Final Can Capitalism and Conservationism Coexist in Costa Rica?

This topic submitted by Katie King ( kingka2@miamioh.edu) at 9:45 PM on 6/30/06.

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Costa Rica is famous as a place of extraordinary natural beauty. Many people admire the colorful birds, the vibrant greens (as well as other colors) of the plants, and more species in one place than many Americans will see in their entire lives. In contrast, few Americans or residents of developed countries would envy Costa Rica’s economy; it still falls into the “developing” category. However, unlike some countries (like Zimbabwe or Sudan), for which “developing” is a euphemism for a stalled economy with few prospects (at least in the near future), Costa Rica’s economy is actually growing and developing. One of the most important reasons for this growth is the country’s decision to harness ecotourism as an engine for growth and development. This development, though, is of a particular type: sustainable. Given that Costa Rica’s experience with ecotourism, since it is one of the earliest and most famous, could have a very strong influence on other countries considering ecotourism, an examination of ecotourism in Costa Rica is particularly important. Ultimately, though Costa Rican tourism has many flaws, its benefits make it worth practicing and refining; however, certain characteristics unique to Costa Rica make applying its model for ecotourism difficult, so any adoption of it by another country must be careful and probably partial.
First, before examining ecotourism in Costa Rica, it is important to establish what ecotourism is. There is no clearly established definition of ecotourism, despite the term’s frequent use in policy and tourism discussions. “Theoretically, ecotourism can be defined as a type of tourism where the environment, local community and visitor all benefit. In practice, the term ‘ecotourism' is often used by tour operators as a marketing tool to promote any form of tourism that is related to nature” (Hardyment, 2003). Ecotourism is often linked to other buzzwords like “sustainable development” in order to increase its marketability to both politicians and tourists seeking a somewhat environmentally friendly vacation. Nevertheless, ecotourism does have several underlying assumptions. One is that the environment is worth preserving for non-environmental (and probably intrinsic) reasons. Although one can argue that a healthy environment is a good source of money—and this idea is part of the concept of ecotourism—there are often other ways to make money. One of the reasons for choosing ecotourism, or at least pitching ecotourism to others, is this idea of preserving the environment because it is what should be done, probably for moral reasons. Another important underlying assumption of ecotourism is that some human interference in the environment must be accepted so that the environment, in general, can be preserved. Tourists traipsing through a forest mean that the forest will no longer be in its pristine natural condition; however, these tourists make the forest profitable and therefore prevent the forest from, say, being sold to loggers and completely destroyed. Additionally, believers in ecotourism posit that improving a country’s economy is good for the people (whose quality of life improves) and the environment (with a stronger economy, more jobs that don’t rely on harming the environment exist and jobs pay better, meaning that supplemental income from poaching is less necessary).
Having established some of the characteristics of ecotourism, it is now possible to look at how ecotourism is practiced in Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a natural park system, meaning that tourists know some good places to visit and some forests are protected from destruction. Also, Costa Rica has passed laws to help protect its environment. It has a carbon trading policy that essentially amounts to saying to industrial companies that “you can pollute, if you pay us to safeguard an area of our forest and its carbon-absorption capacity” (Economist, 1998). Because of another law, land immediately adjacent to the ocean cannot be privately owned, preventing development that would disturb ecosystems (Dasenbrock, 2006). Costa Rican ecotourism has a significant government influence, but it does try to involve private companies; for example, the aforementioned law about voluntary preservation helps encourage companies to be environmentally friendly in their practices. Due to the government’s efforts in promoting ecotourism, many private companies—like tours or ziplines—have developed to take advantage of the large influx of ecotourists. Though these company’s motives may be economic, not altruistic or moral, they, too, are often environmentally friendly because they rely on the environment’s condition for their business and because how they treat the environment will affect their reputation among ecotourists. Costa Rica has integrated government and private conservation practices with policies like its efforts to maintain the condition of its rivers. Hydroelectric power companies, water consumers, and the government all pay for efforts to prevent excessive erosion and to regulate river flow, which helps prevent destruction of habitats beside rivers (Economist, 2005). Though the government is probably the most important force pressuring for ecotourism in Costa Rica, it has done a good job of involving private companies.
Ecotourism has had and will have many benefits for Costa Rica. It has brought many people—and a significant amount of money—to the country. In 1996, 780,000 U.S. tourists visited Costa Rica, but in 2000, 1.1 million did (Dasenbrock, 2006). Since 1997, the overall number of tourists to Costa Rica has increased 6% annually, primarily because of ecotourism, which is the fastest growing sector of travel services in Costa Rica (Dasenbrock, 2006). By now, ecotourism is second only to electronic components in bringing money into the Costa Rican economy; it brings in more foreign money than coffee and bananas—what Costa Rica is famous for—combined (Dasenbrock, 2006). Foreign money is particularly important in spurring economic growth, as it increases the overall amount of money flowing through the country, as opposed to just redistributing it. In addition to these economic benefits, ecotourism has also helped prevent the wholesale destruction of some ecosystems.
