Course:CONS200/2021/Ecotourism in Costa Rica

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The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a prime example of ecotourism in Costa Rica. The reserve accounts for 50% of Costa Rica's biodiversity and 2.5% of the world's total biodiversity. It hosts guided tours and environmental education programs year-round [1].

Ecotourism is tourism generated by nature. For example, Costa Rica creates tourism by offering a large system of biodiverse parks and forests for tourists to explore[2]. Ecotourism is a favoured conservation mechanism as it provides economic benefits to local communities as well as minimizes risks to ecosystems by utilizing protected areas[3]. However, ecotourism can also lead to negative economic and conservation outcomes. In the new era of the Anthropocene, ecotourism also faces the challenge of human-caused climate change. Climate change is affecting ecosystems around the globe and changing their dynamic by altering organism behaviours, geographic ranges, and influencing extinctions[4]. In light of the economic and conservation issues associated with ecotourism, new opportunities have risen that could help to mitigate these negative effects.

About Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country in Central America that spans over 51,000 square kilometers (about 1/196th the size of Canada) and has a population of about 5 million[5]. Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and contains over 5% of the worlds species[6]. About 1,200 plant species and over 100 other species including mammals, insects, and amphibians are endemic (only reside in) to Costa Rica[7][8]. This highlights Costa Rica's biological and ecological importance. In Costa Rica, 27% of terrestrial land and 15% of marine ecosystems are managed for conservation or are designated protected areas[9][7]. Costa Rica is a tropical country with various microclimates (local-scale climates) due to the effects of coastal proximity, Atlantic air masses, and various altitudes[10]. On average, temperatures range from 17-27 degrees Celsius depending on the month and yearly precipitation averages at about 1981.2 millimeters[11].


Costa Rica is one of the most internationally visited countries around the globe[9]. This has allowed for ecotourism to be one of their main sources of income[9]. Costa Rica's economy also greatly benefits from agricultural crops, most notably those producing coffee beans, pineapples, and bananas[12][13]. Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic (2019 - present)[14], the rate of poverty in Costa Rica has increased as has the rate of unemployment[15]. Unemployment rates towards the end of 2020 close to doubled since the beginning of 2020[15]. In addition, there was a 5.2% increase in poverty from 2019 to 2020[15]. This is the highest rate of poverty that has occurred in three decades in Costa Rica[15]. Considering many countries banned international travel due to COVID-19, a loss of ecotourists could account for some of the increase in poverty and unemployment in Costa Rica. However, the Costa Rican government has launched Plan Proteger which aims to help individuals whos finances have been greatly effected by COVID-19[15]. This plan helped channel money to 800,000 Costa Ricans, which is more than the amount of Costa Ricans in poverty[15]. However, unemployment sits at 24% of the population as of 2020[15] which equates to an additional 1,200,000 people. Additional help from the Interamerican Development Bank has been given to provide assistance in restoring the job market[15]. Assistance provided by the Interamerican Development Bank is said to be able to help 365,000 individuals[15]. In combination, the government and the Interamerican Development Bank are able to provide assistance to 1,116,500 people which is majority of Costa Ricans facing economic issues (out of 1,620,000)[15]. However, 503,500 individuals still face either poverty or unemployment in Costa Rica.

Sustainability Goals

Costa Rica has adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations to increase their sustainability and quality of life[16]. The Sustainable Development Goals combine three dimensions of sustainable development: social, economic, and environmental[17]. Based on areas that they are currently lacking, Costa Rica is focusing on: ending poverty and hunger, protecting the planet from degradation through sustainable consumption, production, and management, ensuring all social, economic, and technological developments occur in harmony with nature, peaceful and inclusive societies, and collaboration with all countries, people, and stakeholders[17].

Benefits of Ecotourism in Costa Rica

A Tool for Conservation

Ecotourism helps to maintain one of the most biodiverse global ecosystems, while also supporting Costa Rica's economy and people [18]. Costa Rica contains over 5% of global species, the country is home to more bird species than the United States and Canada combined, and a greater number of butterfly species than in all of Africa [19]. The varying landscape hosts several different microclimates identified in 12 different life zones[5]. This immense diversity merits ecological protection which ecotourism helps to fund and promote. Ecotourism secures continued protection of these spaces by placing economic value on Costa Rica’s living forests, rather than on the temporary profit of their destruction. More than 25% of Costa Rica terrestrial landmass is considered to fall under some form of protected status[19]. It is exactly this amount of protected land that has made the country a world-renowned ecotourism destination. When surveyed 60% of tourists said they were motivated to visit the country because of its protected areas [13]. In 1992, the U.S. Travel Society described Costa Rica as “the number one ecotourism destination in the world,” and in 2000, Costa Rica was receiving over 1 million visitors with a population of only 4 million people. Ecotourism accounted for over 600 million dollars in 2000, a profit that was generated from tourists participating in economic, social, and environmental transformations in rural Costa Rica [13].

