Ecotourism in Costa Rica. Is it key to conservation of flora&fauna?Final draft

This topic submitted by willis okech ( at 8:36 PM on 5/15/04.

This Spider Lassos Her Prey from the heavens above! (Monteverde Cloud Forest)

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

ECOTOURISM IN COSTA RICA: Is it Key to the Conservation of Costa Rica’s Flora and Fauna?
Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry and has been and continues to be the world’s largest and fastest growing industries. Within the last 15 years, one segment has continued to grow tremendously; this segment that is nature based is called ecotourism. Millions of “ecotravellers” are traversing the globe in search of species and natural wonders of the world that are threatened with extinction and are by large irreplaceable. The benefits from the revenue generated have been identified as a key to a sustainable balance between man and nature. However some experts argue that the increase in tourist traffic brought about by ecotourism, may be hastening the demise of the species worldwide (Honey, 1999). Costa Rica is one of the leading ecotourist destinations. Do the benefits outweigh the negative consequences of mass travel associated with Ecotourism?
The word “eco” in tourism is derived from the ecological resources such as flora, fauna, and scenery that ecotourism is based upon. Other aspects of interests of ecotourism that are not “eco” based are the cultures of the indigenous people in a tourist destination, historical artifacts and such. Even visits to wine growing locales like the California, and South Africa can be classified as ecotourism.
The origin of ecotourism is mainly attributed to the urgency among nature lovers to see the natural habitats and their harbored wildlife before they forever vanish from the surface of the earth. Conservationists, Non-Governmental Organizations, Governments in the developing country, the travel industry and the public all combined to come up with ecotourism (Honey, 1999).
The wanton decimation of the elephant and rhino populations in Africa especially in Kenya in the late 70’s and much of the 80’s brought the desire to conserve them and thus the concept of ecotourism was born (McRae, 1998). In this case the wildlife authorities felt that they were loosing the battle against poachers. Thus there was need to effectively protect elephants and rhinos in the “safety” of national parks and reserves. Since some of the poaching was attributed to the locals around the reserve boundaries, ecotourism set out to arrest this. In addition the indifference towards animals and nature reserves by the locals due to the inevitable human-wildlife conflict would be checked. The rush to see these highly endangered species thus fuelled a growth in “ecotravellers”. In South America there was also the rush around the same period to catch a glimpse of the rainforests before they were all cut down and also the diverse flora and fauna. The moral question that has come to bother many is if man has the right to decimate other species on earth. Will our children and their children look back and blame the dire straits that the state of the environment is on us?
Conservation efforts in Costa Rica have a big task of trying to maintain environmental sustainability. The original forest cover in Costa Rica has continued to decrease at an alarming rate. It is estimated that the current forest cover in Costa Rica is less than 15% the original. Most of this is estimated to illegal logging and clearance for agriculture within the last 50 years “Paradise found is Paradise lost” (Wilson, 2002). Now most of the forests exist in small fragments that are under preservation. Banana and pineapple plantations call for virgin land that has over the years been hacked from the nutrient rich virgin forests (Cummins, 2004). Rainforests are home to diverse species worldwide. The Golden Toad has not been recorded in the highland rainforests of Costa Rica within the last 15 years and is now believed to be extinct (Beletsky, 1998).
Ecotourism in Costa Rica.
By all accounts Costa Rica is an ecotourist’s paradise. It is a relatively small country but with varied ecosystems and climates that attract many tourists. There are diverse climates, several distinct ecological zones; tropical beaches, coral reefs, lowland and cloud rainforests etc. These combine to create an area of great biodiversity that such as over 800 species of avifauna, mammal life, and great scenery. Costa Rica is thus able to boast several national parks and preserves. The success if ecotourism in Costa Rica has led to tourism becoming the leading source of foreign exchange revenue, to an extent of surpassing its formerly dominant banana export business (Wilson, 2002). This has been attributed to the country’s strict and great environmental record. In 1975, Costa Rica was the first Central American signatory to the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Strict wildlife laws were enacted as early as 1970.
The success of this has been attributed to the people of Costa Rica. With a high literacy rate coupled with a great love for nature, it has been easy for the locals to see the benefits of sacrificing some of their traditional agricultural practices to promote conservation efforts. Monterverde Cloud Forest Reserve was created in collaboration between scientists and local residents in an effort to protect the Golden Toad (Beletsky, 1998).

