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Eco-Tourism: Rethinking the Benefits

By Monique Monteverde

Lush jungles, warm sandy beaches, palm trees and exotic wildlife: all symbols of the tropics, all images used to attract tourists and travelers alike who are looking for a way to escape from their typical temperate-zoned lifestyle. The images work well for the small Central American country of Costa Rica.

Tourists in Costa Rica are as numerous as the leaf-cutter ants that cut paths through the floors of the rainforests, which carpet the country’s interior with their rich green color.

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Like these ants, whose network of trails scar the forest floor, the tourists also travel on well beaten paths, flowing steadily in and out of the ever popular resort towns that speckle any map of the country.

But the tourists are not out searching for leaves; they travel through the country looking to enjoy themselves in the beauty of the tropics. They have come to swim in warm waters, surf big breaks, eat cheap and exotic food, see howler monkeys and three-toed sloths; to be mesmerized by the rainforests; to experience "Tico," or Costa Rican culture; to go wild in the night; to party on the beach; to drink guaro and cervez; to be adventurous and paddle down wild rivers or swing through the jungle on vines.

And wouldn’t you, too? Everywhere is beautiful, everyone is friendly, and everything is cheap.

And so tourists run rampant throughout the country and the Costa Rican tourism industry reaps in enough profits to make the country one of the most economically comfortable in all of Central America. And the industry is only growing stronger thanks to a successful marketing strategy that has given tourism a whole new twist--letting tourists go to the tropics and save the environment at the same time.

People feel good about themselves when they spend their traveler’s checks supporting one of the many eco-tour companies, eco-lodges, or even eco-restaurants, which are with no doubt dedicated to saving the world’s rainforest and protecting endangered species. "Eco-tourism" has arrived in Costa Rica, and it’s booming. But how environmentally friendly is eco-tourism?

It may have started out as a movement by small hotels or businesses to educate visitors about the rich biodiversity of life in the country and the threats that it faces, but its popularity with tourists has engaged many developers and tour-operators who see the "green" movement as a way to bring in more greenbacks, not as a way to inform people about the environmental woes of the tropics.

Tourism has quickly become the economy’s major source of income and this is attracting more developers than ever before. And many tourist businesses are operated by foreigners who hire cheap labor and who are unfamiliar with the ecological concerns of the communities where they are developing.Yet the Costa Rican people are well aware of what’s happening in their country, and they can choose whether to continue collecting all the economic benefits at an unprecedented rate or strengthen regulations on development and protect their ecological reserves and preserves.

While it may seem like the side with the fast money always triggers the most support, many Ticos are taking heed of the warnings of what over-development and too much tourism can bring along with it.

A major concern is the loss of culture that occurs in changing small towns into resorts with hotels running down the beach or in placing strict user regulations in formerly public land when they become designated as ecological reserves or national parks.

Traditions can disappear rapidly when more beachfront hotels are built and more margarita-selling restaurants take over the streets. Some people who were dependent on the rainforest for food and resources turn to the tourism industry for jobs as park rangers or naturalist guides, and the old wisdom needed to navigate and hunt in the forest no longer needs to be taught to sons and daughters.

There are few indigenous tribes still remaining in Costa Rica and their proximity to developing tourist destinations is slight. Fortunately, all the attention that eco-tourism has been receiving in Costa Rica has attracted many Ticos to pursue careers in the new craze.

Universities offer classes, even degrees in eco-tourism, which teach the people of Costa Rica how to manage their own eco-tour operations. Here the emphasis in the eco is genuine. By learning how to manage the country’s natural treasures in a sustainable manner, Ticos can prevent over-exploitation of their environment and educate naturalists to encourage visitors to support both the rainforests and the communities around them.

And those Ticos who see how tourism is overrunning their cultures and traditions are beginning to work toward controlling the growth of tourism in a way that maintains economic gain without losing cultural heritage. If the Costa Rican people can encourage the growth of eco-tourism to continue and if they can govern this growth themselves, while controlling exploitative tendencies, then the country will be able to continue to welcome travelers to its lands, while keeping its traditions alive, its economy secure and its rainforests ecologically sound.


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