An Introduction to Ecotourism in Costa RicaCosta Rica is one Developing Country that has taken advantage of andbenefited from the promotion of ecotourism. That success is illustratedin a variety of ways. For example, since 1964, tourism revenues inCosta Rica have grown significantly as can be seen in (Tourism Transition in Costa Rica, 1964-1995, International Receipts). In 1995 alone, Costa Rica generated $661 million in tourism receipts.
Although most of the findings above reflect gains made within tourismas a whole in Costa Rica, it is reasonable to assume that a large percentof the general growth in tourism is the product of specific growth withinthe ecotourism sector, since that is the kind of tourism for which CostaRica is known. That point is substantiated by results from a surveyconducted by the ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) during the peaktravel season of 1986, when nearly 75% of tourists who were interviewedindicated that they had come to Costa Rica primarily because of its naturalbeauty. 36% stated that they had specifically come to Costa Ricato observe its nature. For that year alone, nearly one-third of allpeak-season tourists were ecotourists. (Budowski, 52).
Cater, E. Ecotourism in the Third World: Problems and Prospectsfor Sustainability.
The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Tourism. Lesly France, ed. London: Earthscan Publications, Ltd.
Budowski, T. Ecotourism Costa Rican Style. Toward a GreenCentral America: Integrating Conservation and Development. Valerie Barzetti & Yanina Rovinski, eds. West Hartford: Kumarian Press (1992): 48-62.
the national parks). Additionally, the government will needto take the lead in orchestrating cooperation between a wide range of actorsincluding itself, NGOs (especially environmental groups), tour operators,and local communities. Moreover, all of these players will need torecognize the limitations of ecotourism. However, with the sincereand earnest commitment and stewardship of all of these groups, ecotourismcan become a means for economic development and environmental sustainabilityin Costa Rica, both now and into the future.
While the Costa Rican government has successfully stimulated economicgrowth and environmental preservation by marketing the countrys ecotourismdestinations, recent studies suggest that it has not invested adequateattention or resources for the management of the natural assets which attracttourists or in the infrastructure required to support ecotourism. As a result, fragile sites of ecological or cultural significance havebeen exposed to the threat of degradation by unregulated tourism developmentand over-visitation. In short, while the tourist explosion has attractedworld attention and new funds to Costa Rica, it has also put a strain onthe countrys environment and population.
The Development of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
Around the same time the global environmental movement was galvanizingin the 1960s, the Costa Rican government was being criticized for itsenvironmental policies, or lack thereof. Essentially, Costa Ricahad no effective environmental policies, which was resulting in widespreaddeforestation of the countryside. As a result, a number of scientistsand environmentalists who had studied and experienced, first-hand, thespectacular biodiversity and variety of environments in the country beganto apply pressure on the government to create more proactive, aggressiveenvironmental preservation programs. These same people began to lobbyvarious international environmental organizations, such as the World ConservationUnion (IUCN) and governments to intervene and take part in helping to protectthe environment within Costa Rica.
Why Is Ecotourism So Popular in Costa Rica?
When the Costa Rican government first started setting aside land forthe creation of a system of national parks, reserves, and protected zones,it did so under a mandate of preservation. Over time, however, theprotected-area system has emerged as a focal point for the Costa Ricantourism industry, as evidenced by the proportion of visitors spending atleast some time within such areas and by the exponential pattern of visitationgrowth with the system (Weaver, 89). This phenomenon can be linkedto a variety of factors.
These facts about ecotourism in Costa Rica demonstrate the importantrole it has played in bolstering the countrys tourism industry. However, a few questions persist. For example, why is ecotourismso popular in Costa Rica? What has made tourism the largestgenerator of foreign exchange there? Why has the Costa Rican governmentso aggressively promoted ecotourism? The following sections providegreater insight into these questions.
It is the exceptional biodiversity and such great variety of ecoregionsthat attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to Costa Rica each yearto participate in some activity related to ecotourism. The CostaRican government has responded to the tremendous growth in this sectorof the tourism industry by enhancing preservation efforts within the nationalparks system.
A similar informal survey conducted in 1995 indicated that over 40%of American and European (excluding German) visitors to Costa Rica cameto the country for nature-related activities (refer to , Purpose of Visit to Costa Rica, Selected Results of 1995 VisitorSurvey, Source: TTI, 1996d. Taken from Ecotourism inthe Less Developed World by D.B.
The Benefits of Ecotourism
The promotion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has had positive impactson the environment and the economy within the country. As alreadymentioned, while not the case initially, over time ecotourism has becomeone of the main justifications for preservation of natural areas throughoutCosta Rica, resulting in rapid expansion of the national park system whichnow includes seventy different entities. Looking at it from a differentperspective, close to 14% of the country has been designated as nationalprotected areas, which puts Costa Rica among the leaders in environmentalpreservation throughout the Caribbean (refer to , Comparative Perspective on % National Land Area Protected--CaribbeanBasin).