Final-Commodifying the Rainforest: The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism in Costa Rica

This discussion topic submitted by Khara Scott-Bey ( at 1:00 pm on 5/18/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

I finally decided on this topic after grappling with issues of environmental ethics and sustainable development. So many developing countries are turning to ecotourism as a way to profit off of their biodiversity. On the one hand, I feel that this commodification not only disrupts the natural systems of these areas but also turns environments into middle-class playgrounds that alienate indigenous cultures and further removes them from the land. On the other hand, it is a way to develop an economy not based on destruction but on conservation. For many countries it is becoming a viable option when faced with deforestation and environmental degradation. What I plan to look at in my paper is how I, as a future ecologist, should situate myself in this argument. Is ecotourism a tool of destruction or a tool of sustainability?

Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Throughout the world, Costa Rica has a reputation as a country that is actively and seriously involved in efforts to conserve its national heritage. As a part of this commitment they have been the pioneers for a number of conservation efforts - one of these being ecotourism. In our reader there is an article by the president of Costa Rica describing some of the measures that are being taken to make ecotourism a viable economic and ecological option. In our class we pose the question of how do we balance human needs with conservation? Though Costa Rica has made a diligent try at answering this question I will offer in this paper ways the system could be improved as well as ways it has been helpful. In this essay I will attempt to look at ecotourism in Costa Rica with a critical eye and decided whether it is a tool of destruction or a viable option for sustainable development. I hope to accomplish this by looking at both sides of the argument and then assessing the ecotourism industry in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is an ideal site for travelers since it has the combined attraction of a rich cultural history, lush and prominent undisturbed natural areas and a sufficiently developed community. There are 75 protected areas that total 1.1 million hectares (1/4 of the national area) of their country which it makes it a perfect spot for eager ecotourists who swarm there to experience the "untouched wilderness". Presently, these protected areas are home to 500 tree species, 200 fern species, 300 orchids, 600 butterfly, 400 birds, 100 mammals, and 120reptiles and amphibians. (Beletsky, 7) The problem ecotourism is facing is the increased population of tourists who are coming to experience this natural majesty. The table below shows the increase in ecotourism over time in Cost Rica.

TABLE 1 : Growth of Ecotourism in Costa Rica (Beletsky, 9)
Number of International arrivals to Costa Rica
Number of visits to national parks by foreigners Number of visitors to Monteverde cloud reserve Number of researcher/visitor-days at La Selva Biological station
1985 250,000 ? 7,000 8,100
1986 250,000 ? 9,000 9,600
1987 260,000 ? 13,000 109,800
1988 320,000 125,000 15,000 12,400
1989 375,000 160,000 17,500 14,100
1990 425,000 220,000 26,000 15,200
1991 500,000 260,000 40,000 15,900
1992 580,000 325,000 49,000 ?
1993 680,000 400,000 50,000 18,700
1994 750,000 375,000 49,800 ?
1995 785,000 251,000 50,600 22,200
1996 779,000 269,000 47,500 21,700

What this paper will explore is what the effects are of this popularity on the sustainability of the development of Costa Rica.