Though it has its benefits, there are also many problems with ecotourism, some specific to Costa Rica and some general. Many of these problems are economic. One such problem is a lack of Costa Rican companies able to take advantage of the foreign investment flooding into Costa Rica. As a result, foreign companies must often bring in their own people or pay foreign contractors in order to, for example, build an eco-friendly hotel. Thus, much money goes to people from already developed countries, not Costa Ricans. Another reason foreign money is not helping Costa Ricans as much as it could or should is that, in many cases, the top management positions are reserved by foreign countries for people from their own country. Thus, the overall Costa Rican economy is hurt (more money leaves the country) and individual Costa Ricans are hurt (their opportunities for advancement and improvements in standard of living are limited). Ecotourism is also problematic because tourism is volatile. As 9/11 demonstrated, one event, no matter how far away, can significantly hurt the whole industry. Also, tourists are constantly in search of the next “big thing” and their interests change. Since tourism can decrease because of changing interests or because of scares, it can be dangerous for it to be the basis of a country’s economy, especially when the country’s economy is not hugely diversified. Finally, the initial investment costs to get started in ecotourism can be very high.
Other problems with ecotourism relate to its effect on the environment or culture. Ecotourism makes development profitable and, as a result, often leads more and more people to try to get a “piece of the pie,” ultimately overtaxing the environment. For example, too many hotels can lead to the destruction of an ecotourism. Also, a limited amount of land is necessary for ecotourism. As a result, certain forests are preserved, but overall, the amount of natural land in Costa Rica is declining. In terms of culture, pressures from tourists can lead to a phenomenon known as “airport art”—indigenous people adapt their usual art and practices into what tourists want so that they can profit from the tourist boom.
Luckily, Costa Rica has responded to at least some of these problems, though certainly not to all of them. It has focused on small-scale construction so that foreign contractors are not needed, helping keep money in Costa Rica. To counteract overdevelopment, Costa Rica has implemented the aforementioned laws, like those about beachfront land. There are also some local ownership and residency requirements for companies, which helps keep control of companies’ activities (indirectly, but, since Costa Ricans are more likely to think about their country’s long-term prospects, they are more likely to follow sustainable practices than foreign companies) and helps keep money in the country, where it can be spent in the country and improve the economy further.
With Costa Rican tourism having provided so much economic growth and with the possibility of refining policy further to make it even more successful, the question of whether the Costa Rican model is applicable elsewhere arises. In general, unfortunately, it may not be. Costa Rica has a political stability much higher than many other developing countries. It has had only two short periods of violence since the late nineteenth century, an abnormally good record for its region (CIA World Factbook, 2006). Without political stability, it is extremely difficult to attract tourists and to get loans or grants to promote the initial development needed to get one’s ecotourism industry off the ground. Also, Costa Rica’s location gives it benefits that other countries might not have. Its climate and biodiversity make it both pleasant and attractive for tourists to visit. In addition to biodiversity, the species Costa Rica has are ones that people are interested in seeing. Countries in, say, eastern Europe, cannot compete with Costa Rica’s toucans, macaws, jaguars, and monkeys in terms of what the average tourist wants to see in the environment.
For other developing countries, there is some positive news. Costa Rica has managed to overcome the impression of regional instability that has plagued Central America, a place many Americans think or thought of as being politically unstable. If people feel safe going to Costa Rica, then perhaps they can learn to feel safe about going to some parts of Africa. Also, some aspects of the government’s policies, like laws about property ownership, may be useful if adopted selectively.
In the end, Costa Rica has used ecotourism to improve its economy with significant positive effects. Costa Rica is a jewel among developing countries with a unique reputation due to its success in marketing itself as a haven for ecotourism. This success should not overshadow all the problems associated with ecotourism in Costa Rica and in general, because there are many and they are significant. Costa Rica is trying to address some of these problems, but further actions need to be taken. Other countries might not be able to follow in all of Costa Rica’s footsteps, due to the country’s unique characteristics, but they might be able to adopt some of its policies and have some success. Costa Rica is an ecotourism success story but, so as to set a good example for other countries and to increase the sustainability of its practices, some closer examination of its policies and appropriate changes are necessary.

Works Cited

“Are You Being Served?” The Economist 21 April 2005, http://economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3886849 (accessed 28 June 2006).

“Costa Rica.” CIA World Factbook. 10 January 2006, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/cs.html (accessed 28 June 2006).

Dasenbrock, Julie. The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism in Costa Rica. January 2002, http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/costa-rica-tourism.htm (accessed 28 June 2006).

Hardyment, Chris (2003). “Ecotourism Definition,” http://www.piedrablanca.org/ecotourism-definition.htm (accessed 28 June 2006).

“Your Pollution, Our Forests.” The Economist 25 June 1998, http://economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=138036 (accessed 28 June 2006).


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