Responsible tourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rica comes across as something of a Central American adventure playground. Around three million tourists visit Costa Rica each year, drawn by the promise of the abundant wildlife of its rainforests and coasts, and the promise of safety and comfort – on its zip lines, ecolodges and along its manicured jungle trails. It’s a taste of wild, raw nature without malaria, leeches or day-long drives on unpaved roads.

As a result of all the ecotourism activities in Costa Rica, from forest canopy tours to turtle and whale watching, this small Central American country has an outsized reputation for biodiversity among its many environmental credentials.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Costa Rica is not so much the wonders of its nature – it’s the lengths that the Costa Rican people have gone to in order to protect them, creating national parks, wildlife reserves and conservation projects. In doing so, this tiny country has become a pioneer in ecotourism that the rest of the world has scrambled to follow.

However, as perspectives on conservation have developed and grown, the concept of ecotourism has given way globally to the more holistic responsible tourism. Conservation can only be truly sustainable when local communities are involved in planning and maintaining it, and this is the vital piece of the puzzle that, until recently, seemed to be missing in Costa Rica’s master plan. Making people as much a part of your Costa Rica vacation as the wildlife will be a smart move, and one which will have the greatest impact on the country’s culture and nature for future generations.

Ecotourism or responsible tourism?

Ecotourism, with its mantra of “take only photographs; leave only footprints”, grew out of wildlife tourism businesses’ efforts to ensure that visitors didn’t accidentally damage the nature they had come to admire. But as well-meaning as it was, ecotourism had some flaws. It didn’t consider the needs of local people who share the land, it prioritised nature over culture, and it didn’t put enough emphasis on actual evidence of good works, leading to accusations that the practise was vulnerable to greenwashing. We prefer the principles of responsible tourism, which considers all forms of tourism, and focuses on the needs of local people ahead of the interests of visitors – after all, it’s their homes we’re visiting.

People & culture

How is tourism managed in Costa Rica?

With international tourist arrivals to Costa Rica more than doubling between 2000 and 2019, it’s more crucial than ever that tourism here happens in the right way. There are concerns about the ability of the infrastructure, and ecosystems, to cope with this many visitors, and about profits being made at the expense of conservation with some of the most popular locations in Costa Rica becoming very busy during peak season. Ironically, tourists are in danger of putting the nature they come to see at risk, such as by crowding around turtles as they lay their eggs on beaches, or wandering off marked trails in the rainforest.

Fortunately, most of the money spent on tourism in Costa Rica stays in the country, and this has played a significant role in the reduction of poverty levels, which have fallen significantly over the last few decades – as well as the preservation of a third of Costa Rica’s land. This shows that tourism, when well-managed, really can have an enormous impact. And even those not directly involved in the tourism industry help to sustain its key attractions through their efforts in other areas.

For instance, while the Ministry of the Environment manages the national parks, a citizens’ branch of the ministry called the Committee for the Vigilance of Natural Resources brings the parks’ neighbours together to report environmental crimes, bring environmental education into schools, start recycling initiatives and tend to organic gardens. This really is a land of bottom-up conservation.

Tenille Moore, from our South America specialists Geodyssey, says: “Tourism is the main industry and Costa Rica is massively promoting the responsible side of it – especially as there are a lot of North American travelers who come just for the beaches, and aren’t so aware of that. So it’s good to see that beach resorts are joining certification schemes and trying to be as sustainable as possible. There’s a lot of promotion, so if you are staying there you’d be really aware of what’s going on, signs telling you to recycle, and how they manage things. It’s very visible.”

What you can do to protect Costa Rica’s environment
Where to begin? Costa Rica’s environmental protection schemes are as abundant as its wildlife, and encompass day tours, guides, community tourism and volunteer projects. So here are a few pointers to get you started:

    Asociación ANAI is a non-profit organisation with numerous community-based conservation projects in the southern Caribbean region. Working with Afro-Costa Rican residents, they have set up a marine conservation initiative to protect sea turtles along the Talamanca coast. The income from sea turtle tourism has created seven times more income for local families than the harvesting of turtle eggs. They have also supported 16 community tourism initiatives, including ecolodges and a guides’ association. You can also support the project by adopting a sea turtle. Book with a tour operator that is accredited by CST – the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica.

