Costa Rica Developments

July 29, 2010

From Ecotourism to Megatourism

I’ve just returned from a month in Costa Rica. What a trip it was! But do you ever wonder why we turn everything we love about our beautiful natural surroundings into a homogeneous recreational pleasure trove?

This small peaceful country has changed considerably from the time I served there as a Peace Corps fisheries volunteer. In the mid to late 1980’s, I earned $160 a month. My rent was $15 a month. Most people rode public buses everywhere. Beaches were still pristine and I felt safe everywhere I went.

Every five years I return to the country where my soul feels most at home. Each time I go back to Costa Rica, I see changes that trouble me. My beloved town of Turrialba was hit hard. First, by the completion of the new highway from San José to Limón. Then by the 1991 earthquake that destroyed the jungle train. By the early 1990s, everyone at home was talking about Costa Rica. It had become recognized as the number one ecotourism destination and tourism had for the first time brought more foreign exchange than  bananas and coffee. Ecolodges and tours opened up new areas of the rain forest to the tourism market. This in itself has brought new challenges to protecting Costa Rica’s fragile forest ecosystems. But contrast this with the new kind of monstrous development that has taken place since the late 1990’s. North American developers, investors, vacationers, and real estate buyers have been the main drivers behind and beneficiaries of fast paced development. Increased access to global capital and a new international airport in the Guanacaste region brought a new expanded emphasis on mass market large-scale homogenized coastal development centered on residential developments and gated communities, cruise ship tourism, strip malls, high-density condos, vacation rentals, and all-inclusive resorts. To be sure, the tourism industry brought with it a corresponding increase in local employment and disposable income for some Ticos. It also brought crime.

As tourism and development took off with the rise in the global economy, so it has fallen. In fact, after having traveled from north to south and west to east across the country, noticeable changes have occurred in the last five years. More cars, more trash, more cell phones, more drugs, and more guns have meant more pollution, more traffic, more cell towers, and more violence. The economic crisis has hit hard in Costa Rica. Unemployment has increased and many of the mega developments are abandoned. Strip malls and condos are either vacant or remain half-built. Gated communities consist of only the entrance gate. These skeletal remains dot the landscape and lead me to wonder whether these projects will ever be completed. In a country so proud of its ecotourism label, will it ever recover from the glut of destroyed lands and construction waste? In fact,  the authors of a recent study on the impact of tourism found that there is significant impact to natural resources as a result of the haphazard development that has taken place:

“This study has found ample evidence that rapid and often poorly planned tourism-related coastal development has taken place at the expense of sustainable use of natural resources. Illegal and uncontrolled development has caused shortages of fresh water, pollution of ocean waters and beaches, illegal destruction of forests and mangroves, and, in some cases, stopping of public access to beaches. This process is damaging Costa Rica’s international image as a green and sustainable destination, eroding the tourist experience, and causing a decline in quality of life for residents in a number of coastal communities. Media and NGO exposés, government interventions, legal cases, and local conflicts around natural resources and environmental issues have become more frequent in recent years. While there is more public awareness of environmental problems, the ability to prevent damage remains weak. Actions and rulings by government institutions are often poorly coordinated, sometimes contradictory, and typically after-the-fact of environmental damage. However, a number of government agencies have demonstrated, in specific instances, their capacity to collaborate and enforce environmental regulations in order to stop damaging practices.” (Honey, M., E. Vargas and W. H. Durham. April 2010. Impact of Tourism Related Development on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Still Beautiful After All These Years

Even with all the changes, I can still see the beauty of Costa Rica. I love waking to the calls of howler monkeys, toucans and parrots high in the canopy. Pristine beaches really do still exist (although I’m not telling you where they are) and the conscientious traveler can still enjoy a low-impact vacation. With the exception of 2 nights, my best friend and my husband and I stayed at Tico-owned and managed establishments that cost less than $45 per night. We were able to rent a traditional wooden house on a fairly deserted beach for $100 per night (just 3 short years ago we paid $50).

Rural life has also changed. Farmers still work their fields, but many use lawn mowers and gas-powered weed eaters rather than the traditional cold steel machete to chop and clean their farms. Dead grass along the highways is a sign of the growing use of chemicals to “manage” vegetation. But Ticos are still the friendliest people you will ever come across. Speaking Spanish is a huge advantage even in a country where many in the tourist trade speak English. Once out in the campo, however, I am always quick to find a friend to talk to even if only to ask for directions.

Costa Rica is still a country that is completely accessible without the use of a car. Whether it’s watching the sun rise on the Caribbean coast or the sun set on the Pacific coast, or traversing its mountainous spine if only to discover a new little soda from which to enjoy the view, this is still a country filled with beauty and wonder. We just have to remind ourselves to slow down. Traveling this beautiful country doesn’t have to be about zip lines and re-creating what you experience in the U.S. It’s about experiencing the cultural differences and listening.

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