Costs And Benefits Of Tourism Essay

Tourism has always been one of the most attractive and interesting kinds of time spending for millions of people. Tourism, as an industry, is very profitable and is considered an economical savior for the countries, especially for those, which are not so strong from the point of view of industry and economic development, but are very attractive by their historical places and rich architecture. The tourism, especially the nature tourism, brings not only economic value; it is also rather dangerous ecologically, because tourism influence ecology of the countries in the negative way. The present paper is devoted to the discussion of the environmental impacts of tourism and contains discussion of economic benefits of tourism compared to its ecological impacts.

From an environmental point of view, tourism is one of the forms of nature usage. Tourism development requires an involvement of human activity in the natural resources. This produces a special kind of landscape - recreational. In many developed countries, areas used for recreation and tourism, are on the third place after the area of agricultural and forest lands. Rapid growth of the global tourism industry and its large economic benefits makes recreational use of land and promising ability to successfully compete and displace other uses.

Nature and territories of attention of tourists are vulnerable and fragile, and recreational resources are finite, they are irreplaceable and have limited opportunities. Their spontaneous and irrational usage creates a number of environmental problems in areas of intensive tourism development, both in industrialized countries and in developing countries.

For example, Mykonos Island in Greece is a famous tourist resort, during the last 30 years, that has rapidly developed. Together with the development of the tourism industry (accommodation, bars, etc.), the island's population has also increased, in contrast to other Greek islands, where the population has recently decreased. The main reason for the increase of the island population was the development of infrastructure (construction of ports, expansion of the network of roads, dykes, etc.). It also allowed more tourists and visitors to visit the island, leading to the gaps in such problems as traffic jams, lack of parking, increased crime, and pollution of water and land resources, especially in high season. At the same time, intensive construction, tourism and infrastructure development " absorbed " most of the island, and led to the loss of farmland. Uncontrolled and rapid development of tourism has led to a complete change of two traditional villages of the island, which were merged with the newly constructed villages, and turned into a large-scale residential areas, leading to degradation of the environment, local culture and changes in the socioeconomic structure (Mathieson and Wall, 2002)

The size of the negative impacts of tourism, which the economy of many countries is currently experiencing today, is huge and many countries do not have sufficient technical and financial capacity to replenish the resources used by tourists and for the disposal of their waste. Negative impacts of tourism on the environment, which has recently been underestimated, are now becoming an object of close attention of the international community. Such effects are varied and numerous : pollution of natural objects; consumption of natural resources; development of land; degradation of natural landscapes , threats to wildlife and habitats , with consequent loss of biodiversity , finally, the breakdown of local customs and social structures.

For example, Adriatic coast of Italy was devastated due to the rapid growth of brown algae. Because of the rising level of pollution due to excessive amount of tourists, the attractiveness of such a huge national park, as the Grand Canyon in the United States has significantly decreased. Some of the famous East African game parks have turned into a pile of dust by the tourists. Greece's national treasury, which used to be white marble Parthenon in Athens , is now a symbol of  the neglect of the environment, suffered from the severe pollution. The government has taken the action to restrict the number of visitors to avoid the environmental catastrophe in the future.

Along with the burning problem of pollution and changing environmental components that are the most urgent in such recreational areas as national parks, nature reserves and suburban green areas, where attendance of tourists destroy leaves, twigs, pine needles, in other words , components containing essential nutrients. Disturbing the natural cycle and natural regeneration processes, and destroying underbrush undergrowth reduces biological activity of the soil and stands density. It leads to unbearable environmental problems and negative ecological impacts. Expansion of hospitality and the construction of a tourist destination (huge hotels; ports, making changes in the beach resort, but in the sea itself; specially setting the equipped stations for mountain tourism, etc.) have also a detrimental effect on the environment (Mathieson and Wall, 2002).

Experience Yellowstone National Park in the United States, one of the first "cradles" of tourism, illustrates the contradictory tendencies that the development of such tourism may lead to. On the one hand, the mass of visitors coming with the main purpose to visit Yellowstone provides a very substantial income for the entire state of Montana, where the park is situated: during their visit, they use other services, such as restaurants, gas stations and hotels (Gartner, 2006). However, the rapid growth of tourism seriously changed the way of life of the local citizens; they are ready to come up with it, because it will bring additional economic values to their region. Although the level of life of local residents, as well as those of the whole state, has slightly increased, they have to put up with the construction of new roads, road congestion and flow of tourists, noise pollution, gassy and rapid growth of prices for lands and properties. The concentration of visitors in the park reached a critical level, so communion with nature (the main purpose of their visit) has become almost impossible.

