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The Paradox of Tourism in Costa Rica


The New York Times Magazine published a special issue on 11 October 1989 entitled "The Sophisticated Traveler." Costa Rican Pacific beaches were featured in an article that discussed Manuel Antonio National Park, a "naturalistic paradise of 1707 acres of jungle coming right to the high-tide mark of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world." The tourists who travel there, as with all the other national parks in Costa Rica, "tend to carry binoculars and serious cameras along with their sunscreen" (Rose 1989). This description reflects the paradox of promoting tourism as a sustainable development strategy by a government that publicly expounds a philosophy of preservation and conservation while it is saddled with one of the largest ($4.5 billion) foreign debts in the world.

Tourism ranks as the third-largest source of income in Costa Rica (see Figure 1). In 1988, 329,386 tourists visited Costa Rica, with 102,822 from the United States, 63,017 from Panama, and 41,396 from Europe. This represents an increase of 18.5 percent over the number that visited in 1987 (Reed 1989). The increase appears to be in visitors from the United States and Canada, with a decrease in the rate of growth of those from Central America (ICT 1989). Tourists are mainly attracted to Costa Rica because of its natural resources, particularly its national parks and reserves. Others visit for its beaches (especially surfers) and for its fishing, which is considered the best in the world. In 1988, 23 percent more cruise ship passengers arrived than in 1987, and the numbers are growing.

Recent policies reflect a familiar development paradox: should Costa Rica increase tourism in its resort form (deKadt 1979) to attract more people, thus significantly increasing the economic income, or, knowing the detrimental impact that such an influx of tourists could have on natural resources, should it manage tourism development within alternative forms? In the past two years, Costa Rica has opted to strike a balance between these two options: while promoting alternative tourism, the government is also increasing activities in the other "segments" of the tourism industry.

Diminishing Resources

Costa Rica is unique as a part of the historical process in Central America. Its population, descended from a mixture of Spaniards, Indians, and Blacks in the colonial period, is reported presently to be made up of less than 1 percent Indian (estimated at 20,000) and about 5 percent Black (who mostly live in the Limon Province on the eastern coast of the country), and less than 1 percent Chinese. From the 1600s through the mid-1800s; most Costa Ricans made their living on the central plateau, as slash-and-burn farmers. A weak infrastructure and low population served to isolate these farmers from the rest of the world. Migration from the central plateau into the frontier, necessary mainly due to soil depletion from agricultural practices, was slow. The farmers' attitude toward conserving land was, and still is, that it is there solely for the purpose of supporting their families; they have had little regard for the natural or cultural resources (Augelli 1987).

With the emergence of the coffee industry in the mid-1800s, Costa Rica began to form links with foreign governments in order to develop export markets. Another major export product, bananas, was generated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This further promoted the consolidation of land holdings, mostly on the Caribbean coast and, later, on the Pacific coast, where the United Fruit Company was to move their operations in the 1930s and 1940s. Sugar and cacao joined the list of major agricultural exports. Later, in the 1960s, as the Costa Rican government attempted to diversify its sources of income, beef became the third-largest export product. By 1975 beef production received 88.2 percent of agricultural credit allocations and occupied up to 82 percent of the nation's land under production (Guest 1979). Today, approximately 17 percent of Costa Rica's land is seriously eroded or degraded (Leonard 1987).

These developments, which have left Costa Rica vulnerable to fluctuations of the world market and increased its national debt (in 1987, 75 percent of its export profits were spent on foreign debt), also have profoundly impacted the management of its natural and cultural resources. The country's population has grown steadily (0.5 million in 1927, 1 million in 1957, 2 million in 1977, 2.7 million in 1984) and more of its land has been consolidated and owned by foreign companies and investors, pushing the frontiers to their limit. Likewise, Costa Rica's natural resources are being depleted, and policy makers are under pressure to exploit the remaining natural resources for increased economic development. Tourism is one solution that many feel will balance the economic and political needs of the country with the need for resource preservation and conservation agendas.