Indigenous community tourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s excellence in environmental conservation has often come at a cost to the preservation of its local cultures. Some 60,000 Indigenous Costa Ricans live in largely traditional communities, often in isolated rural areas in the south of the country. Sustainable agroforestry makes many of these communities almost self-sufficient. The forests provide timber for construction, citrus fruits and other small crops, including bananas and cocoa, that can be eaten or sold, and medicinal plants. It’s the antithesis of monoculture plantations often owned by corporations and requiring clouds of harmful pesticides.

Costa Rica’s Indigenous peoples were only given the right to vote in 1994, so they had virtually no say in the control of their land – much of which was handed over to ranchers and farmers. While support for Indigenous rights is increasing and there are reserves set aside for them, there has been little progress in allowing people to retake possession of their ancestral lands, perhaps due to worries about compensating the current occupants. Frustration over land rights can lead to conflict, including the murder of land defender activists, so pressure for the government to take action is growing.

With the loss of land and few opportunities in their home regions, families and communities have become fragmented as people leave to seek employment elsewhere. Those who do stay may end up working in low-paid manual jobs which are particularly risky; the high use of pesticides and fertilisers used on banana plantations has been blamed for many illnesses.

The growth of responsible community tourism in Costa Rica is a potential solution to these problems. Costa Rica has 12 Indigenous groups, of which the Bribri is one of the largest. Unusually, the Bribri have a matriarchal society, with land rights passing down from mothers to daughters. Cocoa is an important part of their rituals, drunk at weddings, funerals and throughout pregnancies, and grown for sale. So when one village, Yorkin, in the territory of Talamanca, began to struggle harvesting it in the 1980s, the women of the community banded together to create an alternative income stream.

Helped by the knowledge of their elders, the Bribri women formed a group called Stibrawpa (women who make handicrafts), and began to cultivate a new type of crop: tourists. Today, they welcome around 40 visitors a month in peak season for cultural exchange. Guides from the community share their sacred traditions and other activities, including forest hikes to learn about the uses of different plants and trees, bow and arrow practise, and learning how to make chocolate from cacao seeds.

Tenille Moore, from our partner Geodyssey, visited the Bribri community in Yorkin in the Talamanca Mountains. It was one of the most memorable highlights of her Costa Rica tour: “You take a boat up a mist-covered river right along the border with Panama. Traditionally, men from the community have worked on banana plantations and many have been over-exposed to pesticides, causing lifelong health problems. Owing to this, the women decided to open the village to tourists in order to create an alternative income, and it provides a really special insight into life in that part of the country. It’s so sensitively done and so special, it really stuck with me.

Earnings from tourism have so far funded a health clinic, a high school and an aqueduct, with a community center under construction. And lessons from their experiment are being passed on to other Indigenous communities too. Tourism has also allowed the Bribri community to reclaim their culture, as well as creating employment opportunities so fewer people need to move away for work.

“You can also go on a half-day trip to a Keköldi village and learn about a green iguana rehabilitation project, walk through their grounds and have a typical lunch of root vegetables with chicken baked in banana leaves,” adds Tenille. “All our travelers who have done it have been delighted to meet the local people.”

What you can do

    Ask around about community tourism in Costa Rica, and you could end up believing it doesn’t exist. But it’s a growing movement, and one which has often been initiated by the communities themselves – another great example of Costa Rica leading the way in responsible tourism at grassroots level. Learning about the communities that have inhabited these forests and mountains for centuries is just as important and fascinating as discovering the animals that live alongside them. Chocolate literally grows on trees around here. Another Indigenous community organisation is ACOMUITA, which sees women clubbing together to buy cocoa beans and roasting them to make chocolate which can be sold on. As well as providing them with a useful income, it has also done wonders for female empowerment, and learning how to make chocolate is one of the most popular cultural tourism activities in Costa Rica. Speak to your tour operator when planning your trip and let them know you would like to visit an indigenous community. There are a number of organisations now which promote rural and community tourism, including ACTUAR (Costa Rica Association of Community-based Rural Tourism) and ATEC (Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation). ATEC is based in Puerto Viejo, in the southern Caribbean, and offers Afro-Costa Rican cultural experiences (including music, cooking and surfing workshops) as well as community tourism further inland. Community tourism is often set up by local women who have few economic alternatives. This is an excellent way to support them, and there are many ways for the women to get involved, including cooking, crafts and hospitality, which all create much-needed income in rural areas. Tourism can also help promote cultural traditions such as chocolate production, weaving palm leaves, wood carving and music and dance – as well as helping languages to thrive, which might otherwise die out as communities disperse. Late December to early January sees one of Costa Rica’s most important cultural events, the Fiesta of Little Devils, in the village of Boruca in the Talamanca Mountains. Join them as they celebrate ancestral traditions and their victory over the Spanish conquistadores by wearing colourful handmade masks. The four-day event culminates with dancing around a huge bonfire – and plenty of chicha, moonshine made from fermented corn.