Negative aspects of tourism development in protected areas are more widely noticed than its positive aspects, as they are more obvious. Increase in the number of tourists, unsustainable use of natural resources, construction of hotels and other activities related to tourism, impact the environment in considerably.

It is necessary to admit that unsustainable intensive tourism development often leads to some local environmental catastrophes. Simultaneously, the development of tourism depends mainly on the quality of the environment and natural diversity. Water and air quality, aesthetics of landscape and biological diversity are the natural components of the tourism, reproducible result in the functioning of the natural ecosystems. There is hardly any kind of business, which is more interested in the preservation of all components of the environment than tourism is. While destroying the environment, tourism reduces the possibility of its development. There is a contradiction: how to resolve the problem? Are modern hospitality industry professionals look for the ways of solution?

Reasons for environmental concern

Transportation of international tourists is now carried out by planes, which annually consume a huge amount of kerosene. Thus, in 1990, 176 million tons of kerosene was used, while 550 million tons of CO2 and more than 3 million tons of NO2 has been extracted (this is a huge contribution to the "greenhouse effect" and acid rain, in its turn) (Andereck, 2003). Secondly, the usage of vehicles, which use gasoline and produce the same effect.

Construction and creation of infrastructure for the hospitality industry has led to an almost complete loss of tourist and recreational attraction in a number of places, such as Malaysia, the Caribbean, etc. Tourists and their behavior are also a powerful factor, having the negative impact on the environment. It can also lead to local environmental disasters: the catastrophic degradation of vegetation, erosion, landslides, loss of beaches, etc.

Positive economic impacts of tourism

Examples of negative impact of tourism on the environment are numerous, but at the same time, tourism can have a positive impact and contribute to the sustainable development, providing welfare and social progress. If the tourism is properly organized, it can make a significant contribution to the preservation of environment and culture. For example, together with the development of tourism over the past 50 years, a huge amount of parks and natural protected areas appeared (today there are nearly 10 000 national parks) (Johnson and Barry, 2002). Tourism is a powerful incentive for the creation of water treatment facilities, garbage disposal mechanisms, and favorable environmental conditions are the basic requirement for tourism.

Economic advantages of tourism

The most obvious advantage of tourism is creation of jobs in hotels, restaurants, retail shops and transport service organizations. Types of employment in the tourism sector are varied, ranging from work in hotels, ending the tour guides and taxi drivers. In developing countries, tourism is the driving force in almost all sectors of the economy: agriculture, construction, industry, infrastructure development, as well as in education, culture, sports and entertainment industries. Tourism growth leads to increased local demand for commodity products and the development of local markets in each sector (Frechtling, 2004). Secondly, although being less beneficial, but still having the right for existence, the support of the industry and its professions (such as consultants of effective management, tourism and university teachers, etc.), many of which bring much more revenue.

A third advantage of tourism is a multiplier effect, as the cost of tourism is processed by local economy. Governments use the model of economic impact to evaluate how tourism has increased the number of jobs in the areas of goods and services consumption. The fourth advantage of tourism is federal and local income, received from the tax revenues from tourism (Frechtling, 2004). With the help of tourism, the tax burden is transferred to non-residents. For example, more than half of income from currency exchange and tax revenues in Bermuda is at the expense of tourism. Fee for ship loading in Bermuda is $ 20 per person, this is one of the highest in the world, the same concerns the taxes on imports of durable goods, starting from cars to refrigerators. This is one of the few developed countries where there is no income tax (Johnson and Barry, 2002). Critics of this tax argue that scheme of tax system organization is not representative and leads to reckless money spending and has little to do with tourism development and improvement of the hospitality industry. Hospitality management companies and managers on tourism should make sure that the taxes related to tourism, and their return will be invested in tourism promotion and development of infrastructure with the aim to support tourism.

Despite all mentioned above, the tourism has its fifth advantage: it stimulates the export of local products. Based on estimated costs for tourist gifts, products and souvenirs made of tissue and other raw materials are ranged from 15 to 20 % of their costs (Walsh, 2006). The extent, to which these products are manufactures or assembled in this particular area, provides an economic impact on the local economy.

Worldwide, tourism has become one of the most important sectors of the national economy. Revenues from tourism are growing, adding to the national budget. Being one of the highest and the most dynamic sectors of the economy, tourism takes only the second place after oil production and refining. For example, in South Africa, tourism takes the second place for adding to the budget revenues after diamond extraction. In Alaska, tourism ranks the second place among the sectors of the economy after oil extraction and refinery. On the tourism industry accounts for about 6 % of global gross national product is taken from tourism sector, it comprises7 % of global investment as well, 5% of all tax revenues.

