavors rather than cutting down trees. Still, the country should stay vigilant on the long-term and year-round effects of tourism. As the industry grows so will the accommodations need to grow, impacting the environment of the country. As long as guidelines and legislation is in place, ecotourism in Costa Rica should be a positive experience for all involved.


Baez, A. Sky Walk Sky Trek: a Costa Rica community project. Mountain Research and Development. 2002. Vol 22:2 pp. 128-131

Biodiversity of Costa Rica. Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (InBio). 2003.

Campbell, L. Conservation narratives in Costa Rica: Conflict and Coexistence. Unpublished?

Inman, C. The case of ecotourism in Costa Rica. United Nations environmental programme report. 1998.

Lopez-Espinoza de los Monteros, R. Evaluating ecotourism in natural protected areas … Biodiversity and Conservation. 2002. Vol. 11 pp. 1539-1550

Menkhaus S., Lober , D. International Ecotourism and the Valuation of Tropical Rainforests in Costa Rica. Journal of Environmental Management. 1996. Vol. 47:1 pp. 1-10

Wight, P. North American Ecotourists: not a homogenous market segment. The Encyclopedia of Ecotourism. 2001. Weaver, D. (ed) CAB International, Wallingford. 37-62

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