GUARDIA DELIBERIA, Guanacaste – At age 74, Antonia Ruiz has learned to make maracas.
The housewife who spent most of her life subsistence farming is one of many residents in the northwestern province of Guanacaste learning new skills thanks to an alliance with the massive state-endorsed Papagayo Tourism Project and the country’s top universities.
“When I first came to Guardia, there was lots of poverty. Now, with the Four Seasons and all the other projects, there’s a lot of work,” she said.
Talk with Ruiz, and it’s clear which side she’s on in the debate over whether the booming $1.8 billion tourism industry here has benefited Costa Rica’s poor.
Late last year academics released the annual State of the Nation report and pointed out that increases in inequalities may have to do with the current boom in high-end hotels and condominium complexes, particularly in Guanacaste. Such developments put high demands on resources but don’t return much to the country (TT, Nov. 17, 2006).
“Certainly, residents in specific places can document disordered growth, with profound immediate environmental impacts,” said Miguel Gutiérrez, director of the State of the Nation report.
“Even so, it’s necessary for the generation of well-being of the country’s habitants,” he recently told The Tico Times in an e-mail response. “The idea isn’t to disqualify tourism activity that promotes the objectives of sustainable and orderly use of natural resources … nor to deny efforts of social responsibility in some of those businesses.”
At least in a small way, it appears that tourism development here is trickling down the social ladder, thanks to the enormous tourism project’s community relations campaign that has involved the training of hundreds of area residents in science, tourism, business and environmental protection.
In 1972, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) found a way to combat poverty in Costa Rica: development of 2,000 hectares (7.7 square miles) of beautiful seaside property in the northern corner of Guanacaste on a peninsula called Papagayo. The studies labeled Papagayo as the best place in the region to develop a major beach tourism project.
After CABEI studies revealed the tourism potential of the region, several government efforts and other projects attempted to jumpstart development in the region. But it was the construction of the Four Seasons resort on the peninsula in 2004 that attracted international attention to the area and seems to have given new drive to the project (TT, April 7, 2006).
The Papagayo project will continue to see construction of new hotels, private homes and condos and a $15 million, 350-slip marina slated for 2009. The Polo Turístico Golfo Papagayo – as the Papagayo Tourism Project is also known – includes the Papagayo Peninsula and the coastal land across from it, on the other side of Bahía Culebra, about 30 kilometers south of Santa Rosa National Park.
In 2001 the development launched a social responsibility and community relations program called Creciendo Juntos (Growing Together) “as part of the strategic framework of going a step further and investing in human capital, the regional context, and the strengthening of transparent relations with others,” Papagayo Peninsula Director of Operations Manuel Ardón told The Tico Times.
Ruiz, who has now been armed with training and a business card, is one of many area residents who have benefited from the program. Leather workers, handicraft makers and clothing designers are among others who have received training through the program.
In 2005, the tourism development giant Ecodesarollo Papagayo, which oversees the PapagayoPeninsula project, was recognized by the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) for Creciendo Juntos. In its six years in existence, the program has reached more than 50,000 Guanacaste residents.
“With Creciendo Juntos, the company decided to bring together forces to contribute to educational improvement as the main mechanism to promote the development of the communities and to take advantage of the opportunities that tourism offers,”Ardón said.
In communities surrounding the PapagayoPeninsula development, the program has trained residents in biology and environmental protection, held job fairs and leadership workshops, and helped build the GuardiaHigh School.
Ruiz, who for most of her life used gourds called jícaro to make drinking cups, was trained by Creciendo Juntos to make other products with the gourds – such as maracas – and how to market her product.
“It’s definitely been a help,” Ruiz said of the project.