Some places of tourism destination, however, do not equally welcome tourists. Some places are not rich in the opportunities for economic activity, because of the inconvenient location, bad climate, limited or poor resources and the size of their cultural heritage. For certain places of tourism interest, their involvement in the tourism business evokes mixed, and sometimes ambivalent feelings (Walsh, 2006). For example, Bali is concerned that tourism destroys its culture, as the countryside becomes a resort, and new professions destroy family values ​​. "Bali and tourism is a marriage without love ," - said one of the officials from the sphere of tourism, clearly pointing and underlying the dilemma of Bali: the destruction of culture and rapid economic growth on income from more than 500,000 tourists per year (Walsh, 2006). Londoners, in their turn, are in need of the Arabic tourists’ interest to their city, although they do not feel much enthusiasm about it. Many European capitals witness mass departure of local citizens, who are trying to escape from summer flow of tourists. Some participants of the hospitality industry benefit from tourism, while others do not. Although economy can considerably benefit from, people believe that lowering of the standards of living, inconvenience and loss of cultural and social values do not worth these benefits.


Conclusion from all the mentioned above is clear: there is a direct and very precise link between tourism and environment. Organizations, working in the hospitality industry should meet all the requirements to preserve proper environment. At the same time, no branch of the global economy, except, depends so greatly on the purity of the water, beaches, air and the ideal state of nature, such as tourism. For some people wilderness provides an appropriate quality of life, while for others, this is an incentive to travel around the world to see natural attractions (Johnson and Barry, 2002). Therefore, the tourism industry should be associated only with a rational and sustainable use of natural resources. Environmental degradation poses a threat on the viability of tourism and this threat stems from the activities of other sectors of the economy, as well as from the activities related to tourism itself. It is necessary to use natural resources considerably, paying special attention to the most vulnerable parts and territories. Moreover, tourism must be reasonable and do not cause harm to nature and its resources and preserve them. The role of the government in this process is to provide the laws and regulations for sustainable tourism development in order to prevent the major environmental threats, such as global warming, loss of biodiversity and destruction of landscapes, pollution of coastal waters and freshwater shortages and air pollution.

Reference List

Andereck, K. L. (2003). The Impacts of Tourism on Natural Resources. Parks and Recreation, 28 (6), 26- 32.

Frechtling, D. C. (2004). Assessing the economic impacts of travel and tourism Measuring economic costs. In Travel, Tourism and Hospitality Research, second edition. J.R. Brent Ritchie and Charles R. Goeldner (eds). New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Gartner, W. C. (2006). Tourism Development: Principles, Processes, and Policies. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Johnson, P. and Barry, T. (2002). Choice and demand in tourism. London: Mansell

Mathieson, A. and Wall, G. (2002). Tourism: Economic, Physical and Social Impacts. New York: Longman House.

Walsh, R. G. (2006). Recreation economic decisions--Comparing benefits and costs. State College, PA: Venture Publishing Co



Originally conceived in the 1960’s in response to declining environmental and economic conditions throughout the Developing World, ecotourism is described as tourism that has a low-impact on the environment, contributes to the local economy, engenders cross-cultural exchange, and fosters environmental education.  Since its conception, many governments within the Developing World have embraced and encouraged ecotourism as a means of attracting foreign investment and exchange.  Costa Rica, with its rich biodiversity and extensive ecosystem, is inarguably one of the leaders in this type of tourism, which is rapidly becoming the largest sector of that country’s tourism industry.

To be sure, the promotion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has led to several desirable outcomes.  For example, the continued expansion of ecotourism has created opportunities for income generation and employment, at both the national and local levels.  Additionally, ecotourism has provided greater incentives for natural resource conservation in the form of state-protected areas and private lands.  As a result, natural resource conservation is on the rise.  With nearly ½ million acres of land designated as protected areas, tourism to that country has surged, with scientific and nature tourists from around the world converging on this naturally endowed, tourist’s paradise. Finally, heightened emphasis has been placed on environmental education.

While the Costa Rican government has successfully stimulated economic growth and environmental preservation by marketing the country’s ecotourism destinations, recent studies suggest that it has not invested adequate attention or resources for the management of the natural assets which attract tourists or in the infrastructure required to support ecotourism.  As a result, fragile sites of ecological or cultural significance have been exposed to the threat of degradation by unregulated tourism development and over-visitation.  In short, while the tourist explosion has attracted world attention and new funds to Costa Rica, it has also put a strain on the country’s environment and population.

Clearly ecotourism is a multi-dimensional, complex practice that has resulted in tradeoffs, in costs and benefits for Costa Rica.  All the same, it is a practice that is being promoted with increasing fervor by the Costa Rican government and the tourism industry.  But how long can this practice sustain itself?  Is ecotourism sustainable?

