San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CST: Green Leaves Are Badge of Sustainability

Visitors to Costa Rica have a reliable way to experience a truly sustainable vacation thanks to the Costa Rican Tourism Board’s (ICT) certification of sustainable tourism, or CST.

Hotels and tour operators that undergo an exhaustive evaluation by the ICT to rank their sustainability can strive to join the seven hotels and four tour operators who currently hold five leaves – the CST’s highest level of certification.

Since its inception in 2000, this pioneering third-party program has garnered growing interest, and currently averages 30 annual requests for certification from hotels and 15 from tour operators. Certification involves a rigorous process that can take businesses up to two years to establish the necessary policies and practices, but can be a real boon in the country’s competitive tourism industry.

“Having five leaves, we have a special position on the ICT website and therefore get more referrals to our website,” said Hans Pfister of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, which manages the Harmony Hotel in Nosara, in the northwestern Guanacaste province. “Since Harmony is the only hotel in Guanacaste with five leaves, we feel we have gotten a lot out of this and we have increased occupancy at the hotel.”

The ICT offers all certified hotels and tour operators a listing on the program’s website at Additionally, five-leaf companies can participate free in some international tourism fairs.

Gustavo Alvarado, ICT’s director of tourism management, told The Tico Times he believes the CST program has generated better connections between participating businesses and their surrounding communities.

In agreement is Fabián Palma, general manager of Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort, a five-leaf hotel in the Central Pacific’s Manuel Antonio.

“People seek a vacation experience that is also meaningful and has an impact on the community they are visiting,” Palma said.

“Many of our guests, in addition to enjoying the natural attractions in Manuel Antonio, visit schools and rural communities. In this way, they learn about Costa Rican culture and have more contact with Ticos.”

The CST hotel questionnaire includes 153 questions in 20 areas, and goes far beyond conventional measures such as wastewater management, forest protection, noise and light pollution, and water and energy conservation. Hotels are also measured on their involvement with local environmental and social welfare organizations, and on how much they promote local culture in their literature, decorations and gift-shop sales. The certification process also evaluates whether goods with green labels are used in hotel rooms and the kitchen, and whether locally grown and organic produce is used in meal preparation.

Hotels are also rated on whether they hire at least 60 percent local staff and provide equal opportunities for staff of both sexes. Also scrutinized is the presence of sex tourism and drug dealing in the hotel. Hotels need to have natural disaster plans to ensure tourist safety and must provide information on local events, issues and opportunities for guests to interact with the local community.

All policies must be written and made available to staff and guests alike, and hotels must provide instructional materials for guests regarding desirable social, cultural, conservation and other of the hotel’s sustainability-related goals.

Martha Honey, co-founder and co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), said the CST is “one of the strongest programs in the world and has been used as a template for other national programs.”

“Costa Rica has been front and center in this effort, to put teeth into this good concept of ecotourism, to ground it in strong environmental, social and economic standards,” she added.

Kyra Cruz, executive director of ACTUAR, a network of 40 community-based associations,  cooperatives and women’s and indigenous groups offering rural tourism opportunities, said part of her motivation to become certified was to be able to aid her member groups in the process. ACTUAR achieved the five-leaf certification in January and is now assisting five rural inns in their CST application process. Cruz pointed to the program’s accessibility as its main strength and likes that it is a government-run program.

Cruz said she thinks the ICT needs more inspectors to handle requests more efficiently. The ICT’s Alvarado acknowledged there is a sizable waiting list for those seeking to initiate the certification process.

Cruz said she and companies like hers that strive to be sustainable would benefit from knowing about the latest innovations and technologies, such as those showcased at the energy-efficient model home at the National Biodiversity Institute’s INBioparque in Santo Domino de Heredia, north of San José, as well as from technical assistance to implement such measures.

Catalina Cuervo, tourism manager at Costa Rica Referrals travel agency in the western Central Valley town of Atenas, said her company is planning to initiate the certification process. And while she refers to the CST hotel list regularly for her work, she believes “there are simply not many hotels participating.”

“If you consider that Costa Rica has thousands of hotels, and under 200 are actually rated, then I would say the program is falling short of selling the message – and the message is a good one,” Cuervo said.

At present, 114 hotels and 39 tour operators are rated on the CST scale of one to five green leaves. A five-leaf designation indicates a score of over 94 percent on the CST questionnaire that is the basis for a full-day, on-site inspection by ICT officials. The ICT charges nothing to applicants that wish to become certified; the only costs are the investments needed to become a more sustainable operation. Businesses are recertified every two years.

As the tourism industry evolves, the need for new tools is also growing, Honey said. The United Nations Foundation recently launched the Tourism Sustainability Council, headed by Costa Rican Erica Harms.

Honey said the council will seek to create ways to evaluate the design and construction phases of tourism developments to complement programs like the CST that inspect existing businesses.

“Certification is inadequate to cover issues of large-scale developments that may affect entire coasts or ecosystems,” Honey said, adding that those issues “need to be addressed through national planning.”

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