Wildlife & environment

Incredible ecolodges in Costa Rica

Hand in hand with Costa Rica ecotourism is eco-friendly accommodation – and once again, Costa Rica just gets it.

“We get people requesting to stay in places that are sustainably run, but it’s actually one of the countries that you don’t need to worry about as much in that respect,” explains Tenille Moore, from our Costa Rica vacation specialists Geodyssey. “Many hotels are actually part of the NCST – National Sustainable Tourism Certificate. It’s quite rigorous, there are lots of checks and rules on how they manage waste, how they deal with energy saving, and the hotels are graded from one to five depending on how well they are doing with that.”

And it’s not all about the small ecolodges either. Many of the bigger resorts in Costa Rica are very keen to have this certification; although they are huge, they employ local people and reduce waste and energy usage.

“It’s something that they’re really proud of and it’s very common for hotels to be part of that,” says Tenille. “And even if they’re not certified, they still have their own little eco agenda. It’s something they really strive to have countrywide.”

What you can do

    Ask your tour operator if they use properties with NCST and/or Rainforest Alliance accreditation. Accommodations may not have joined an official certification scheme, but if they have any environmental policies they’re bound to be shouting about them – with posters, signs, on their websites and in person. If they’re not… it may be that they have something to hide. Check out our handy list of questions to find out if the places you’ll be staying are truly green – or simply greenwashing. And don’t be afraid to ask your tour operator about the properties they use. If they’re responsible, they’ll be happy to tell you.

Costa Rica & the wildlife trade

Costa Rica criminalised wildlife trafficking in 2012, yet enforcement is lax and penalties weak, and with a global wildlife trade estimated to be worth up to $23 billion a year, the trade in animals and animal parts continues.

One of the most well-known wildlife crimes is the frequent poaching of turtle eggs from nests on beaches. But they’re not being smuggled abroad. Most of them are either for the poacher’s own dinner or sold as delicacies to nearby bars and restaurants. While we’re not condoning poaching, in many instances these are small-scale thefts by people struggling to make a living and feed their families. So it’s a case of education and providing other opportunities for people to make a living outside wildlife crime.

Jaguars, with their beautifully patterned coats and powerful jaws that can pierce a turtle shell, are endangered in Costa Rica. Habitat loss is the biggest cause, but poaching plays a part too. Their bones are used in jewellery and traditional medicine in China, and their meat is prized as a luxury food.

It’s not just the bigger animals that suffer from the wildlife trade, either. Parrots, toucans, songbirds, monkeys and many other animals are kept as household pets, often caged or chained up for years. And butterflies, beetles, spiders and reptiles are regularly sold to collectors around the world, in many cases killed by chloroform before they are transported.

Costa Rica has called for greater action from the United Nations to stop wildlife trade fuelled by organised crime organisations

“The world is still feeling the full brunt of a pandemic, which most likely had its origins in wildlife,” said President Carlos Alvarado at a UN Commission against Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice meeting. “We are advised that there are hundreds of thousands of new viruses that could spill over from wildlife to humans; we are struggling to combat climate change and staring down the loss of a million species. The illicit trafficking in wildlife is exacerbating all of these interrelated global crises.”

What you can do

    Avoid tourist attractions using captive animals and flag them to your tour operator. It’s quite possible that these animals have been captured in the wild and sold as pets. Be cautious when souvenir hunting in Costa Rica. If something is made from tortoiseshell (the trade of which is banned), or any other animal part, then it could be from trafficked wildlife. The same goes when ordering food. Avoid anything that is deliberately aimed at tourists with adventurous palates, like turtle meat, monkey or songbird. Report wildlife or environment crimes you witness. You should be provided with updates on what actions have been taken.

