The Costa Rican tourism boom began in the late 1980s, as the first wave of philosophically neoliberal Generation Xers reached adulthood.
With a focus on globalization and economic development, a new breed of tourist began to flood Central America and the Caribbean, often enamored with the turbulent sociopolitical climate of the region, yet burdened with the question “Is this vacation ethical?”
Nestled between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, Costa Rica has eluded the familiar war, poverty and repression associated with Central America.
Much of the country’s success is credited to former President Jose Figueres Ferrer, who, upon his death was famously eulogized by Newsday: “Once there was a very tiny country, surrounded by war and killing, blessed with a good leader who decided his best legacy, after winning a civil war, would be to abolish the army, and — breaking the mold created by despots in the other small countries around him — let his people vote.”
Costa Rica’s breathtaking landscape of beaches, jungles and volcanoes, as well as its incredible biodiversity and progressive politics, made it a natural destination for the burgeoning ecotourism and adventure tourism trade of the 1990s.
From approximately 300,000 foreign visitors annually in 1988 to over 2.5 million in 2014, tourism has become one of Costa Rica’s largest economic sectors and accounts for nearly 15 percent of all employment.
Its tourism trade has helped to fund national parks and wildlife reserves, grow local industry and develop much-needed infrastructure for the native population.
Its success, beyond political stability and low crime rates, is largely due to a different model of tourism than developed by its neighboring Central American and Caribbean counterparts.
Most other countries in the region have followed the enclave-tourism model, the “all-inclusive” self-contained resort.
This type of tourism is characterized by high-level economic leakage — most of the money spent by foreign visitors leaves the destination country, paying out multinational firms. Tourists and locals rarely have any cultural exchange, as tourists are encouraged to stay within the resort confines, and there is little to no opportunity for the local population to develop secondary or tertiary entrepreneurial pursuits based upon the tourism influx.
More nefariously, enclave tourism is often responsible for depriving local communities of their own natural resources, particularly water, as these resources are diverted to the resorts to create water gardens and golf courses that appeal to a mostly Western sensibility.
Enclave tourism, because of its isolation of the foreign tourist from local populations, is also associated with the commoditization of tradition, culture and ritual of local populations as tourists take small, guided excursions to “see the locals.”
Costa Rica, while it does have world-class all-inclusive resorts, has embraced a model of tourism which encourages tourists to explore the country with local guides.
And, with its stable political climate and low crime rate, it is a popular destination for the backpacker crowd, often drawn by the surf culture of the country’s Pacific Coast (Nosara is currently noted as one of the top 20 surf towns in the world by National Geographic).
So is it ethical? In sum, yes.
Costa Rica has been included in the annual list of the developing world’s 10 best ethical destinations since 2011, when the country made serious strides to address human trafficking. (Previously, the country had been one of the most notorious destinations for sexual predators.) The benchmark categories for inclusion on the list include environmental protection, social welfare, human rights and animal welfare.
(More of the list, and more on ethical travel can be found at www.ethicaltraveler.org.)
Environmentally, Costa Rica’s policy is heralded as a global example. The country has generated countless initiatives supported by the population that focus on sustainable economic development and use of resources. Costa Rica has signed more than 45 international environmental treaties and has a staggering 23 percent of its landmass preserved within national parks and reserves.
It ranks first in all of the Americas for the Environmental Performance Index as presented annually by Yale University (epi.yale.edu).
Costa Rica’s entrenched ecotourism model is a predictor of future success in its tourism trade.
Other regional destinations, particularly in the Caribbean, that follow the enclave-tourism model have marketed themselves into an undifferentiated product.
“Sun, sand and surf” is the common product pitched by these destinations, and without the inclusion of local culture as a tourism draw, the next cheaper, safer or more easily accessed enclave overtakes the trade.
In fact, the Costa Rican tourism model is so well-respected and globally recognized that The Washington Post used it as analogy for West Virginia’s up-and-coming ecotourism trade (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/25/AR2005082500706.html).
Tourism in Costa Rica draws a diverse group of travelers, from college students backpacking on a few dollars a day, to luxury resorts that cater to medical tourists seeking cosmetic surgeries (at lower rates than in the U.S.), to family tour packages operated by Disney.
Trafalgar is operating a tour in 2014 that promises, presumably, by its moniker, “Monkeys, Jungles and Volcanoes.”
With Costa Rica’s surfeit of natural beauty, the traveler’s imagination is the limit of possibilities — beaches, wildlife watching, volcano visits, birding, canopy tours, bungee jumping, trekking, surfing, snorkeling and rafting only begin the list of available adventures.
For a Central American destination that offers astounding value for the tourist, as well as ethical peace of mind, Costa Rica is easily accessible.
Flights from Charleston to San Jose, Costa Rica, are available on Delta Airlines for as little as $690 round-trip, with one stop and a travel time of approximately 6.5 hours.
A number of cruise lines also operate cruises that run through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica, including Royal Caribbean.
Interested in visiting Costa Rica? Speak with your travel agent or visit the Costa Rican Tourism Board’s website at www.visitcostarica.com for more information.
Ted Lawson in the president and CEO of Charleston-based National Travel and a member of the WV Travel Team who contributes regularly to the Life & Style travel page.
Follow National Travel on Twitter at @NatlTravel and on Facebook. For questions or comments on this article, contact Ariadne Moore, executive assistant at National Travel, at firstname.lastname@example.org.