Benefits and Negative Consequences of Ecotourism in Costa Rica.
Ecotourism is two-fold; in addition to the aesthetic experiences gained, and the educational experience in the various exotic locales that they get to visit, the tourists’ major goal is to help conserve the habitats that they visit be it coral reefs, rainforests and such as is the case with Costa Rica. Revenue from the fees paid by the tourists has been ploughed back to species protection as is evidenced by the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve (Cummins, 2004). Species that have found a home with least disturbance include the Resplendent Quetzal that is losing a great deal of its natural ecosystems to forest destruction. Quetzals are trogons and most trogons are known to make am altitudinal migration with the change in seasons either for food or nesting, which are both key to their survival.
Ecotourism is key to the healthy survival of the species rich rainforest and especially the fragile coral reefs of Costa Rica. This is because the ecotraveller is expected to “tread lightly” on their visits. Worldwide the tropical forests cover less than 7% of the earth’s surface, yet they account for over 50% of the known species to date.
The increased revenue has also meant a growth in the GDP of Costa Rica; this has been beneficial to the economy of the whole country.
Another aspect that’s associated with ecotourism is the issue of increased scientific research. Such was the case with the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve that stands out as an outstanding ecotourism example (Beletsky, 1998). With increased scientific and environmental knowledge over the last couple of years there is a better understanding of the status of species and how better to ensure a sustainable level between nature and man.
Bioprospecting; the exploration of wild biodiversity in search of useful resources continues such as medicine is another benefit to Costa Rica. The forests of Costa Rica have been recognized as a great reserve of pharmacopoeia. In 1991 Merck, a leading pharmaceutical research company signed an agreement with the Costa Rican authorities (Wilson, 2003).
The locals have greatly benefited directly from ecotourism. Most of the preserves are located in the rural areas which are generally marginalized in developing countries. For Costa Rica there has been an increase of job opportunities for the locals as guides, porters, employment in the hotels and lodges. Local arts and crafts are also great souvenirs that ecotravellers seek. This has greatly helped with the issue of joblessness which is a worldwide problem. In return conservation has been enhanced especially the issue of poaching and bird trade in some areas as the locals see the need to preserve the local resources. The issues of locals being left out of the equation when it comes to environmental issues normally leads to locals acting indifferent to their surroundings and thus there.
Ecotourism has been essential to promoting sustainable use of game preserves in Costa Rica. Since it aims at low impact on areas visited, in preserves such as Monteverde, visitors can only go into small fractions of the park. Revenue from this park is used for protection of the whole cloud forest (Honey, 1999).
Both the locals and the tourists have benefited in environmental awareness that is key to conservation of the environment. For the locals the benefits from ecotourism has meant that they support conservation efforts willingly. In areas where the locals do not see any direct tangible benefits they have been known to even actively engage in poaching practices. Such practices fuel the illegal bird trade that threatens endangered avifauna such as the parrots.
There is of generally greater respect of the locals in developing countries. This means that at least there is still some chances of the locals maintaining their cultures and benefiting directly from it in various ways.
However as argued by Edward Wilson in his book The Future of Life, that “Paradise Found is Paradise Lost” the great rush to see the disappearing species in the world can actually accelerate the demise of the very species that we are trying to protect.
Such side effects include;
There is trail degradation mainly due to the large number of visitors to forest trails. The widening of the trails accelerates the breakup of protective soil cover hence promotes soil erosion in the commonly visited areas. Fragile coral reefs are also under threat as even the slightest impact may have far reaching adverse impacts on the whole ecosystem.
Some of the so called ecotravellers have also been cited in the purchase of prohibited wildlife products such as orchids, ivory, and feathers.
Ecotourism is also blamed for the gradual loss of cultural diversity as more and more tourists visit the last few remaining indigenous areas. Ecotravel has led to the erosion of local cultures as the locals view the dominant Western cultures as of a better standard. A good example is the spread of the English language that inevitably leads to loss of other local languages.
There is the fear overpopulation of ecotourist preserves when such principles and guidelines that control the number of visitors in an area are not followed to the letter. For example an ecotourist destination in Cancun, Mexico, originally a stretch of land inhabited by only 12 families in the 1970’s, now receives more than 2.6 million visitors a year, and has more than 20,000 bed-nights and a permanent population of 300,000 people mostly livid in squalid conditions! (Park & Honey, 1999).
Many companies purporting to be “ecotour” operators are “eco” in name only and are only interested in profits only. Some practice minimal “ecological sustainable practice that are more a cost saving tool in the name of ecotourism. Most of these companies are not wholly locally owned and inevitably the profits end up being drained out of the preserves that are supposed to benefit from them (Beletsky, 1998).


