How Ecotourism Supports Costa Rica
Article by: Julie Howlett.
Last year, 2.3 million people flocked to Costa Rica in search of all it has to offer. Although tourism can come with its own set of issues, Costa Ricans have embraced the chance to show visitors their beautiful country. In return, many tourists have shown their respect by engaging in “ecotourism”: not disturbing the fragile natural areas they visit, supporting local communities, and behaving responsibly as a citizen of the world. Ecotourism is quickly gaining momentum as a movement, and in Costa Rica – where nearly half of tourists take part in ecotourism – the effects are particularly striking.
Preserving Costa Rica’s Biodiversity
Despite covering only 0.03% of the world’s surface, Costa Rica nevertheless contains 4% of the world’s species, making it one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. However, this rich diversity is the result of a complex ecosystem which is easily disturbed by human interference. Although 21% of the country is protected as national parks, there are still many charismatic species in need of further protection: the beautiful scarlet macaws and quetzals, the inquisitive manatee and elusive tapir, the sea turtle, and even the jaguar are all threatened by hunting, habitat loss, and even poaching for the exotic pet trade.
Ecotourism benefits Costa Rica’s environment in two ways. Firstly, it creates employment and provides an economic alternative to environmentally damaging industries such as mining, logging, and agriculture. When landowners and the country itself can earn more by leaving forests pristine, wild areas and their inhabitants are much more likely to be protected. Yet it is possible for tourism to damage the environment, so the second benefit of ecotourism is that it allows visitors a chance to see the beauty for themselves while still walking lightly on the earth. Trained guides, environmentally sound planning, and carefully designed trails are only some of the ways the environment is protected against damage from visitors; through these measures, ecotourism can help safeguard Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity. ‘In addition, many tourists are inspired to protect their own country’s natural splendor, creating a powerful domino effect throughout the world.
How To Be a Responsible Ecotourist
Due to the increased interest in environmentally sound tourism, some companies attempt to take advantage of the buzzwords without truly doing their part. If you’re on a noisy vehicle that’s leaking oil and crashing through the forest, your guide is unlikely to be running on sound environmental principles! Don’t be afraid to ask questions before booking, and read any information available on their environmental and community work (like Bahia Rica’s initiative support and eco-friendly tours).
There are also ways in which you can limit your own environmental footprint while visiting Costa Rica. In many ways, the most important step is to take care of yourself; tourism is like being a guest in someone’s home, and that involves both ensuring your own health and cleaning up after yourself. Prepare for unlikely emergencies by getting a checkup before your trip, carrying any important medication, and ensuring that your traveller’s insurance is the right choice for your trip. Tourists engaging in adventure sports (which may include kayaking, depending on your plan) may need to purchase additional coverage or an advanced plan so that their insurance isn’t considered void in the event of even an unrelated emergency. Plans for backpackers are also available, giving peace of mind to those travelling in a less commercial manner, so examine your options carefully before deciding on the right plan for you. Once you’re in Costa Rica, remember the campsite rule: leave everything the same, or better, than you found it. This means obeying rules around interacting with wildlife, staying on trails, and not collecting anything from the wild. Since community support is also critical, visitors can help their host culture by buying from local businesses and artists.
Working With the Community
Traditional tourism creates a strict divide between a country’s citizens and visitors. Particularly in small communities, this can lead to a system of inequality and hardship for those living in the area. As the awareness of this inequality has grown, many tourists have turned to ecotourism as a way of respecting their host communities and helping to preserve the very culture they’re interested in experiencing.
Due in part to the surge in ecotourism, Costa Rica has seen economic increases even during the recent world recession, allowing for social benefits like a 96% literacy rate, increased infrastructure, and employment in tourism industry jobs which are safer and better-paying than many other industries. Sustainable tourism also creates less obvious opportunities for the local communities – for instance, many visitors and tourism companies make donations to schools, environmental projects, and other worthy causes. Increased education and opportunities allow communities to support their own local businesses, artists, and children, retaining their own culture and making the country an even more attractive destination. With ecotourism on the rise, Costa Rica’s economy and people will continue to have opportunities to diversify, grow, and flourish.
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