San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

It’s Official: West Coast a Mess

The government is unable to control the booming growth of tourism and real estate development along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, and a lack of regulations and oversight is leading to environmental destruction.

This may not be news to environmentalist and activist groups, who for years have warned of overdevelopment, but it has now been officially echoed by voices within both the government and tourism sectors.

Two reports released in recent weeks –one by the Comptroller General’s Office and another by the Costa Rican Hotel Association – criticize the government’s handling of growth along the coast, particularly in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

“There has not been a balance between the development of infrastructure on the national coastal areas and the protection of the environment, which puts the natural resources, the biodiversity and ecosystems at risk,” reads the Comptroller General’s 2007 Memoria, a report the office is required to submit to the Legislative Assembly every year detailing the agency’s work over the past 12 months.

Departing somewhat from its usual nuts and-bolts analysis of government spending and operations, the report delves into the management and environmental implications of the Maritime Zone, the first 200 meters inland from the ocean.

The Maritime Zone, which starts at the halfway point between low and high tides, is public property. The first 50 meters of land is known as the public zone where construction and land ownership is prohibited. The next 150 meters inland is known as the restricted zone, where the land can be built on, but only with a concession from the government.

A handful of towns, including Jacó and Puntarenas on the Pacific, and Limón and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean, have been excluded from the law.

The Comptroller General’s Office said the government needs to revise “the planning, administration, vigilance and control” over the Maritime Zone, known by its Spanish acronym ZMT.

Responsibility for the area, which covers a total of 29,790 hectares (about 115 square miles), is spread among at least 11 government agencies and another 23 local governments.

There is no central database keeping track of the concessions, and while it is illegal for individuals to hold more than one concession, investors can apply through corporations to get around the regulation.

This “dispersion and multiplicity” of responsibility has made it difficult for the government to keep an eye on all the developments popping up and to protect the environment, the Comptroller’s report says.

“The ZMT is showing signs of degradation,” the report states.

The Comptroller’s Office also hints at a possible conflict of interest with the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), a government agency charged principally with promoting tourism but also with overseeing the Maritime Zone and approving coastal zoning plans.

“Perhaps the best solution would be to eliminate the ICT’s responsibilities for approving zoning plans and as the upper authority in this area,” the report states.

A second study, this one undertaken by the Costa Rican Hotel Association, warned that the nation’s days as a “paradise of ecotourism” are numbered.

“Reality shows that investors are free to develop more and more projects in a scenario without clear rules,” the report states.

The hotel association study looked closely at development trends in Guanacaste, following up on an earlier, unreleased study that covered the entire country and highlighted the explosive growth of condominiums and housing projects over hotels.

In five of the more popular districts in various cantons in Guanacaste, construction of houses increased by 171 percent between 2006 and 2007, compared to the number built during the previous three years.

Meanwhile, condominium construction grew by 362 percent, and apartment construction grew 560 percent, the report said.

Hotel construction, the report continued, grew by more than 400 percent, much less than apartments, condominiums and houses combined.

“It is obvious that all these statistics are very alarming if you take into consideration that the majority of this land investment does not have adequate planning in terms of water services, energy, garbage, streets, lighting, etc,” reads the report.

Carlos Lachner, president of the hotel association, said sprawling real estate development likely will bring more negatives than positives to Costa Rica.

“Our concern is that… a big growth in residential building construction causes visual pollution when it isn’t well regulated,” he said. “People that are in residences don’t go out very much, don’t eat in restaurants, don’t go on tours and buy fewer crafts and souvenirs.”

While making an effort to highlight the positive effects of development – such as projects that protect swaths of forest, treat their own water and produce their own – the hotel association report calls on ICT to take an in-depth look at the tourism trends and impacts in Guanacaste.

The region’s growth has largely been fueled by the increasing number of international flights arriving at DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital.

From January through March, the peak of the tourism high season, 156,028 passengers came through that airport, a 13 percent increase compared to the same period in 2007, according to a marketing study commissioned by the Guanacaste Tourism Chamber (TT, April 25).

Of those, 91 percent never left Guanacaste, and 70 percent stayed in a hotel, most of them all-inclusive.

Picture Imperfect

The recent Comptroller General’s Office report warns of:

 disappearance of coastal wetlands

 loss and pollution of beach dune systems

 deterioration of the landscape

 alteration of waterways

 salination of freshwater aquifers and springs

 overconsumption of potable water

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