The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions, to go “below the surface” and take a deeper look at ecotourism in Costa Rica, thereby facilitating a clearer understanding of the complexity of this phenomenon.  Specifically, this paper examines ecotourism’s impact on the economy and environment of the country.  For that purpose, tourism, environmental, and economic transitions are critically researched, with an emphasis on how these transitions interrelate.   Findings and conclusions around the benefits and disadvantages of ecotourism are presented.  Based on these findings, this paper attempts to articulate creative and proactive policy measures for mitigating the drawbacks associated with ecotourism.

What Is Ecotourism?
Before entering into a detailed description of the various dimensions of ecotourism in Costa Rica, it is useful to have a clear understanding of what ecotourism is.  As mentioned earlier, ecotourism is a concept that originated in the early 1960’s, at a time when significant criticism was being levied against traditional tourism, otherwise known as mass tourism. Essentially, critics believed that mass tourism -- characterized by package deals to familiar destinations, limited interaction with local populations, high levels of security, and a contrived experience with local life and culture -- was resulting in adverse ecological and socio-cultural effects, the results of which were only beginning to be observed.

These critiques emerged at a time when a larger, more global environmental movement was beginning to take shape.  Eventually, this movement culminated in the creation of the 1987 report of the Bruntland Commission, which introduced the world to the notion of sustainable development.  This report also provided the first working definition for environmentally sustainable tourism, also known as alternative tourism, which differs from mass tourism in that it is characterized by a higher degree of risk, novelty, and interaction with local cultures.  Essentially, this tourism can be defined as “tourism which is developed and maintained in an area (community, environment) in such a manner and at such a scale that it remains viable over an indefinite period of time and does not degrade or alter the environment” (Butler, 29).

Ecotourism is a form of alternative tourism which aims to achieve economic gain through natural resource preservation.  While they disagree on its exact definition, many tourism experts generally agree that ecotourism is characterized by “ecological and socio-cultural integrity, responsibility and sustainability” (Cater, 3).  For the most part, the success of this form of tourism in different locations depends on a variety of factors including the area’s political stability; the host governments’ and local communities’ commitment to ecotourism; the extent of its promotion by local governments and tour operators; the area’s image; ease of travel in the respective area; and “product” demand.

Ecotourism in the Developing World
As a form of tourism with smaller-scale infrastructural needs and less “sophisticated” consumer demands, ecotourism is ideally suited to the Developing World.  It does not necessitate multi-billion dollar investments.  Local, small businesses and entrepreneurs can successfully fulfill the demands of ecotourism, especially in the areas of lodging and food services.  As a result, ecotourism has become incredibly popular within the Developing World, particularly as a means of stimulating economic development.

Struggling with severe balance of payments difficulties, ecotourism provides these countries with the opportunity to earn foreign exchange without destroying their environmental resource base. For the most part, countries in the Developing World have something of a “comparative advantage” when it comes to ecotourism, in terms of the vast biodiversity and extent of pristine, natural environments in those countries.  According to the World Wildlife Fund for nature, that “comparative advantage” translated into nearly $12 billion in ecotourism revenues for Developing Countries in 1988.  Overall tourism earnings in the Developing World for 1998 were $55 billion (Cater, 71 The Earthscan Reader).  This segment of tourism is reported to have been growing at a rate of 10-15% per year, whereas mass tourism is said to average only a 4% annual growth rate.

Ecotourism’s popularity among Developing World countries has only increased since 1988, as evidenced by the proliferation of specialized ecotourism tour operators and by the increasing number of ecotourism conferences in those countries.  For many destinations within the Developing World, ecotourism is becoming the most important tourism market segment.

An Introduction to Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one Developing Country that has taken advantage of and benefited from the promotion of ecotourism.  That success is illustrated in a variety of ways.  For example, since 1964, tourism revenues in Costa Rica have grown significantly as can be seen in Figure 1 (Tourism Transition in Costa Rica, 1964-1995, International Receipts).  In 1995 alone, Costa Rica generated $661 million in tourism receipts.

Similarly, from 1964-1995, international tourist stayover arrivals skyrocketed, as illustrated in Figure 2 (Tourism Transition in Costa Rica, 1965-1995, International Stayover Arrivals, Source:  Europa World Yearbook Selected Years.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).   A comparative analysis of select tourism destinations in the Caribbean Basin highlights the fact that, despite its relatively small size (51, 100 sq. km), Costa Rica attracts a significant portion of tourism to that region of the world (refer to Figure 3). (Tourist Stayovers in Select Caribbean Basin Destinations, 1989,  Source:  Europa World Yearbook Selected Years.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).

