San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism Here: ‘Not So Bad’

A scorecard on sustainable tourism recently publishedby National Geographic Traveler Magazinegave Costa Rica what it called a “surprisinglymediocre score,” pointing to widespread deforestationand “poor tourism management” as factorsaffecting the country’s rating.The 115 locations analyzed by the report variedwidely in scope – from tourism centers to entirecountries. The locations were divided into three categories:The Good, The Not So Bad, and TheGetting Ugly.COSTA Rica fell among The Not So Bad – scoring64 of a possible 100 points.To compile the scores, which the magazine calls“the world’s first Index of Destination Stewardship,”personnel from Traveler worked with NationalGeographic’s Sustainable Tourism Initiative andgraduate students from Leeds Metropolitan Universityin England to “conduct a complex survey ofover 200 specialists in sustainable tourism and destinationquality.”THE report comes as Costa Rica, once knownsolely for eco-tourism, wrestles with whether to tryto continue along that path or give in to more typicalmass tourism and open additional large, upscalehotels with beach access.“We have the reality that people come here for akind of tourism that could be called generic – bighotels, sun and beaches,” said William Rodríguez,president of the National Tourism Association(CANATUR).The report supports his assertion, stating thatCosta Rica has “too many golf courses and largehotels in the past five years and on the drawingboards.”However, Costa Rica’s national parks and protectedareas are still the main tourist attractions,Rodríguez said, and as such, the deforestation problem likely is having a negative impact onthe industry.“Any environmental problem thataffects protected areas is going to affecttourism traffic,” he said. “You’re talkingabout the prime material the country usesto support the tourism industry.”ROBERTO Morales, president of theCosta Rican Association of Professionalsin Tourism (ACOPROT), said deforestationis only one of many factors that shouldbe taken into account when considering thesustainability of a country, and that it is nota problem Costa Rica faces alone.“I believe (deforestation) is a problemon a Latin American level,” Morales said.“I’d be interested to see what Panama’srating is.”Panama, however, was not included inthe National Geographic Traveler scorecard.Morales also said statistics do not showthat Costa Rica has been inundated withlarge hotels – 70% of the hotels in thecountry have fewer than 40 rooms, he said.A joint effort on the part of theRegional Environmental Program forCentral America (PROARCA), the RainforestAlliance and the World WildlifeFund hopes to help curb unsustainabletourism practices in the country by producinga small model of sustainability.The organizations are working withcommunities from Costa Rica’s southernCaribbean zone south to the Panamanianprovince of Bocas del Toro to educatethose subsisting on the tourism industryabout sustainable practices, with the hopeof expanding the program in the future.The effort has had significant response,with 35 hotels in that area now certified asenvironmentally sustainable. To becomecertified, hotel owners must attend a seriesof workshops teaching them how to conservewater and electricity – among otherthings – and then be inspected by RainforestAlliance team members.“SOME hotels are independently practicingsustainability. Others need moreguidance,” said Ronald Fanabrea, regionaldirector for sustainable tourism forRainforest Alliance.Casa Verde, a hotel in Puerto Viejo, hasreceived the program’s stamp of approval.Carolina Jiménez owns the hotel, whichliterally translated means “Green House.”Jiménez said she has been involved inhelping the community organize to resistplans proposed by the Costa RicanTourism Institute (ICT) to displace localresidents for large-scale hotel projects.“(ICT) showed up with a plan ready,without taking into account the opinionsof the people,” Jiménez said.She said the entire community is“green-minded” and stands in staunchopposition to projects that would result inover-development and ruin the pristinenatural beauty of the area.For example, she said, communitymembers voted to ban four-wheelers on thebeach and jet-skis in the water.GUILLERMO Masís, administratorof the nearby Gandoca-ManzanilloWildlife Refuge, said requests for touristconcessions that are “too big” are rejected.Tour guides working around the refugesaid they readily pass on their expertiseabout area wildlife to community members.“Kids come to me and say ‘Rickie, Iwant to go with you and be a guide,’” saidAlric Lewis, a guide, using his nicknameto refer to himself. “I say, ‘Let’s go askmami and papi.’ If mami and papi say it’sok, then they come with us.”In this fashion, he said, 13- and 14-year-old children are able to becomeexperts on the area wildlife and feel a personalobligation to protect it.If the children are able to pass a test,they are permitted to take groups of adultsthrough the refuge on tours.Lewis said area guides hope thatthrough this education and by involvingthemselves in the community, they canincrease a general feeling of need to conservethe area’s beauty.ONE of the guide’s efforts was to builda bridge for residents who had to cross asnake-infested bog to get to the road leadingto town. Two people had been bittenjust before the bridge was built, he andother guides said.One was 18 and spent months in thehospital after being bitten by a fer-delance,and another man spent weeks recoveringfrom an eyelash viper bite. Both arelucky to be alive, Lewis said – a bite fromeither snake can often result in death.Puerto Viejo also has one of the mostsuccessful community-run recycling programsin the country, supported by theregional sustainability program.RACHEL Thomas, president of theCaribbean Association of Recycling, saidher organization shipped more than 20 tonsof recyclables to be processed in San Josélast year.Morales, of ACOPROT, said thesekinds of local community sustainabletourism efforts can spare the country fromthe kind of damage that may have resultedin Costa Rica’s “mediocre” rating in theNational Geographic Report.“Sustainable tourism can serve as a weaponto counteract deforestation, as well asother environmental damage,” Morales said.

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