What is Ecotourism
Ecotourism is the fastest growing sector in the world with an estimated growth rate of 10-15% ( Scheyvens, 245). The principles behind the term ecotourism often come in direct conflict with its actual application. Much of this has to do with the confusion that surrounds its definition. It has been defined by Blangy and Wood (Wall, 483) as, " responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environmental and sustain the well-being of local people." Or as defined by Cebalos-Cascurian (Scheyvans, 245) as, "Environmentally responsible, enlightening travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations."
Regardless of its definition what ecotourism succeeds in doing is change the relationship between the tourist and the landscape. The difference between tourism and ecotourism is that tourism, in the traditional sense, has been the intrusive, exploitative practice of white, privileged Westerners and their shallow attempt to objectify 'savage' people. (This includes ideas of Indiana Jones and such which don't take into account for the repercussions made on the native people and socioeconomic systems). Ecotourism, in its purest intentions, seeks to cultivate relationships between nature, culture and the spectator. These links allow for cultural, natural and economic sustainability through cultural learning (there is a heavy focus on the natural).
Threats to sustainability
In order for ecotourism to be an acceptable tool for sustainable development it must take into consideration three things: it must be economically viable, ecologically sensitive and socially excepted by native peoples. Unfortunately this is often not the case and this has much to do with the fact that there are many different community sectors that have desires when it comes to what they should get out of ecotourism. . The five main perspectives are the native perspective, governmental perspective, tourist perspective, conservationist perspective, and tourist industry perspective. All of these 'players' have a desire and often the wants of one conflict with the wants of another. These conflicts often compromise the integrity of the sustainability of ecotourism.
Environment- When I first heard the promotion of ecotourism I was excited. I thought 'finally - a way to reconnect people to the environment with out harming it'. Of course, later on as I looked deeper into the practices of communities that were implementing ecotourism as a plan for sustainability I realized this is not the case. What seems most confusing was how the patron of an ecotour could be unaware or uncaring as to the impact they are making on these environments. After all, I assumed that those who were drawn to ecotourism already had an ecological conscious. What I recognize now is that even if these "ecologically minded" patrons touch nothing and only take photographs they are still enacting environment change.
Ecotourism revolves around the natural environment and often these environments are exotic compared to the suburban landscapes that these patrons often come form. Costa Rica in particular is one the most biodiverse places in the world for its size. And because of this density in 'exotic' species ecotourists are drawn to these areas in record numbers. These areas have also evolved a very complex ecosystem that has been maintained for a long time and is sensitive to change, so in a sense eco-patrons are destroying that which they revere. Besides the disturbance that is inherent in just the presence of ecotourists, the problem is augmented when tourist seasons interfere with the natural process of an ecosystem such as breeding and feeding. Even if the on-site impact is minuscule, the off-site impact may be substantial. For example, the city of San Jose is filled with hotels and restaurants and other consumer industries. Often after carefully navigating the tropical rainforest of the Monteverde forest, the troop of eco-friendly tourists decide to go back to the city to relax. All of a sudden their environmental conscious is non-existent. This has a lot to do with the way we ecologists ignore urban environmental issues, especially in comparison with natural resource issues. It is important to remember that urban issues are environmental issues and as such ecotourism should be concerned with urban and tropical ecosystems since both effect each other. In our reader, the president of Costa Rica proposed a system of rating hotels in which tourists inhabit based on how ecologically sound these businesses are. This is a great start at creating a holistically eco-friendly system. However, hotels by their very nature are wasteful - so I challenge Costa Rican government even further to either limit tourist travel to their country or harshly penalize businesses that don't meet an ecologically sound agenda. The problem, of course, with this line of optimistic thinking is it limits economic growth, but I believe it is important that if an ecotourism trip is to be truly ecological it must take into account every level of the trip.
Economic-Ecotourism is only an important issue because it generates money. The difference between tourism and ecotourism is that tourism has not been focused on a cultural sharing or ecological homage. It has been used as a way for third world countries to commodify their ecosystems in order to cultivate economic resources. However, the toll this system has taken on these countries has not been worth it. Ecotourism can attribute its popularity to the way it proposes to make money while at the same time it attempts to maintain the ecological integrity of the country.
One of the biggest economic problems that I have encountered in my critique of ecotourism is the top-down distribution of profit money. This is due to a variety of reasons, the first being that much of the money spent by tourists is spent out of country visited or in their place of origin. And by comparison, very little is spent within the visited country. Some of these point of origin costs include travel arrangements, and travel agents as well as merchandise. Even within the country most companies involved in ecotourism have their headquarters in the North. This is due simply because these small companies are ill-equipped to handle the many areas of interest. Unfortunately, many of the companies that boast eco-tourism often neglect the 'eco' part and are solely in it for profit. This sort of industrial tourism does very little to increase the livelihoods of local people. It is estimated that only 50% of the profit made by ecotourism in Costa Rica leaks back into local communities and very little of this is put into conservation. The very nature of ecotourism makes it a difficult economic venture to begin with. Ecotourism revolves around natural areas and there are very little ways to spend money in the wilderness.
Community empowerment - One of the most important and overlooked aspects of ecotourism as a sustainable tool is community empowerment. Ecotourism should be wholly about empowering local people, not imposing upon them. As a subsequent benefit of empowerment I believe you will find an increase in economic growth. As I have mentioned before, ecotourism has largely been focused on natural environments and biodiversity which has often been at the neglect of local communities. In some cases, in an attempt to preserve natural environments for ecotourism the traditional resources of indigenous people are eliminated, thereby depriving them of their livelihood. For example. the marginalized people of Tortugero National Park who have traditionally been hunters and gatherers within the forest. With the introduction of tourism (which supposedly was meant to increase their socio-economic growth) has pushed them off their land. Because they lack "relevant" skills and power they were simply displaced. They now must compete with tourist for the use of their natural resources. This brings us back to the idea of empowerment. In order for ecotourism to be truly sustainable it must make community involvement a top issue. They should have a high degree of control over their land and a significant amount of the revenue generated should go to these communities. This community-based approach to ecotourism recognizes the relationship between indigenous cultures and their natural environment as well as promotes issues concerning the quality of life. Ecotourism must also take into account local empowerment issues as well as economic issues. On the next page is an empowerment framework which was taken from an article by R. Svcheyvens called "Ecotourism and the Empowerment of Local Communities". I found this to be a very complete guide of the different kinds of empowerment, what the implications of this sort of empowerment is and what the signs of a disempowered group look like. What this table offers is a look at the complex issues that one must deal with when looking at ecotourism as well as examining how ecotourism can be a tool for community empowerment.
TABLE 2: Framework for determining the impacts of ecotourism initiatives on local communities (Sheyvens, 247)