Although most of the findings above reflect gains made within tourism as a whole in Costa Rica, it is reasonable to assume that a large percent of the general growth in tourism is the product of specific growth within the ecotourism sector, since that is the kind of tourism for which Costa Rica is known.  That point is substantiated by results from a survey conducted by the ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) during the peak travel season of 1986, when nearly 75% of tourists who were interviewed indicated that they had come to Costa Rica primarily because of its natural beauty.  36% stated that they had specifically come to Costa Rica to observe its nature.  For that year alone, nearly one-third of all peak-season tourists were ecotourists.  (Budowski, 52).

A similar informal survey conducted in 1995 indicated that over 40% of American and European (excluding German) visitors to Costa Rica came to the country for nature-related activities (refer to Figure 4, Purpose of Visit to Costa Rica, Selected Results of 1995 Visitor Survey, Source:  TTI, 1996d.  Taken from  Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D.B. Weaver).

These facts about ecotourism in Costa Rica demonstrate the important role it has played in bolstering the country’s tourism industry.  However, a few questions persist.  For example, why is ecotourism so popular in Costa Rica?   What has made tourism the largest generator of foreign exchange there?  Why has the Costa Rican government so aggressively promoted ecotourism?  The following sections provide greater insight into these questions.

The Development of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
Around the same time the global environmental movement was galvanizing in the 1960’s, the Costa Rican government was being criticized for its environmental policies, or lack thereof.  Essentially, Costa Rica had no effective environmental policies, which was resulting in widespread deforestation of the countryside.  As a result, a number of scientists and environmentalists who had studied and experienced, first-hand, the spectacular biodiversity and variety of environments in the country began to apply pressure on the government to create more proactive, aggressive environmental preservation programs.  These same people began to lobby various international environmental organizations, such as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and governments to intervene and take part in helping to protect the environment within Costa Rica.

Initially, the Costa Rican government was not very responsive.  Up until this time, environmental protection had been a low priority for the Costa Rican government due to financial constraints, and that continued to be the case despite the rigorous lobbying efforts. However, when various foreign governments got involved and threatened to cut development assistance to the country if it did not implement environmental preservation programs, the Costa Rican government responded.  In 1970, the government officially established the National Park Service, whose mission it was to consolidate natural lands into parks.  The first four national parks were established between 1970 and 1971.  These parks were created with the express mandate of preserving Costa Rica’s biodiversity.

In 1987, during a reorganization of the Executive Branch of the government, the National Park Service was incorporated into the newly created Ministry of Environment and Energy.  This agency was restructured in 1990 and became known as the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mines (MIRENEM).  MIRENEM was created as a response to increasing social demands to develop institutional guidelines for the protection of the country’s natural resources.  Finally, in 1995, the development of the Environment Organic Law delineated a more specific role for MIRENEM with regard to natural resource management, and it officially became the Ministry of Environment and Energy which it is known as today.

Since the establishment of the first four parks in 1970, the system has expanded to include over 70 entities, comprising approximately 1,000,000 hectares or 21% of the national territory (refer to Figure 5, Costa Rica, Selected Protected Areas,  Source: Boza, 1998; Rovinski, 1991; and Carey & Jones, 1993.  Taken from Ecotourism in the Less Developed World by D. B. Weaver).  Within this system, the level of preservation differs, with just over one-half designated as completely protected national parks, biological reserves, and national wildlife refuges.  The rest is comprised of forest reserves and protective zones, which accommodate a limited amount of lumbering and other extractive activities.

Since its creation, one of MINAE’s primary objectives has been the consolidation of the conservation areas into a more organized system, in order to facilitate better management of those areas.  To that end, MINAE has established the National System of Conservation Areas (Sistem Nacional de Areas de Conservacion – SINAC) which is a decentralized and participatory government agency that assembles MINAE’s responsibilities regarding protected wildlands, wildlife, and forested areas.  SINAC’s overall goal is to plan and carry out the processes necessary for achieving sustainable management of the country’s resources.  To help achieve that goal, SINAC has established eleven conservation areas, or territorial units which are managed, in principle, under the same set of strategies (refer to Figure 6, MIRENEM, Areas of Conservation, Source:  1998).  These are administrative areas where private and government activities come together around issues such as the use and conservation of natural resources, while sustainable development alternatives are sought as part of a collaborative effort with the citizenry of Costa Rica.

From the creation of the first four national parks in 1970 to the establishment of over seventy parks in the early 1990’s, Costa Rica has come quite a long way with regard to environmental preservation.  The government’s most recent administrative undertaking, SINAC, is just further evidence of the progress the country has made.