Preserving Natural Resources

As early as 1969, the Costa Rican government sought to decrease deforestation by passing laws that prohibited spontaneous settlement on public property and disallowed additional claims on public land (Augelli 1987). It did not, however, stop squatter activity, which continues to the present day. Landless farmers, who often have been forced to migrate from the deforested or foreign-owned parts of the country, have turned to the forest for land.

Although forests once covered 99.8 percent of Costa Rica's landscape (Hartshorne et al. 1982), by 1981 they had been reduced to 31 percent. More than half of this deforestation has occurred since 1950. The forest is being cleared at a rate of 60,000 hectares annually, and most of its is converted to pasture (Hartshorne et al. 1981). Much of this land could sustain pasture for only five years because of the rapid soil depletion (Jones 1989). At the present rate of destruction, Costa Rica will soon have no forest remaining other than the protected lands. In order to arrest this process, a National Park Service was established in 1970 with the mission of conserving natural or scenic areas of national interest, perpetuating natural resources, and fostering environmental education and scientific study. Throughout the 1970s foreign conservation groups leaned strongly on the Costa Rican government to protect its resources, leading it to expand the park system, which today consists of 34 units (parks, biological reserves, Indian reserves, and wildlife refuges). By 1989, approximately 12 percent of the country's land is either included in the park system or in privately funded reserves. These areas provide shelter for almost all of the country's 12,000 varieties of plants, 205 species of mammals, 849 species of birds, 160 species of amphibians, 218 species of reptiles, and 130 species of freshwater fish (Boza 1988). Indeed, it has been estimated that 4 to 5 percent of the world's species live in Costa Rica's forests.

The confiscation of these lands, however, has created conflicts between the local communities and the preservation policies. These conflicts have, in many cases, been exacerbated by the presence of more and more tourists at national park and reserve areas. The Costa Rican government has promoted a tourism strategy that focuses on more of a balance between people and the environment, but its impact on the economy may not be enough to exclusively sustain such a plan.

Models of Alternative Tourism

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Costa Rican government concentrated on carrying out the social reforms of the 1948 revolution, while growing numbers of foreign scientists began to study its natural and cultural resources, which led to the development of biotourism, scientific tourism, and academic tourism. The country's two major universities (University of Costa Rica and the National University) established exchange programs that attracted increasing numbers of foreign students. Likewise, private, for-profit schools sprung up to teach Spanish to foreigners.

In the 1980s, growing numbers of nongovernmental voluntary organizations and nonprofit foundations - such as the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), which teaches foreign students Spanish and then requires them to conduct an applies research project on social, cultural, or environmental issues in a community - began operating in Costa Rica. These programs or projects are contingent on foreigners spending time in the country either on research projects or as participants on humanitarian projects. A large number of church groups send missionaries to cities and towns to work on small-scale development projects, and international organizations fund groups to spend several weeks working on projects that deliver services such as dental care to poor communities. This increase in foreign academic and humanitarian projects is partly due to Costa Rica's reputation as the safest country in Central America.

The following examples briefly describe ongoing forms of alternative tourism in Costa Rica today.

Organization for Tropical Studies

La Selva Biological Station is run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a consortium of 44 universities and museums in Costa Rica, the United States, and Puerto Rico. Founded in the 1950s by Leslie Holdridge, OTS began as an experimental farm to protect the primary forest. A field station for researchers, which offered courses in all areas of tropical biology, was established in 1963, and La Selva acquired additional property in subsequent years. In 1980, La Selva was selected by a US National Academy of Sciences Committee to represent neotropical wet lowland forest research. Six years later, it more than doubled its protected forest lands when Braulio Carrillo National Park was extended to its back boundary. La Selva's infrastructure can now accommodate more than 75 researchers and students; in 1987, it recorded an average of 36 persons per day (Clark 1988). In addition to La Selva, academicians also frequently visit the two other research sites operated by OTS, Palo Verde and Las Cruces. Like the National Park Service, OTS views tourism as secondary to resource preservation, research, and education.