Signs of Empowerment Signs of disempowerment
Economic Empowerment Ecotourism brings lasting economic gains for local community. Cash earned is shared between many households in the community. There are visible signs of improvements from cash that is earned (e.g. improved water systems, houses made of more permanent materials). Ecotourism results in small spasmodic cash gains for local community. Most profits go to local elites, outside operators, government agencies, etc. Only a few individuals gain direct financial benefits from ecotourism, while others can not find a way to share in these economic benefits because they lack capital and /or appropriate skills

Psychological Empowerment Self-esteem of many community members is enhanced because of outside recognition of the uniqueness and value of their culture, their natural resources and traditional knowledge. Increasing confidence of community members leads them to seek out further education and training opportunities. Access to employment and cash leads to an increase in status for traditionally low-status sectors of society e.g. women and youths
Many people have not shared in the benefits of ecotourism, yet they may face hardships because of reduced access to the resources of a protected area. They are thus confused, frustrated, disinterested or disillusioned with the initiative.
Social Empowerment Ecotourism maintains or enhances the local community's equilibrium. Community cohesion is improved as individuals and families work together to build a successful ecotourism venture. Some funds raised are used for community development purposes, e.g. to build schools or improve roads. Disharmony and social decay. Many in the community take on outside values and lose respect for traditional culture and for elders. Disadvantage groups (e.g. women) bear brunt of problems associated with the ecotourism initiative and fail to share equitably in its benefits. Rather than cooperating, individuals, families, ethnic or socio-economic groups compete with each other for the perceived benefits of ecotourism. Resentment and jealousy are commonplace.

Political Empowerment The community's political structure, which fairly represents the needs and interests of all community groups, provides a forum through which people can raise questions relating to the ecotourism venture and have their concerns dealt with. Agencies initiating or implementing the ecotourism venture seek out the opinions of community groups (including special interest groups of women, youth and other socially disadvantaged groups) and provide opportunities for them to be represented on decision-making bodies e.g. the Wildlife Park Board.
The community has an autocratic and/or self-interested leadership. Agencies initiating or implementing the ecotourism venture treat communities as passive beneficiaries, failing to involve them in decision-making. Thus the majority of community members feel they have little or no say over whereby the ecotourism initiative operates or the way in which it operates

Ecotourism as a Sustainable Tool
The conclusion I have come to after researching the topic of ecotourism is that ecotourism can be a great tool for sustainability. However, current practices have not taken into account the many facets of development and looked holistically at the problem. I have given ample evidence of how ecotourism can be a tool of destruction, but hopefully by taking a critical look at ecotourism we can make progress. We know the mistakes that are being made and we know how much worse it could be. Now it is up to us to use this knowledge to move forward and there is no better place for this to be done then in Costa Rica. Costa Rica exhibits a sensitivity to sustainable issues that few other countries have done. It is this sensitivity that gives it the potential to be a sustainable model for the world.

Becker, Joanna. "The Potential of Sustainable Development in Costa Rica," Sustainable Development (Sust. Dev. 6, 123-129) 1998

Beletsky, Les. The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide to Cost Rica (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998)

Brandon, Katrina, " Ecotourism and Conservation : A Review of Key Issues," (Washington D.C.: Global Environment Division, Environment Department, The World Bank, 1996)

Pleumarom, Anita. "The Political Economy of Tourism" Ecologist (Dorset, England: MIT Press, July/Aug. 1994)

Scheyvens, Regina. "Ecotourism and the Empowerment of Local Communities," Tourism Management (New Zealand: Elsevier Science Ltd., 1999)

Wall, Geofrey. "Is Ecotourism Sustainable?" Environmental Management ( New York: Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1997)

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