Why Is Ecotourism So Popular in Costa Rica?
When the Costa Rican government first started setting aside land for the creation of a system of national parks, reserves, and protected zones, it did so under a mandate of preservation.  Over time, however, the protected-area system has “emerged as a focal point for the Costa Rican tourism industry, as evidenced by the proportion of visitors spending at least some time within such areas and by the exponential pattern of visitation growth with the system” (Weaver, 89).  This phenomenon can be linked to a variety of factors.

First, Costa Rica’s location is unique in that it is situated in the Central American isthmus, the only region of the world which is both interoceanic and intercontinental (refer to Maps of Costa Rica in Figures 7 [Source:] 1998 and 8 Source:  1998).

The resulting bottleneck effect helps to explain why Costa Rica has such amazing biodiversity, despite its relatively small size (51,000 sq. km).  The tropical setting and extreme variations in altitude also help create a situation where diverse plant and wildlife species can thrive.  “Evidence of this biodiversity includes the presence of 20 ‘life zones’ (ranging from mangroves and coastal rainforest to subalpine grassland, containing at least 850 bird species, 1260 tree species, 1200 orchid species, 237 mammal species, and 361 species of reptiles and amphibians” (Weaver, 81).  Topographically, Costa Rica is covered by a series of young mountains, including several active volcanoes, running along the entire length of the country.  These mountains are interrupted by the existence of a centrally situated plateau known as the Meseta Central.  Extensive lowlands line both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

It is the exceptional biodiversity and such great variety of ecoregions that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to Costa Rica each year to participate in some activity related to ecotourism.  The Costa Rican government has responded to the tremendous growth in this sector of the tourism industry by enhancing preservation efforts within the national parks system.

To be sure, Costa Rica’s reputation as a premier destination spot has only been further enhanced as a result of its social and political stability which has given it the image of “Switzerland of Central America.”  Similarly, the fact that nearly one-third of all national tour operators specialize in ecotourism and that the government has spent a considerable amount of money on infrastructure related to tourism has only made travel for ecotourists in Costa Rica easier and more attractive.

The  Benefits of Ecotourism
The promotion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has had positive impacts on the environment and the economy within the country.  As already mentioned, while not the case initially, over time ecotourism has become one of the main justifications for preservation of natural areas throughout Costa Rica, resulting in rapid expansion of the national park system which now includes seventy different entities.  Looking at it from a different perspective, close to 14% of the country has been designated as national protected areas, which puts Costa Rica among the leaders in environmental preservation throughout the Caribbean (refer to Figure 9, Comparative Perspective on % National Land Area Protected--Caribbean Basin).
Similarly, the emphasis on natural preservation for the sake of ecotourism has helped stem the widespread deforestation of the countryside.  Although deforestation in Costa Rica is still problematic, Figure 10 (Total Deforestation in Costa Rica, 1980-1995) illustrates that such deforestation has decreased over time.

In addition to fulfilling its mandate of promoting environmental sustainability, ecotourism in Costa Rica has also generated significant economic development, at both the national and local levels.  As already mentioned, since 1964 international tourism receipts have risen considerably.  Since 1984, international tourism receipts have grown from $117 million to $136 million in 1987, and $577 million in 1993 (Weaver, 83).  Such phenomenal growth has made tourism the leading source of foreign exchange in Costa Rica; it surpassed the banana trade in 1992.  This trend has certainly been felt at the national level, where the GNP has literally taken off (refer to Figure 11, Costa Rica's Gross National Product in US$, 1970-1995).

Specifically, since 1970, Costa Rica’s GNP has grown from approximately $1000 million to roughly $9000 million in 1995.  At a more micro level, Costa Rica’s GNP/capita has risen from around $1500 in 1978 to nearly $2000 dollars in 1992 (refer to Figure 12, Costa Rica's GNP per Capita in US$, 1978-1992).

While the growth of the GNP is ostensibly linked to many factors, the fact that tourism is the greatest source of foreign exchange in the country makes it a prominent factor in Costa Rica’s economic growth.  To illustrate this point, Figure 13 (Tourism Revenues as Percent of GNP in Costa Rica, 1970-1994, Source:  World Resources Institute  1994-1995) represents the percentage of Costa Rica’s GNP that is derived from tourism revenues.  As can be observed in this figure, since 1970, when ecotourism was just beginning to take off in Costa Rica, tourism revenues have comprised an increasingly significant portion of GNP.  Specifically, tourism revenues as a percent of GNP grew from 2% in 1970 to around 8% in 1994.  Clearly, then, the Costa Rican government’s efforts to promote ecotourism have “paid off” in terms of the national economy.