OTS's economic impact on the Costa Rican economy has recently been measured through estimating its participants' spending habits. Annual transactions in Costa Rica are between $2.9 million and $10.2 million, with a maximum o $3.4 million being directly injected into its economy and the rest being secondary spending through an economic multiplier. This means that OTS accounts for 2 to 3 percent of Costa Rica's national tourism receipts and less than 0.3 percent of the country's GNP. Thus, its economic impact is deemed greatest in the area of environmental consequences and long-term sustainability (Laarman and Perdue 1988). In addition, OTS serves as a major partner in environmental education and in multimillion-dollar projects aimed at incorporation more wildlands into the National Park and Reserve System (Stone 1988). Although the indirect, qualitative impacts of academic tourism are important, they cannot compare favorably with the quantitative, economic impacts.

The Tropical Science Center

The Tropical Science Center, as a private, nonprofit Costa Rican organization founded in 1962 by OTS founder Leslie Holdridge, focuses on ecological classification using the life zone system. It aims to conduct and support scientific research and education and to encourage the acquisition and application of knowledge on the ecology of tropical environments. It carries out ecological research, environmental impact assessments, and land-use studies with a large number of foreign academicians in a number of Latin American countries. Most of its projects are funded by foreign public and private organizations.

The Tropical Science Center owns and administers the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, established in 1972 as a 28,000-acre private conservation organization and located in the Tilaran mountains of northern Costa Rica. The reserve serves as a laboratory for students and scientists - mostly from the United States - to study the rain and cloud forests.

In the past year, Monteverde has experienced a tourist boom. In an attempt to direct tourism development, community leaders held a weekend conference in October 1988 entitled "Monteverde 2020." The key differences in opinion among the leaders reflect the conflicts present in tourism development in general: there are those who want to increase the infrastructure to attract and accommodate many types of tourists, including "cocoon tourists" (those who want to be sheltered from the native physical and social environments), and those who want to limit tourism to alternative forms in order to preserve the social, cultural, and natural environment. Although the community wants to protect local people from becoming a labor pool for a large, outsider-owned tourism infrastructure, nature tourism can generate "eco-dollars" for conservation. For example, the Monteverde Conservation League, founded in 1986, has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for its projects (Becher 1989). Although data are not available to ascertain its economic impact, its social and environmental impacts can be measured qualitatively: it is a sustainable resource that fosters alternative tourism within the framework of natural resource preservation.

Guanacaste National Park

Guanacaste National Park is, according to Janzen (1986), a new concept in neotropical national parks. Its goals are (1) to use existing dry forest fragments as seed to restore about 700 km of topographically diverse land to a dry forest, (2) to restore and maintain a tropical wildland in order to offer a menu of material goods, and (3) to use tropical wildlife as a stimulus and factual base for reawakening people to the intellectual and cultural offerings of the natural world. This $11.8 million project in northwestern Costa Rica will allow dry forest organisms in Santa Rosa National Park and on the forested slopes of two nearby volcanoes to reoccupy their original areas. Reforestation on tropical restoration ecology is not the only objective, however. Janzen hopes to integrate the park into local Costa Rican society and culture as a major new cultural resource, offering educational programs on natural and cultural preservation and alternative tourism (the University of Costa Rica at Guanacaste now offers a degree in ecological tourism).

The area contains 230 km of established national parks and 470 km of private land owned by outsiders. As was done with the Monteverde preserve, Janzen is trying to obtain this land for "soft" development and to protect it from being turned into resorts or degraded by farmers, loggers, and cattle ranchers. Data are not available to assess the economic impact of this project, but obviously it will increase employment and create an improved infrastructure in the area. The millions of dollars spent to reach its goals will have tremendous impacts and will qualitatively make for long-term sustainability of alternative tourism.


On a much smaller scale - albeit representative of many organizations in Costa Rica that foster alternative tourism with local community involvement - ANAI (Association de los Nuevas Alquimistas) is a regional nonprofit, nongovernmental organization in the southeastern region of Costa Rica, the canton of Talamanca, that supports agricultural research, sustainable development, and education. Its funds come from public and private donations and grants. In 1986 ANAI successfully persuaded the Costa Rican government to establish a 9,449-hectare terrestrial and marine wildlife refuge in the Talamancan canton. ANAI protects the few remaining lowland tropical moist forests and the estuaries and coral reefs, which adjoin the Cocles Indian Reserve, whose Directive Board implements strict conservation policies (Palmer 1989). IN 1989 ANAI started the Talamancan Small Farmers' Association and continued its agroforestry projects in 28 communities. As tourism increases in the area, ANAI is concerned about the balance between alternative and traditional tourism. It supports projects that emphasize protecting the region's natural and cultural resources and, at the same time, educating the local people about the value of these resources and the necessity of maintaining control over their lives in the midst of rapid tourism development.

