San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beach Development Off Track?

A new report by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) calls for cutting back the growing resort-based tourism model in Costa Rica.

The report, released Thursday, April 22, represents two years of research along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

The study advocates limitations on large-scale “sun-and-sand” travel destinations, such as all-inclusive resorts and cruise ship tourism, and favors a nature-based model tailored to the sustainable use of Costa Rica’s resources.

“CREST concurs with its team’s findings of abundant and strong evidence favoring one model – eco-tourism and sustainable tourism as the most beneficial for Costa Rica overall,” the report states. “While resort, residential and cruise tourism will continue to be slices of Costa Rica’s tourism offerings, they need to be demarked with careful planning and clear limitations.”

The report, entitled the Impact of Tourism Related Development on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, is the work 16 researchers from Costa Rica and North America who conducted studies, interviews, field research and surveys, and sifted through official documents and media reports between 2007 and 2009.

The inspiration for CREST’s initiative grew out of a meeting in 2007. Martha Honey, the center’s co-director and co-author of the report, was delivering a presentation about sustainable tourism in Costa Rica before an audience that included the government’s Peace with Nature director, Pedro León, and then Vice President Laura Chinchilla.

“It set off this incredible discussion,” Honey said. “It turned out that no one understood what was going on along the Pacific coast. No one had done a multidimensional study.”


How the Development Began


CREST’s report chronicles the history of Costa Rica’s tourism sector on the Pacific coast and zeros in on the transition from the agriculture and livestock lifestyle of the 1970s and 1980s to one of providing goods and services to foreign travelers throughout the past 20 years.

The Pan-American Highway and other paved road networks began to weave through northwestern and southern Costa Rica. The government initiated the Gulf of Papagayo Tourism Pole and built the LiberiaInternationalAirport in Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province.

Towns that had never been connected to each other were suddenly linked to the rest of the world.

International flights arrived. Hotels began to sprout. And foreign investment flowed into Guanacaste as land for cattle and crops turned into tourist destinations and vacation-home soil.

Perhaps nowhere is the change more evident than in Tamarindo and Playa Grande in Guanacaste.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Hotel Tamarindo Diria was the sole large hotel in the area.

In 1980, less than 1 percent of the Tamarindo-Playa Grande stretch was dedicated to human settlements or tourism. By 2005, more than 27 percent of the area’s tierra firma was devoted to these two sectors, according to the report.

The Tamarindo Diria changed ownership and, in the hands of a foreign owner, became the four-star TamarindoDiriaBeach and Golf Resort, complete with a spa and a casino.

“This comfortable but simple Costa Rican-owned hotel (before the change) catered to both nationals and foreigners,” the report states. “Today the hotel, like the rest of the area, has been transformed.”

The TamarindoDiriaBeach and Golf Resort represented a shift to a booming, predominately foreign-owned, resort-style development. North American investors flew directly to Guanacaste and laid the foundations of hotels with capacities of 150 rooms and up.

The boom is a phenomenon that Honey credits to the LiberiaInternationalAirport.

“There is real synergy between these two,” Honey said. “Resorts will come if there is an international airport.”

The hope was that new foreign investment in large-scale, all-inclusive resorts and residential developments would create jobs. They did, but far fewer than expected and not always to the benefit of local communities.

The report findings show that where tourism grew, extreme poverty fell. But jobs for locals, often in the construction sector, were temporary and low-wage.

Once the businesses were built, the well-paying front office and hospitality jobs went to better-trained outsiders, in many cases.

“The people from Guanacaste are not getting the jobs in tourism,” Honey said. “For those jobs you have to know English and there is no real consistent English training program in Guanacaste. The hotel and restaurant jobs go to people from overseas or from the Central Valley.”

Left with no steady source of income, soaring prices forced many locals into dire straits. Many left the communities where they once lived.

“As a result, the cost of living is higher than in other areas of the country, and this has a detrimental effect on quality of life,” the report says.


Environmental Impact


As hotels grew in size, so did the demand for natural resources and infrastructure. New resorts needed drinking water and sewage systems.

In El Coco and Ocotal in Guanacaste, a spike in the number of hotels led government planners to propose a new aqueduct that would supply water to satisfy the tourism sector’s growing demand for the resource. The aqueduct planned to bring water from the inland Guanacaste community of Sardinal to the coast.

But when Sardinal residents heard of the proposal, many protested and demanded that the infrastructure planning consider local needs over foreign tourism interests.

The aqueduct has not yet been built and the project remains a contentious battle between local community groups, developers, and government agencies (TT, May 23, 2008 and Jan 23, 2009).

“The (El Coco-Ocotal pipeline) served to generate public mistrust and uncertainty about whether there was sufficient water and infrastructure to meet both the needs of existing local communities and economic activities,” according to the report.

More recently in Guanacaste, groups have complained that the 700-room resort Hotel Riu allegedly cut down protected mangrove forests to build a pool and garden in front of the complex (TT, Feb. 26).

As a result of such concerns, an environmental tribunal was set up where community members are beginning to report ecological violations.

But with the number of complaints of development-related environmental damage growing every day alongside the explosion in watchdog groups that also file reports, courts and municipalities find themselves falling behind in resolving natural-resource conflicts.

“Public institutions at the municipal and national levels have been overwhelmed by the rapid pace of coastal development,” the report states. “The demand has made it harder for them to fulfill their responsibilities. Sometimes regulations are simply not followed, while in other cases, agencies do not have sufficient or clear authority to act effectively.”

The economic crisis that gripped Costa Rica’s real estate and construction sectors has slowed development. The downturn might give local governments time to catch up on environmental complaints and adopt preventative measures.

But even if the municipalities can catch up, Honey doesn’t think the resort-style, fun-in-the-sun development should be awarded the same reprieve.

“Our belief, after completing this report, is that eco-tourism is the best development model for Costa Rica’s tourism sector. We understand that, given the price of land, small-scale eco-tourism along the coast is a challenge. But projects still should have a positive effect on the community and the environment.”

See the full report, individual studies and press coverage at:

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