(By Ronald Sanabria) My colleagues and I arrived at the end of another workday on Costa Ricaâ€™s southern Caribbean coast -- a region blessed by natural beauty and rich local culture. We met to learn about effective business management practices for tourism businesses, designed to help us interact responsibly with the natural and cultural resources that attract visitors to the region. These resources are the â€œgreen goldâ€ that has made tourism one of the most important industries of the Costa Rican economy.
Accompanied by the roar of crashing waves and the song of tiny frogs practicing their nocturnal serenade, we arrived at the end of another workday on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast -- a region blessed by natural beauty and rich local culture. Twenty of us had gathered in this natural paradise to discuss the importance of developing responsible tourism. My colleagues and I spent three days in workshops with owners of small hotels spanning the region from Cahuita National Park on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast to the beautiful Panamanian islands in Bocas del Toro.
We met to learn about effective business management practices for tourism businesses, designed to help us interact responsibly with the natural and cultural resources that attract visitors to the region. These resources are the “green gold” that has made tourism one of the most important industries of the Costa Rican economy. Almost 1.2 million tourists visited this country in 2003. They stay in Costa Rica for approximately 12 nights on average and spend a bit over $100 each day. Most of them travel on their own. Forty percent are between 30 and 40 years old and 56% have concluded university studies. In 2003, there were more than 34 thousand rooms available and, very importantly, approximately 80% of all hotels are small and medium enterprises with less than 40 rooms (only 26 hotels have more than 100 rooms).
Undeniably, Costa Rica’s national parks play an important part in making tourism a successful industry. Twenty percent of the national protected areas are open to the public and 70% of the tourists visit public protected areas. Interestingly, visitation is not only by foreign visitors but also from domestic tourism. It is estimated that 26% of the protected areas’ income comes from tourist fees.
After 20 years of experience promoting nature-based tourism, this industry has become the primary source of income for this Central American country’s economy since 1994. The hotel owners from the Caribbean region of Costa Rica were conscious of the need to protect the natural riches that have brought thousands of clients to their doors. We worked as a group analyzing ways to develop sustainable tourism products and services that would operate in harmony with the environment, surrounding communities and local cultures. Our goal was to make sure that the local people will be the permanent beneficiaries of tourism development. Based on these concepts, sustainable tourism as an industry depends on the protection, rather than the exploitation, of natural resources. Potentially, sustainable tourism (and by extension, ecotourism) offers many local benefits to communities, including education, job opportunities and respect for traditional ways of life. But how do we translate these concepts into practical actions that will guide the tourism industry toward sustainability? A strong commitment from all stakeholders delivering, purchasing and benefiting from tourism is necessary.
Costa Rica is not the only example of a country debating these issues due to its booming nature-based tourism industry. Since 1998 we have seen how nature-based tourism has become one of the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry. That year it was estimated that nature-based tourism represented 20% of total international travel. As a matter of fact, back in the 80s we had a handful of countries selling nature-based or culture-based tourism. Today, virtually every country sells similar products. For example, many Latin American countries are trying to position themselves in the market place by leveraging its natural and cultural assets. We can see these efforts being captured in national marketing strategies and in official slogans that feature nature or culture-based messages and connotations: Guatemala: Soul of the Earth; Belize, Mother Nature's Best Kept Secret; Costa Rica, No Artificial Ingredients; Panama, The Path Less Traveled; Peru, Land of the Incas; Ecuador, Life at its Purest; Chile, Nature that Touches You; and Uruguay, A Natural Country, just to name a few.
Strong marketing and promotion of our natural resources and increased visitation to natural sites or fragile communities represent risks. Latin America is ranked as the second world region in terms of international tourism receipts; according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), in 2002 the Americas earned US$ 114 billion from tourism and between 1990 and 2000 the international annual average growth was 4.2%, just the Caribbean islands equaled this international average. Central and South America had percentages of growth higher than this international average, 8.4% and 6.8% respectively. In 2003, international tourism arrivals in Latin America and the Caribbean totaled 36.4 million. This same year the WTO stated that destinations in the Caribbean, Central and South America “kept their very positive performance enjoying the competitive advantage of a weak dollar and of the search for ”˜known and nearby’ destinations.”
Let’s take a closer look at the Central American region. Between 1999 and 2003 our region experienced a 41% increase in income from tourism and a 30% increase in the numbers of visitors. On average, all Central American countries experienced growth between these same years. El Salvador experienced a steady growth with peaks in 2000 and 2002 with a slight decrease between 2002 and 2003. Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize experienced a steady growth but without significant increases year after year. On the other hand, Honduras and Panama have experienced more rapid growth in the last couple of years.
Many companies and entire tourism industries in these countries depend on sound natural environments and good community relations in order to operate. However, described once as “an industry without smokestacks,” tourism provides opportunities as well as threats to environmental protection and the well-being of local communities. There are plenty of examples worldwide of unsustainable tourism development. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), some of the main risks are unsustainable consumption of natural resources, displacement of local people and wildlife, habitat destruction, pollution, erosion and introduction of exotic species, lack of respectful behavior towards local cultures, and, at the global level, loss of biodiversity, contribution to global warming, and depletion of the ozone layer. In summary, a lack of direct benefits to local communities and no direct support to conservation efforts have a direct effect on the sustainability of the tourism industry.
In order to remain competitive tourism companies need, to work on the three components of sustainability: environmental conservation, social well-being, and economic growth. These components guide our work on sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance. In our journey we have come to realize that the application of voluntary tools to help transform the way we use the land and our resources, the way we do business, and the way we behave as consumers is one of the most effective ways to achieve our mission. For this reason we are committed to the establishment of partnerships with different sectors for the application of practical tools to help protect ecosystems and the people and wildlife that depend on them.
The public and private sector must work together formulating and implementing national and local policy planning guidelines and evaluation frameworks for sustainable tourism; helping governments and NGOs develop shared sustainability standards; ensuring that investments in the tourism sector implement sustainable practices; helping businesses implement sustainable practices; making technical and financial assistance accessible to businesses of all sizes; supporting sustainable tourism public-private partnerships; supporting voluntary, accountability mechanisms such as third-party, independent certification to monitor compliance with sustainable tourism standards; and increasing consumers’ access to information to help us make responsible purchases.
Yes, valued reader, as tourists we can contribute to the development of a more sustainable tourism industry. You hold in your hands the power to decide what kind of services and companies you choose to do business with. Where demand exists, supply will follow. Take home from your vacations more than just beautiful memories and photographs. Make sure you also have the satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed to sustainable tourism development through a careful choice of services. I encourage you to use your buying power to favor tourism businesses committed to conserving natural resources and promoting social well-being. Only in this way will the hotel owners from the beautiful beaches and rainforests of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast — and many other equally committed business people in other parts of the world — be able to share nature in all her beauty and local customs with future generations.
Ronald Sanabria is Director of Sustainable Tourism for The Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting ecosystems and improving the quality of life for local populations through the implementation of better business practices for sustainability and conservation of biodiversity.
Source: An ENN Commentary
ENN Special Report: Sustainable Travel