Developing Selective Tourism

In 1987, 277,000 people visited Costa Rica, more than half from nations outside Central America. Tourism placed third as a source of income revenue (behind coffee and bananas), creating $136 million in income - an increase of $19 million from 1984. In 1988, 329,386 tourists visited Costa Rica, generating $164.7 million in income (see Figure 2). By 1992, the Costa Rican Chamber of Tourism (Canatur) estimates that 542,000 people will visit the country, bringing in an income of $339 million.

Needless to say, Costa Rica's policy makers see tourism as a key factor in their national development plans. Carlos Munoz, president of Canatur, feels that the country needs a strategy that will increase the influx of tourists while protecting its natural resources. "We think that a country as small as Costa Rica is not an appropriate place for massive tourism, but rather `selective' tourism" (Munoz 1989:8). Selective tourism should court both local and foreign tourists and take into account democracy, nature, conventions and meetings, cruise ships, and retirees. Indeed, until recently, much of the country's tourism ads were aimed at Costa Ricans.

In 1984 the government passed legislation that provided incentives to develop five major areas of tourism: (1) oriented activities, such as hotels; (2) air transportation; (3) sea transportation; (4) car-rental agencies; and (5) travel agencies. In 1985 Costa Rica passed the Tourist Development Incentives Law which provides for tax breaks for corporations engaged in tourism infrastructure. However, to qualify for tax incentives, the plans must include building hotels with a minimum of 20 rooms and with strict requirements on use of space, furnishings, baths, and so on. These restrictions often preclude local people from qualifying for incentives. In 1987 it launched an aggressive campaign to attract investment in luxury resort facilities and other joint efforts by public and private sectors, particularly the Costa Rican Coalition of Development Initiative (CINDE), whose goal is to promote tourism and delineate its benefits beyond that of generating income (Madrigal 1989).

Tourism is seen as a major source of employment for Costa Ricans. Selective tourism means the development of new hotel and resort areas and the necessary infrastructure to support them, actions that policy makers believe will stimulate the economy. These policy makers feel that tourism also contributes to regional development, to areas outside of the central plateau where unemployment is high and the infrastructural education and health services are weak and where "the possibilities of social conflicts with serious political repercussions do exist" (Madrigal 1989). They also feel that tourism can reverse migration into the cities by providing employment in rural areas.

Figure 2

Costa Rica: Arriving International Tourists by Region


Region 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988

North America 88,360 89,825 93,105 104,841 123,551

Central America 126,474 112,623 106,825 108,543 124,728

Caribbean 5,055 4,294 3,957 3,438 5,103

South America 20,432 20,915 21,272 21,768 26,150

Europe 28,516 28,179 29,026 32,354 41,396

Other regions 5,064 5,716 6,655 6,917 8,458

TOTAL 273,901 261,552 260,840 277,861 329,386

Source: Departamento de Estadistica e Investigation (ICT), 1988

In 1988, CINDE and the Costa Rican Tourism Bureau (ICT) signed an agreement on an incentive program designed to bring foreign investors in to help in the growth of tourism in Costa Rica. To realize their goal of bringing in $1 billion of foreign exchange income by 1995, the private and public sectors are attempting to develop first-class beach hotels and other amenities. These approaches were highlighted in March 1988 when Jeb Bush, son of President Bush, visited Costa Rica to attend a meeting of the Costa Rica-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Bush urged AmCham to pressure the US Agency for International Development (AID) to give Costa Rica more money for tourism, especially for building roads to beaches, which could benefit both commerce and industry (Ruhlow 1988). In fact, tourism investors and developers can secure AID loans through private banks and they must generate foreign exchange. In an effort not to slight Costa Rican tourists, ICT president Gutierrez has devised a two-season plan that focuses on foreign tourists during the "summer" and Costa Rican tourists during the "winter" (Reed 1989).

