‘Costa Rica is at the forefront of eco-tourism in Latin America’: Why you don’t need to fear travel greenwashing here

| Courtesy of Costa Rica Tourism Board

Conscious travellers supporting environmental conservation, staying in eco-friendly accommodation and boosting poorer communities have helped revive Costa Rica – here’s how.

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Covid hit this tiny splinter in the middle of Central America hard. Three and a half million tourists visited Costa Rica in 2019. To put that into context, the entire population of the country is five million. Those seeking coffee-bean-and-toucan-filled adventures generated $4.3bn (£3.6bn) for its economy.

By contrast, in 2020 – the year that doomed the tourism industry – the country received one million tourists, which amassed to $1.5bn for the economy. You don’t have to be an economist to know that such a significant decline is damaging.

Now that the virus is becoming a thing of the past *touches wood* and the world has reopened its doors, Costa Ricans are beseeching the return of travelers, advertising trips as eco-tourism, which may prompt some to feel incredulous; the tourism industry is saturated with “eco” labels these days – it has become a buzzword that sells and greenwashing is rife.

So it may help knowing, then, that eco-tourism in Costa Rica for the past 20 years has been pivotal towards restoring environmental degradation and allowing biodiversity to flourish, and has formed an economic-ecological model for the rest of the world to take note of.

Reversing deforestation

Being in the country and seeing such dense foliage everywhere, it is hard to fathom that in the 1970s and 1980s, Costa Rica had one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America. One of the main reasons for it was to make space for livestock. It is estimated that about half of its entire forest cover was destroyed by 1987.

Something had to be done about it, the ecosystems of rainforests are vital to the Earth’s survival. A government willing to prioritise the environment (take note, world leaders) and sacrifice the income from agriculture, one of its largest exports, outlawed felling and created the PES scheme, which pays farmers to generate clean air through conserving biodiversity or mitigating carbon dioxide emissions.

And over time, it has worked. Deforestation has not only stopped, but more impressively, it has been reversed so that around 60 percent of its land is now covered by rainforest, earning the country a Prince William Earthshot Prize in 2021. The regeneration of a vital lung for the Earth was made possible by policy makers shifting the focus of the economy towards eco-tourism, which, in turn, created opportunities for Costa Ricans.

Eddie Recio, an ecologist and guide, says: “I’m proud to say my country is at the forefront of eco-tourism in Latin America. As a result of it, communities in rural areas have been able to open tourism projects, which has generated money for local economies and changed the way they use the land to benefit the environment. Eco-tourism is the best way of getting to know this paradise while being responsible and knowing that we are helping our planet.”

Eddie is a great example of how the country has combined tourism with eco programmes

Eco-tourism in action

Tortugeuro National Park

Of course, one of the main eco-tourism attractions when visiting Costa Rica is to see the incredible wildlife being preserved, and up there with the best places in the country to see sloths, toucans, nesting turtles and howler monkeys is Torugeuro National Park, which is only accessible via boat or air.

But what the majority of the annual 50,000 visitors to the park won’t know is that by paying to go into the park and stay in its hotels, they are providing revenue for a female-ran community recycling centre, which opened on June 5, 2000 and recycles roughly 200 tonnes of waste every year.

The women separate the recycling into plastics and metals, and sell them back to manufacturers to be reused. Cooking oil is transformed into soap for hotels and used as fuel for the boats to run on the riverways, while litter is sent to San José to be properly disposed of. All 22 women who work here get paid $650 monthly and have social security systems in place. They hire three men to collect waste from houses and hotels in the area, who pay the centre for its service.

Jaritzá Garcia Pávila, company supervisor, says: “This place is the reason tourism in Tortugero can exist, and tourism is the reason we can have salaries. Previous to the centre, locals burnt and buried the trash until the project came along. Where 90 percent of local economy is tourism, we saw an opportunity to organise ourselves, with no government intervention. We are helping the environment and we are empowered, we have made a business out of this that provides salaries for all of us.”

Jaritzá and her team play a vital role in looking after the area’s ecosystem

Tirimbina Biological Reserve

In 1995, the Tirimbina was opened as a rainforest conservation and research facility, covering 345 hectares of land. In collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, funding was provided to open it up to the public and create a safe path for visitors to walk through and see the rainforest and its wildlife up close and personal.

Over the years, it has become a green leaf certified eco-lodge that produces net zero emissions. All waste it generates decomposes in unique process that produces methane gas, which goes back to the kitchen that they cook with, and the energy they use is produced solely from solar panels.

They also specialise in eco-tourism activities such as night bat walks, chocolate tours and frog tours. Wilson Huertas, a tour guide and bat expert who was paid by the centre to go to university to study bats, says: “I love my job. And I love this country. And I love when tourists love my country. Forty eight percent of pollination in the country is done by bats. They are critical to the rainforest, so I am proud to work for a company that researches and works to preserve these beautiful creatures.”

Wilson is a genuine animal-lover with a passion for introducing others to his beautiful country

Aguas Bravas rafting and Hormigas Town

A more specialised and microscopic example of eco-tourism in action is Hormigas Town, a tour of Leo Herra’s ant colony. It is a family project focused on the conservation and education of leaf-cutter ants. Leo shows you around the 80m (262ft) of branch highways he has created, where hundreds of thousands of ants scuttle along carrying leaves to take to their underground mushroom farms, which you can also see, where they create nectar to cultivate their own food.

Leo had a proud smile on his face as he showed us around his incredible ant colony

Leo is an environmentalist with a passion for ants, who says: “Ants are the first agriculture of the planet. I create colonies to learn about their behavior and pass on my knowledge in the hope it will inspire others. They play a crucial role in every ecosystem, and my hope is that after my tour, visitors to our country can appreciate ants more, and are put off from using pesticides on them.”

His work was made possible because of a collaboration with the most popular adventure tourism in the area, Aguas Bravas rafting, which has allowed Leo to create his colony and tour at their HQ, while they work to preserve the protect the Sarapiqui river they work on.

Head over to Visit Costa Rica to find out more about this wonderful country.

We design all of our trips with an environmentally and socially conscious spirit, and our Real Costa Rica trip is no exception. Join us for sloth spotting, white water rafting and a Costa Rican cooking class.

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