The benefits of ecotourism have not been felt just at the national level, however.  At the more local level, parks have spawned a number of ecotourism-related activities in adjacent communities, such as the Talamancan Ecotourism and Conservation Association (ATEC).  ATEC is an organization that was established by local communities in south-eastern Costa Rica to service visitors to the extensive park network of that region by providing trained local guides, food and lodging.  While the full economic activities of the Talamancan initiative have yet to be determined, some indication of the effects of ecotourism can be derived from a 1990 study of Tortuguero, a village of 211 residents bordering the park of the same name.  According to this survey, most tourism activity was indeed related to ecotourism, and additional surveys revealed that most residents were highly satisfied with the development (Weaver, 91).  Other similar studies indicated that in several instances, ecotourism-related activities have raised the standard of living within certain local communities.

It is evident, then, that ecotourism has had positive impacts, both large and small, on the environment and economy of Costa Rica.  Certainly, such outcomes are embraced by a country that has worked diligently to promote this segment of its economy.  However, as with any type of tourism, ecotourism has also had negative impacts on Costa Rica.  The following section describes those impacts in greater detail.

The Costs of Ecotourism in Costa Rica
While there have been many benefits associated with ecotourism in Costa Rica as outlined above, there have also been costs.  One of the more fundamental issues surrounding ecotourism is the lack of standards regarding its practice.  Presently in Costa Rica, there are few national laws and regulations that dictate who can rightfully engage in ecotourism and how it must be carried out.  Similarly, there are no licensing procedures.  Therefore, any tourism outfit can claim to conduct ecotourism even if it has little to no experience in that kind of tourism.  Such unrestricted practice of ecotourism by inexperienced tour operators has inevitably resulted in types of ecotourism that do not adhere to its basic principles of environmental sustainability and local income generation.

Several other problems related to ecotourism are the byproducts of inadequate funding, poor park management, and insufficient monitoring and evaluation of programs.  For example, while significant investment has been made in creating a national park system geared towards ecotourism, overall funding falls severely short of the amount necessary to support adequate park management, infrastructure, and programming.  As a result, problems such as trail deterioration, habitat disruption, pollution, and litter are becoming more commonplace.

Over-visitation is yet another factor that compounds the problem.  Although policies in Costa Rica direct ecotourists into areas expressly designated for that purpose, thereby alleviating the pressure on other more fragile environments, the fact is that even the ecotourism designated environments are also fragile.  That reality is precisely one of the reasons so many people converge upon such areas; they cannot experience such unadulterated nature in their own countries.  What has happened, then, is that areas that are already strained are becoming more strained by the presence of humans.  Figure 14 (Visitation to Select Costa Rican National Parks, 1996) represents the total number of visits to various national parks in 1996.  As can be seen in this figure, there are some areas that receive well close to 200,000 visitors a year.  Together, they account for close to 65% of visitation to the national parks.  These parks, however, are negligible in terms of their share of the protected land area.  Clearly, there is an issue of carrying capacity in these parks.  How many more visits will these parks be able to sustain before trail deterioration, litter, pollution, and habitat disruption become even more problematic?

In addition to the ecological and biophysical problems related to ecotourism, there are other, economic and socio-cultural problems .  For example, while ecotourism can be attributed with generating some economic development at a local level, quite often, it has resulted in disruption of local economic activities.  Not only does ecotourism disrupt the local economic activity, often times, the economic benefits of ecotourism in a particular area do not accrue to the local community.  In those cases, the income is repatriated to some national tour operator, and quite often, to an international tourism agency.

In a similar fashion, high levels of visitation by foreign tourists have led to disturbance of local cultural practices and lifestyles.  Essentially, many communities that were previously isolated have had to adapt to the constant presence of strangers in their backyard.  While the exact nature of the effects of ecotourism on cultural and lifestyle practices are yet to be determined and quantified, given the prominence of ecotourism in Costa Rica, there is sufficient reason to believe that it has had and will continue to have fairly significant socio-cultural implications.

Clearly, the aforementioned points beg one question: Is ecotourism in Costa Rica truly a sustainable practice?  Has it fostered community empowerment, local income generation, and linkages with existing communities, while promoting environmental sustainability? While on paper, this may seem to be the case, when one looks under the surface and studies the evidence, it does not appear as if ecotourism in Costa Rica has achieved those goals.  Moreover, it does not seem that ecotourism in its current form will be sustainable in Costa Rica.  So what measures should the government take to ensure that ecotourism is a more positive force in the county and that it fulfills its original mandate – that of, promoting and protecting the environment into the future as a means of generating economic development?  The following section contains a series of ideas and suggestions on how the Costa Rican government can revise its policies around ecotourism, thereby making it a sustainable option for economic growth and environmental preservation throughout the country for many generations to come.

