San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Sustainablity’ is Tourism’s New Watchword

It’s a wonder how, in spite of flagging tourist numbers and a grim outlook for the industry as a whole, tourism businesses could be thinking of spending more money.

Yet, in effect, that’s partly what companies convened to discuss this week at a conference in San José. However, the initial expenditures on which they focused – investments in economically, ecologically and socially sustainable practices –will pay off soon, says Ronald Sanabria, vice president of sustainable tourism with Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation group.

“Companies that have been on this boat for a while acknowledge that the reason they stay on board is because they have been able to identify where the waste sources are, target them and take action to reduce expenses,” he says.

The National Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR) estimates that first-quarter tourist arrivals dipped about 11 percent below the number of arrivals during the same period in 2008. Last year Costa Rica broke the 2 million mark for total arrivals, but belt-tightening and layoffs have ensued since then.

Meanwhile, hundreds of the sector’s employees are undergoing training with Rainforest Alliance in sustainable practices, in the hopes their businesses will one day earn Costa Rica’s coveted national tourism certification, already held by approximately 100 hotels and travel sector operators.

The theme received center-stage attention this week at the first Central American Congress of Sustainable Tourism and Corporate Social Responsibility. The event, organized by Rainforest Alliance, CANATUR and other organizations in the industry, was held at the Hotel Ramada Plaza Herradura in Ciudad Cariari, west of San José.

The Tico Times interviewed Sanabria before the conference about where the ecotourism revolution stands in the face of the worst global economic crisis since World War II.

TT: What’s your feeling from the industry these days?

RS: All of us involved with the tourism industry are concerned with the situation. I think that the tourism industry has a great ability to be extremely resilient to changes. This industry has gone through hell. You name it. Wars, terrorist attacks, viruses, tsunamis… and it recuperates quickly. However, there’s no precedent regarding the situation now in the world economy, so speculating on what the final consequences will be is risky.

Arrivals are declining, jobs are being lost. How do you convince a business to go green in this climate?

Based on our observations and the studies that we have consulted, the interesting thing is that despite the fact that the slowdown in the economy is eating up specific industries, the trend toward the more environmentally conscientious consumer is still growing. Proof of that is that the number of sustainable goods and services in the marketplace in the U.S. is projected to triple in 2009 (citing an April 20 article in the magazine Advertising Age).

What does this mean for the travel industry?

The mainstream tourism channels are now being permeated by the same principles that once were the special domain of the ecotourist committed to environmental conservation.

Let me give you an example. Do you think that (travel Web sites) Expedia and Travelocity would be investing in creating their green directories if there weren’t a market out there? And they just launched them a couple of months ago. These companies have good market intelligence. They know where the trends are heading and they invest accordingly.

Precisely because of that, suppliers in countries like ours should bear in mind that this is not the time to (throw in) the towel but actually the time to take advantage of the investments you’ve already made in your company to make it more sustainable and in line with trends in the marketplace.

But how sustainable can this fastgrowing industry be?

The theory behind sustainable travel is all about creating for people an alternative that is less destructive and less extractive than other industries, like unsustainable cattle and unsustainable forestry and slashand-burn agriculture, for instance.

The reason organizations such as ours have invested in promoting sustainable tourism is that it provides an alternative that is less damaging to the environment and local communities.

Maybe this is an opportunity for the tourism industries in Costa Rica and other countries to rethink and reinvent themselves.

I mean, we were growing too fast, and having, in some cases, unplanned tourism development. When you’re hit with a crisis like this, you start defining priorities.

You use that opportunity to be able to better assess where your investments should go. In a way, I think that this came at the right time for many destinations that were on the verge of becoming unsustainable or destinations that were going to be gone in just a couple of years – from overdevelopment.

This is like a reality check for all of us to say, well, let’s look at which model is more sustainable.


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