Obviously, these policies are not restricted to alternative tourism but represent a blend of many forms of tourism. The reasons for this are just as obvious. In a country facing a major foreign debt, alternative tourism does not contribute enough to its economic well-being.

Trade-Offs and Constraints

Costa Rica has the largest middle class in Central America. Because it abolished its army in 1948, it has channeled more of its resources into education, health, and social welfare programs. Almost 12 percent of the country is dedicated to protected areas. It is a peaceful country; its president, Oscar Arias, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that tourism development in increasingly seen in the context of peace in Costa Rica as well as in balance with the total environment (Arias 1989).

Costa Ricans today are facing this paradox. The constraints of opting for alternative tourism, with its relatively low impacts on natural, social, and cultural resources, mean that the country will lose millions of dollars each year in income. The country cannot afford to take this route exclusively; losing such revenue will affect not only its balance of trade but also employment rates and support for regional development. Tourism is a powerful source of change on the national, regional, and local levels as leaders and local communities seek links to the world system in order to reap what they perceive as its benefits.

The tug between preservation and profit in Costa Rica tourism will be played out in the coalitions created between governmental and community priorities and in how those coalitions relate to natural and cultural resources (Tangley 1986). Alternative tourism is experiencing a boom in Costa Rica, which shows that it is profitable (Mendoza 1986). However, there are growth constraints brought by a relatively low social carrying capacity such as the possibility of overcrowding; lack of promotion as governments fail to recognize the economic role of nature-oriented tourism; shortage of infrastructure; shortage of park service personnel; inexperienced guides; and inadequate protection for tourists (Laarman 1987). In addition, many governmental incentives do not apply to alternative tourism. Major elements limiting the growth of nature-oriented tourism in development countries, based on a survey of US-based nature-oriented tour operators, include image, marketing, lack of capital, US political relations with the host country, economic changes, competition, self-imposed limits, and lack of interest in nature-oriented activities. The same survey found that the major concerns of its clients were qualifications of the tour operator; health and sanitation; quality of lodgings, meals, and transportation; political stability; host country attitudes; reliability of schedules; and cost (Ingram and Durst 1987).

To choose lower-impact tourism would, in addition to delaying (not stopping) these links, preserve the natural and cultural resources as they are now. On the other hand, the Costa Rican government has argued that increased tourism into parks and reserves will teach the local people to appreciate their resources. A major indicator for delineating the cost of alternative tourism lies in the organizing capacity of local communities. National leaders have already decided to develop both alternative and resort tourism; the wheels are already in motion. It is now up to the local communities to mitigate the environmental, social, and cultural impacts and take control of their local resources. Local communities, however, now have little control or power to mitigate these impacts. They are rarely consulted about infrastructure or development decisions. It is up to the national leaders to set policies that will distribute the material benefits of tourism to the local level and negotiate with local communities about resource use for tourism.

The interdependence of national policy makers, local communities, and natural resources is evident. The trade-offs between their needs and their priorities, between material impacts and constraints, and sociocultural impacts and constraints, are being decided in the political and economic arena. Making decisions that will ensure sustainable environmental, social, and cultural well-being are difficult; there are costs and benefits on both sides. The paradox will not be solved in Costa Rica, just mediated, as the country and its once-isolated communities link up with global tourism.

This article is based on data collected in Costa Rica mainly during the summer of 1989. I am indebted to Jayne Hutchcroft for collecting data from the major governmental and private organizations. In addition, thanks go to Nancy Lorenz, Terrie Ward, and Paula Palmer, who helped me compile the data.


1 I was unable to obtain measurable data on this form of academic tourism. The Director of the Office of International Affairs at the University of Costa Rica said that the data were incomplete on the number of programs currently in operation at the universities and how many students they involve. Systematic data that would measure the number of private, for-profit schools were also unavailable.

2 In 1987, there were five firms that fostered adventure tourism or nature tourism (Laarman 1987) although only about 17 percent of tourists who visited Costa Rica in 1988 used tour packages (ICT 1989).


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Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.