Economic Growth

From an economic standpoint ecotourism rivals Costa Rica’s two primary exports, banana and pineapple, making up roughly a third of the country’s total economy[13].  In 2015 Costa Rica’s Central Bank reported that tourism accounted for 5.4% of the country’s GNP, creating 2.85 billion annually dollars and more than 2.6 million tourism visits that year. Tourism is one of Costa Rica’s fastest growing economic sectors. In 2019 it was one of the top sources of employment for Costa Ricans, making up 8-9% of Costa Rica’s total GDP [20]. Additionally, unlike other economic sectors ecotourism often supports and employs local communities rather than foreign travel companies[13]. Overall, ecotourism allows for Costa Rica to continue to bolster their economy and employ their people while simultaneously ensuring a high level of continued ecological protection over its land.

Challenges of Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Climate Change

The main goal of ecotourism is so that not only do the locals benefit but everyone in the picture, such as tourists and business stakeholders. As Costa Rica continues the direction of ecotourism, a large inhibitor, as always, is climate change. An increase of droughts, rainfall, and rising sea temperatures are all prevalent [21]. These impacts the viable land and attractions people come to see. Rising sea temperatures contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs and this has correlated effects with the marine species. Costa Rica being surrounded with the open water and beautiful scenery, climate change can change the whole ecotourism scene. Activities such as surfing, river rafting, tours of National Parks, scuba diving, visiting the wildlife and fauna, and so much more will be affected by climate change. Continued damage to Costa Rica's environmental assets correlate with their economy and the locals way of living.


Another challenge ecotourism will face in Costa Rica is the over-tourism they receive[22]. It is estimated that there are about two million tourists that come visit each year [15]. During peak season is when most of these tourists arrive. With the amount of tourists coming in at the same time there is only such availability and space for ecotourism activities and tours. With the possibility of people being turned away due to capacity they would have to resort to the traditional tourism and travel itineraries which are not as sustainable as ecotourism.

Around eighty percent of the tourists who visit Costa Rica actually participate in ecotourism[15] but the remaining twenty percent can still do enough damage that can affect the environment. Those who are participating in ecotourism come to escape humanity, explore the environment, participate in conserving the environment and enjoy nature[23]. Those who are not environmentally aware such as the twenty percent, most likely are misled or uneducated on the subject and do not realize the impacts of regular tourism to Costa Rica’s economy. The usage of companies that provide private tours is an example of tourism which have no contribution to the preservation of Costa Rica. The challenge here is to educate tourists well enough before visiting so that they choose ecotourism and contribute to the preservation of Costa Rica's beautiful environment.

Economic Challenges

The practice of ecotourism was created to generate revenue from tourism allowing for continued conservation and the continued ecological integrity of ecosystems[24]. This revenue is also meant to supply funds for future sustainable developments[24]. Although ecotourism can be beneficial to a country's economy and ecosystems, it can fall into a "capitalist trap" where ecotourism features become owned by large corporations and therefore no longer benefits the majority of individual citizens. The capitalization of ecotourism can also lead to further environmental degradation and resource exploitation[25]. Ecotourism has been referred to as a form of disaster capitalism[25]. Disaster capitalism is essentially where capitalist processes cause harm, and this harm is then further exploited by capitalist processes[26]. In terms of ecotourism, this means capitalism has previously degraded the environment which has led to the need for conservation and ecosystem protection. The need for conservation and ecosystem protection has given rise to ecotourism which has allowed the entry of capitalist processes into conservation. With the motivation for monetary gain this may lead to further exploitation of the environment by means of ecotourism.

Future Opportunities in Ecotourism

There are a number of ways in which Costa Rica has grown its ecotourism market in the past 50 years and continues to do so with the help of government organizations, NGO’s, and private businesses and institutions. In the past, residents of Costa Rica viewed the world from an instrumental perspective. More recently, ecotourism has brought to the area a “conceptualization of nature as a space of adventure, risk, aesthetic enjoyment, and leisure activities.[27]” Critics however have argued that it is “impossible to truly conserve nature with so many people visiting fragile outdoor areas”[28]. The ecotourism industry is currently looking to find new ways to keep the industry afloat while also reducing any potential impacts. While many of the following opportunities to grow the ecotourism sector have already been set in motion, it is important to ensure that they keep running and keep growing in order to have a meaningful impact.

Government and nongovernment organizations have been supporting the ecotourism industry through natural land endowments and institutional regulation foundations. These efforts have had a relatively small contribution to the ecotourism industry thus far but have the opportunity to provide a greater contribution in the future by continuing to expand.

In Costa Rica, the rapid growth of the ecotourism market has largely been a private-sector initiative[29]. Initiatives such as the Blue Flag and Green Globe programs provide incentives for tourist operations to improve their environmental performance. There has already been evidence to indicate that eco-certification in developing countries can provide private benefits for operators and therefore contributes to the improvement of their environmental performance[30]. Another recent opportunity within the ecotourism industry is the rising popularity of green bond markets, green market products, and investment opportunities. A local Costa Rica bank- the BNCR- has been instrumental in setting up green financing initiatives[31], an opportunity that has shown great potential for the further development of the ecotourism economy.  


Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[32]

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