Mitigating the Con's, Emphasizing the Pro's
In many ways, ecotourism is a desirable model for achieving environmental prosperity and environmental sustainability.  However, in Costa Rica’s case, the ecotourism model has to be seriously revisited and revised if it is to be beneficial.  The following suggestions provide a working framework for how the Costa Rican government can initiate the process of practicing ecotourism more sustainably.

Better Management   Key to the success of ecotourism in Costa Rica is better implementation, monitoring, and evaluation around this practice. Specifically, there needs to be the establishment of a system that considers all aspects of ecotourism ranging from the biophysical to the social.  To that end, more scientific studies related to the biodiversity of the parks, habitat and its disruption, park carrying capacities, pollution, visitation, and other similar issues will need to be conducted.  Similar studies related to income generation and economic development activities, as a result of ecotourism, must also be carried out on a regular basis in order to determine if local economic growth is indeed occurring.  Likewise, the government, in collaboration with different governmental and non-governmental agencies, needs to identify issues regarding ecotourism’s impact on the cultural practices and lifestyles of local communities, to assess and hopefully forestall any negative consequences.

Increased Funding   To be sure, many of these measures will require additional funding. To that end, the Costa Rican government needs to develop more creative ways to generate income for the maintenance of the parks system and for other issues such as the training of park rangers and staff.  One way the government could accomplish this goal is to set up a more comprehensive differential fee and admissions structure to parks .   Such a system is based on the principle of charging a higher admission rate to foreign tourists, who typically comprise the majority of visitors to the parks.  While it is being employed in some parks, such a system is not presently universal.  Standardizing the system would be justified on the grounds that it is largely the presence of foreign visitors which necessitates comprehensive park management.  Therefore, they should be required to pay for it.  Such a structure would also be desirable since it keeps the costs of admission for local residents low, thereby enabling them to also enjoy the parks’ natural beauty.

Stricter Standards   In addition to funding the parks better, the government needs to develop a more stringent set of standards and regulations regarding the practice of ecotourism.  For example, within certain protected areas, only visitors with trained guides should be allowed to enter.  Similarly, in other areas, the government should restrict the number of visitors that can enter the park each day.  Establishing such regulations would require a better understanding of the carrying capacity of each park within the system, which is something that the managing bodies should work towards.

The government could also set up a ratings system for all self-proclaimed ecotourism operators.  Such a system would essentially assign a rating to each operator, indicating its level of environmental sensitivity in its operations. This kind of system would provide a means for potential ecotourists to better align themselves with tour operators that are conducting ecotourism in a proper way.  Hopefully, such a system would result in more responsible ecotourism to fragile environments.

With regard to local economic development, the government needs to increase the involvement of local communities within various ecotourism enterprises. Studies in some parts of Costa Rica, and in other parts of the world such as Nepal, have proven that where local communities are actively involved in ecotourism, there is an evident increase in standards of living.  No doubt, the sociocultural impacts of ecotourism are not quite as severe, as well.

Development of Alternatives Eventually, the Costa Rican government will have to develop other sectors of tourism and the economy, thereby generating income.  In order to do this, the government can capitalize on its existing reputation as a prime tourist destination with one of the most stable economies in the region.  Developing other sources of income will mean less dependence on ecotourism as one of the primary means for economic development.  That will translate into less strain on the national protected areas.  Moreover, it will mean that more money can be spent on creating programs and policies to preserve the natural environment in other parts of the country.  Finally, the generation of other kinds of income will hopefully reduce the need of activities such as lumbering which have led to the deforestation of the majority of the country.

To be sure, in order to achieve all of these goals, the Costa Rican government will have to more earnestly commit itself to the environmental preservation component of ecotourism.  While it is evident that the government has seen the economic development value of ecotourism, it has not been as effective in supporting the preservation ideals inherent in the concept, as illustrated by the inadequate funding and management of the national parks system.  Basically, the government needs to start making preservation as high a priority as economic development.  Just as it spends significant money to promote ecotourism, it needs to spend greater money to support the infrastructure that supports the practice (i.e. the national parks).  Additionally, the government will need to take the lead in orchestrating cooperation between a wide range of actors including itself, NGO’s (especially environmental groups), tour operators, and local communities.  Moreover, all of these players will need to recognize the limitations of ecotourism.  However, with the sincere and earnest commitment and stewardship of all of these groups, ecotourism can become a means for economic development and environmental sustainability in Costa Rica, both now and into the future.


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