With the current world environmental problems weighing heavily on governments worldwide, there is the need mass all sources in an effort to boost the sustainability of nature reserves. Once a country opens itself to tourism there is no doubt that the economic and commercial pressures impact heavily on the environment. It is almost impossible to isolate any place on earth that is pristine and hasn’t had any human influence at all.
With exemplary cases like Monteverde and management of private reserves in Kenya, if appropriately managed ecotourism a powerful way of justifying conservation of fragile ecosystems worldwide in addition to generating wealth in a sustainable manner (Cowling, 1993). The Lewa Downs Conservancy in Kenya is a privately owned rhino sanctuary that could be essential to bringing back the Black Rhino from the brink of extinction.
Edward Wilson points out that we truly do not know what the biosphere is worth (Wilson, 2002). But what we know for sure is that sustainability of the ecosystems provides a continuous income for generations to come. For Costa Rica and other developing countries, ecotourism provides more than 11 times annual incomes compared to agriculture and pastoralism. It is also a major job generation sector of more than 15 times. It is key to conservation of the ecosystem and environmental sustainability that is essential to all life on earth.

How can we become responsible tourists?
10 Commandments of Ecotourism from the American Society of Travel Agents-ASTA

1. Respect the frailty of the earth. Realize that unless we are willing to help in its preservation, unique and beautiful destinations may not be there for the future generations to enjoy.
2. Leave only footprints. Take only photographs. No graffiti. No litter. Do not take away “historical” souvenirs from historical sites and natural areas.
3. To make your travels more meaningful, educate yourself with about the geography, customs, manners, cultures, and cultures of the region to visit. Take time to listen to the people. Encourage local conservation efforts.
4. Respect the privacy and dignity of others. Inquire before photographing people.
5. Do not buy products made from endangered plants and animals, such as ivory, tortoise shells, animal skins, and feathers, Read “Know before you go” the U.S. Customs list of products which cannot be imported.
6. Always follow designated trails. Do not disturb animals, plants or their natural habitats.
7. Learn about and support conservation oriented organizations working to preserve the environment.
8. Wherever possible walk or utilize environmental friendly/sound methods pf transportation. Encourage drivers of publicly owned vehicles to stop engines when parked.
9. Purchase from those hotels, airlines, resorts, cruise lines, tour operators, and suppliers who advance energy and environmental conservation including water and air quality, recycling, safe management of waste and toxic materials; noise abatement, community involvement; and that provide experienced well trained stuff that are devoted to conservation.
10. Ask your travel agent to identify those organizations that subscribe to ASTA Environmental guidelines for air, land and sea travel. ASTA has recommended that these organizations adopt their own environmental code to cover special sites and ecosystems.


ASTA: American Society of Travel Agents. Ecotourism Code of Conducts.

Beletsky, L. (1998). Costa Rica: The Ecotraveller’s Wildlife Guide. Academic Press. San Diego, CA.

Cummins, H. (2004). Effects of Deforestation in Costa Rica on Global Climate Change. I.E.S lecture, Miami University 4/3/04.

Cowling R. Ecotourism: What is it and What can it Mean for Conservation. Veld & Flora. March 1993.

Honey, Martha S. Treading lightly? Ecotourism's impact on the environment. Environment, v. 41 issue 5, 1999, p. 4-9.

International Ecotourism Society:
Park, Jacob & Honey, Martha. The paradox of paradise. Environment, v. 41 issue 8, 1999, p. 4-5.

Wilson, E.O (2002). The Future of Life. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, NY

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