San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Parks Generate $1.5 Billion for C.R. Economy

While the upkeep of Costa Rica’s national parks has cost government ministries millions of dollars, the protected areas have proven lucrative for private enterprise.

In 2009, Costa Rica’s national parks and biological reserves generated more than $1.5 billion in income, according to a study released last month by the Center for Economic Policy for Sustainable Development, based at the country’s NationalUniversity (CINPE-UNA).

More than 70 percent of this money went to tourism businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and transportation and travel agencies.

“Tourism is one of the most important sectors surrounding our national parks and protected areas,” said Gerardo Jiménez, director of CINPE-UNA.

The millions generated by Costa Rica’s preserved lands accounted for 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2009.

But the study, which included field research from three of the country’s national parks, found that Costa Rica doesn’t always reap the bulk of the economic benefits.

In Rincón de la Vieja, a national park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, the study found that 61 percent of the cash generated by the park leaves the country, flowing into the hands of international travel agencies and foreign tour operators. In 2009, the park sparked more than $25 million in income.

Roughly 36 percent of the dividends go to national services, such as gas stations or the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute. A mere 2.2 percent of the income reaches local businesses around Rincón de la Vieja.

“We recommend that the country implement measures to increase the amount (distributed at) the local and national level,” Jiménez said. “There should more of a balance in the distribution of the benefits that these areas generate.”

By contrast, almost all of the money generated by PaloVerdeNational Park in Guanacaste stayed in Costa Rica.

In the case of Palo Verde, international travel agencies took home approximately 7 percent of the money while local businesses received nearly 30 percent of the economic benefits generated by the park. Most of the remainder went to national tour operators or suppliers.

Part of the reason for the disparity between these two parks, the study concluded, is due to the types of visitors that each attracts.

Rincón de la Vieja’s active volcano makes it an easy pitch for foreign travel agencies that rely on vacation-package tourists eager to bathe in the mountain’s geothermic hot  springs or take a tubing tour through thepark.

In contrast, Palo Verde’s principal visitors are researchers and students interested in studying animals and learning wetland management techniques. As a result, local rent-a-car agencies and Costa Rican-owned hotels are the main beneficiaries, according to the study.

The tourist sector alone earned over $1 billion in 2009.

In addition, roughly $405.8 million – 26.3 percent of last year’s $1.5 billion total national park-related earnings – filtered into the energy sector. This figure considers revenue-generating services by parks and reserves for the nation’s hydroelectric plants in keeping their water sources clean and abundant.

The remaining money trickled into the national park system in the form of direct employment (1.7 percent), and park and reserve entrance fees (0.93 percent).

The study comes at a time when the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) owes $150 million in expropriation costs to landowners within park boundaries, and must pay millions more in annual maintenance and conservation costs.

Environment Minister Teófilo de la Torre told The Tico Times that many of these funds  must come from outside sources, such as internationaldonations.

But while Jiménez asserted that the CINPE-UNA study is not an analysis of the debts owed to the parks or of the maintenance costs for the protected areas, the study did suggest an intriguing possibility.

Establishing financial incentives, such as paying for environmental services provided by protected areas, could help fund conservation in these areas. The sectors that benefit from the parks and wildlife refugees could be obligated to contribute to their well-being, the study recommends.

“The management of these parks must come from integrated environmental policies based on standards developed between companies, communities and the public sector,” Jimenez said. “The management of the national parks and biological refuges must be centered on a modern approach of public-private regulation.”

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