Pesticide use & monocultures in Costa Rica

Eco-friendly, biodiverse Costa Rica has some of the highest levels of pesticide usage in the world, averaging around 25kg applied for every hectare of cultivated land. Pesticides are especially prevalent on monoculture crops earmarked for export, such as coffee, bananas, cassavas and pineapples. Monocultures tend to be more prone to disease and pests, and extensive use of chemicals is required to maintain a reliable yield.

But spraying crops with pesticides isn’t a precise business. These chemical concoctions – which are often toxic, polluting soil and waterways, and posing a serious health risk to humans as well as wildlife – can drift well beyond their target.

Large single-crop plantations also have a curious habit of spreading beyond their boundaries, which is gradually putting a dent in Costa Rica’s proud achievement of reversing deforestation and becoming a ‘carbon sink’ over the last few decades.

Communities neighbouring plantations have been asking the Costa Rican government to intervene for years. One family of beekeepers says their precious bees die in large numbers every time the fields surrounding their home are sprayed. It seems that politicians may finally have started to act, with a promise to regulate or ban many chemicals.

What you can do

    Whenever you buy any fruit in or from Costa Rica give it a wash in clean water before eating. Look out for organic, pesticide-free and Fairtrade coffee from Costa Rica on supermarket shelves back home. Support small-scale, family-run businesses and farms wherever possible. You’ll see no end of them in Costa Rica, often selling their produce by the roadside or at markets.

Responsible tourism tips in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has some wildlife and adventure heavyweights, and while it’s well worth spending time in popular places such as Monteverde, Tortuguero and Arenal, we also highly recommend that you take a trip or two into more remote regions of the country. As well as getting away from other tourists and expats for a few days, you will discover a wider diversity of Costa Rican cultures as well as spreading the benefits of tourist dollars. Costa Rica has strong artisan traditions. We’d encourage you to purchase locally made souvenirs, ideally bought directly from the community where they were made, or from a market or workshop where you can see the artists working. This ensures the craftspeople benefit directly. Many larger markets, including San Jose’s Mercado Central, sell imported goods. We recommend Sarchi, an artisan-filled town near San Jose for a selection of typical crafts, and the village of Guaitil in Guanacaste, for ceramics made by the Chorotega tribe. Avoid items made with fur, feathers, leather or shell – they may well have come from endangered wildlife. And don’t buy any coral, which could have been sourced from fragile reefs. Handicrafts in Costa Rica may not be as cheap as in parts of South America, but the cost of living here is considerably higher. Be careful to offer a fair price if haggling in markets – and only request a discount if purchasing more than one item from the same stall, for example. Don’t try to grind down prices too much. Tips are greatly appreciated. Ten percent is standard in good restaurants; otherwise, just round up your bill and leave the change. If going to watch dolphins off the Caribbean Coast, take a look at our guide to responsible dolphin watching to ensure you choose a tour operator with the animals’ best interests at heart. There are some great restaurants in Costa Rica, but be sure to sample some local food – and local life – at a soda. These small cafés offering set lunches are a fabulous cultural introduction and they’ll also save you some money. Growing numbers of artisanal (subsistence) fishermen are banding together to combat the scourge of lionfish. This invasive species is an incredible predator and, when left unchecked, can cause immense damage to marine ecosystems. At present, the most sustainable solution to lionfish is to hunt as many of them as possible. Luckily, their meat is delicious. Fishing communities are sharing data, equipment and techniques – you can do your bit by ordering lionfish when you see it on the menu. Coffee production in Costa Rica has slowed in recent decades, but plenty is still grown here. A coffee tour is a fascinating way to learn about the process from bean to cup, as well as gaining an insight into coffee culture in Costa Rica. Try estates like Doka – much less commercial than Britta, which is the brand you’ll see everywhere. There’s little reason to fly in a country as tiny as Costa Rica, but if you must then use Costa Rican airline Nature Air. In-keeping with the ethos of the rest of the country, they have increased efforts to reduce carbon emissions by using the most fuel-efficient routes, and their ground vehicles use biofuel made from recycled vegetable oils. They also donate funds to forest conservation and to their own NatureKids Foundation.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jay Iwasaki] [The indigenous struggle: Everjean] [Incredible ecolodge: vasse nicolas, antoine]