Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Defining Ecotourism

Ecotourism has become the buzzword of Costa Rica's travel industry. From the original concept revolving around travel to enjoy nature, it has morphed into everything from hiking through the rain forest to rumbling over hillsides in all-terrain vehicles. We'll go with the oft-stated definition that ecotourism is "environmentally responsible travel." Costa Rica does itself proud in the domain of adventure tourism and extreme sports, but those activities sometimes conflict with that lofty ecotourism goal. That is not to say that adventure sports can't be part of a green vacation. It all depends what impact they have on the environment and the local community.

Going Green

Over the past decade, the concept of ecotourism has made a strong impression on the average traveler. Many people now realize that mass tourism can be damaging to environmentally sensitive places like Costa Rica but that much can be done to alleviate the negative effects. At the same time, “ecotourism” has become a marketing term used to attract customers who have the best intentions.

In addition to giving travelers the chance to observe and learn about wildlife, ecotourism should accomplish three things: refrain from damaging the environment, strengthen conservation efforts, and improve the lives of local people.

The last part might seem a bit beside the point, but environmentalists point out that much of the deforestation in Costa Rica and other countries is by poor people trying to eke out a living through subsistence farming. Providing them with other ways to make a living is the best way to prevent this.

What Can You Do?

Make sure the hotel you choose is eco-friendly. A great place to start is the Costa Rican Tourism Board (www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr). It has a rating system for hotels and lodges called the Certification for Sustainable Tourism. The New York–based Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org) has a convenient searchable database of sustainable lodges. The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) also has a database of tour companies, hotels, and other travel services that are committed to sustainable practices.

Use locally owned lodges, car-rental agencies, or tour companies. Eat in local restaurants, shop in local markets, and attend local events. Enrich your experience and support the community by hiring local guides.

Make sure your tour company follows sustainable policies, including contributing to conservation efforts, hiring and training locals for most jobs, educating visitors about the local ecology and culture, and taking steps to mitigate negative impacts on the environment.

Don't be overly aggressive if you bargain for souvenirs, and don't shortchange local people on payments or tips for services.

Stray from the beaten path—by visiting areas where few tourists go, you can avoid adding to the stress on hot spots.

Support conservation by paying entrance fees to parks and protected sites. You can go a few steps further by making donations to local or international conservation groups such as Conservation International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

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