According to the U.S. Department of State, Costa Rica has been a Constitutional Democracy since 1949, which makes it the oldest and most stable democracy in all of Latin America. Its partnerships with the global community are therefore a matter of some inherency. But this inherency cannot be accepted without some caution. This is demonstrated by a study produced Boo (1992). Here, at the early outset of Costa Rica's effort to grow tourism, Boo's research warned that some of the risks of increased interaction between growing numbers of tour groups and protected natural lands might be difficult to project. Accordingly, Boo noted that "increasing demand for nature tourism is reflected in the number of tour operators offering tours to protected areas and in the increasing number of foreign visitors to national parks. Examples of some of the major protected areas are presented and the economic impacts of tourism are assessed. In environmental terms, nature tourism has had many beneficial impacts. Few negative impacts have been recorded, but comprehensive scientific studies have yet to be carried out." (Boo, p. 25)
This would denote the uncertainty with which Costa Rica would attempt to pursue a balance between its natural bounty and its economic objectives.
Public Policy Recommendations:
Today, it is clear that there is no reversing the trend of foreign involvement in Costa Rican affairs. Like so many other developing nations, it is to an extent at the mercy of globalization's implications. Free-trade agreements and especially the presence of so much FDI from the United States, indicate that public policy will be impacted by external forces. It is for this reason that policy orientation must increasingly reflect mobilization of local communities where possible.
As this effects policy recommendation, it is of great importance that Costa Rica seize on examples of success already achieved in its first decades of evolving ecotourism. An article by Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan (2010) provides a case study of the success achieved in balancing local community involvement with significant tourism influx in order to maintain sustainability while simultaneously bringing financial growth to residents of such areas. The result of the study, Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan would report, would be a demonstration of the ways in which local community involvement tend to advance the goals of natural conservation.
The study presented in their article offers a case study of the small town of La Fortuna, which rests in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano. Because the volcano and its surrounding habitat draw so many visitors, La Fortuna has increasingly become defined by its accommodation of visitors even as it remains a highly residential community. There is a clear stasis here between the protection of the natural beauty that distinguishes the region and the facilitation of lodging, shopping, dining and even some modest nightlife in the small downtown area. In their study, Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan report that La Fortuna is a positive example of the way that local policy development should involve community agency to seamlessly integrate tourism needs. According to Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan, "the study shows how economic, social and environmentally sustainable practices were made possible through community agency, the construction of local relationships that increase the adaptive capacity of people within a common locality. Key factors found to enable community agency are strong intra- and extra-community interactions, open communication, participation, distributive justice and tolerance." (Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan, p. 735)
These features all are in evidence in Fortuna and have been achieved without sprawl and with minimal disruption of the natural landscape. The wide array of resorts and hotels that crop out from the town are generally built into the geographic peculiarities of the region rather than constructed in spite of them. As Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan show, this approach is the result of the employment of local rather than corporate or foreign developers as well as the mobilization of members of the local community as tour bus drivers, hospitality staffs, shopkeepers and tour guides. This model is in evidence elsewhere throughout Costa Rica and should be seen as the template for policy approach in continually emergent areas of interest to tourists. As the text by Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan resolves, "such community-based development has been noted as essential for sustainable practices because of its capacity to benefit local populations while reducing tourism's negative consequences." (Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan, p. 735)
Additionally, policy-makers should appeal to these local populations as a way of addressing areas of need for tourists as well as terms of restrictions for land use. For instance, the article by Hearne & Salinas (2002) reports that "Many nations promote nature-based tourism in order to promote the dual goals of nature conservation and income generation. To be most effective in providing services that facilitate achievement of these goals, decision makers will need to understand and incorporate tourist preferences for nature appreciation, infrastructure, use restrictions, and other attributes of national parks and protected areas." (Hearne & Salinas, p. 153) The article by Hearne & Salinas even goes on to report that most foreign tourists to Costa Rica, when surveyed, indicated that they would support the restriction of human access to certain protected lands as a way of balancing ecological needs with ecotourism demands.
Out of a certain necessity precipitated by its economic growth, pricing is also changing in Costa Rica. Tourists who might have visited Costa Rica just five years ago are likely to find that souvenirs, adventure tours, transportation, food and drink have all significantly risen in price. It will fall upon policy-makers to make similar supply-demand adjustments where usage of natural lands is concerned such that the resources incoming from foreign visitors remain commensurate to the need to reduce the ecological footprint left by these visitors. It is thus that the text by Chase et al. (1998) reports "a growing body of literature has emphasized the role of user fees in the management of national parks and protected areas, primarily in developed countries. In developing countries seeking to balance environmental and economic growth objectives, the challenges facing policymakers are particularly great." (Chase et al., p. 466) This denotes that it is incumbent upon Costa Rica's public policy decision-makers to find the threshold at which a rise in the cost of access will reconcile the ecological consequences of the influx of tourists without diminishing the economic opportunities produced by this same pattern.
As the policy recommendations here above illustrate, balance is a recurrent theme. The recommendations call for balance between economic growth opportunity and ecological protection; for balance between the influence of foreign investors and the participation of local populations; and for balance between the provision of access to visitors and the construction of limitations as well. In each of these areas, the inherent theme of balance is synonymous with the goals of achieving ecological and environmental stasis.
Ultimately, then, we can see that it is of the utmost importance that Costa Rica not lose sight of the things that make it truly unique in the global community. While its natural beauty and wildlife may intrigue, educate and fascinate visitors, these ecological networks do not exist simply to benefit the curiosity of humankind. Such is to say that the goals of ecotourism should not alone be the incentive to continue Costa Rica's distinctive record on environmental protection. This denotes a failure to protect ecology for its own sake. While the economic imperatives that drive Costa Rica's ecotourism are of tremendous importance to both this discussion and the positive growth of the nation itself, these imperatives must remain always balanced by the primacy of environmental imperatives. Only then will Costa Rica find ways to maintain the stasis between tourism and conservation.
Boo, E. (1992). Ecotourism: The potential and pitfalls-Country Case Studies. Organizacion para Estudios Tropicales, 2, 25-52.
Chase, L.C.; Lee, D.R.; Schulze, W.D. & Anderson, D.J. (1998). Ecotourism Demand and Differential Pricing of National Park Access in Costa Rica. Land Economics, 74(4).
Costa Rica Tourism (CRT). (2010). Welcome to Costa Rica! Tourism.co.cr.
Hearne, R.R. & Salinas, Z.M. (2002). The use of choice experiments in the analysis of tourist preferences for ecotourism development in Costa Rica. Journal of Environmental Management, 65(2), 153-163.
Laarman, J.G. & Perdue, R.R. (1989). Science Tourism in Costa Rica. Annals of Tourism Research, 16(2), 205-215.
Matarrita-Cascante, D. & Brennan, M.A. (2010). Community Agency and Sustainable Tourism Development: The Case of La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18(6), 735-756.
Menkaus, S. & Lober, D.J. (1996). International Ecotourism and the Valuation of Tropical Rainforests in Costa Rica. Journal of Environmental Management, 47, 1-10.
Van Noorloos, F. (2011). Residential Tourism Causing Land Privatization and Alienation: New pressures on…