Can Ecotourism Survive in Costa Rica?
The pigs stank when we got close. Six large ones, mottled cream and pink with enormous glistening snouts, lounged in the shed just down the path from my hotel room. "They’re our composting machines," explains Andres Soley, the sustainability manger at Lapa Rios Ecolodge, which is perched on the southern tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. "They eat all our organic waste from the lodge restaurant and kitchen."
After the pigs churn through a meal, their excrement is pumped into a nearby biodigester, which captures the methane it releases. It’s then burned as a fuel for cooking meals. The leftover excrement is used as rich liquid fertilizer for nearby water lilies and other native plants that fill the lodge grounds.
I had never seen a biodigester until arriving at Lapa Rios for a winter vacation with my family. I spent my first afternoon at the lodge on a two-hour sustainability tour (which is offered biweekly to guests), getting up close and personal with the whole process -- pigs, poop, power, and all.
Making energy from food scraps is just the beginning at this ecolodge, one of 148 nationally certified sustainable hotels in the Central American country located between Panama and Nicaragua. "Costa Rica is one of the pioneers of sustainable tourism, dating back to the 1980s when visiting tropical biologists started to bring their friends and family along on field trips," says Ronald Sanabria, the Rainforest Alliance’s vice president of sustainable tourism. Ecotourism thrives in Costa Rica, Sanabria says, because of the country’s impressive biodiversity, proximity to North America, long history of political stability, and high literacy rate.
"Costa Rica is not all eco," says Martha Honey, co-founder of the Center for Responsible Travel and former executive director of The International Ecotourism Society. "But the ecotourism revolution in Costa Rica has been really profound. It … still remains the best example in the world of successful ecotourism." Today, though, that record is threatened by the growth of international hotel chains and plans for another international airport, which could transform the Osa Peninsula and push out its eco-lodges.
Despite covering 0.01 percent of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica’s rainforests and coral reefs are home to close to 5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. The country boasts 500,000 (and counting) different plant and animal species. Roughly a third of the size of New York state, this small country has coasts on two oceans and six active volcanoes, creating many different microclimates, variable weather (sun and showers seem to swap places every few minutes), and a wide range of ecosystems.
In order to protect this ecological richness, Costa Rica’s government has preserved 26 percent of its land and 16 percent of its marine surface in 27 national parks, 11 wetland reserves, and two biosphere reserves. In 1997 Costa Rica’s Tourism Board (or ICT) established the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) to distinguish and guide businesses that "comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management," according to the CST mission statement. The CST ranks businesses on a scale of 0 to 5 to reward pioneering ecolodges and encourage further interest in ecotourism.
In 2003 Lapa Rios was the first hotel to achieve CST’s top ranking, level 5. The lodge is nestled in a fecund rainforest canopy alive with the calls of the chestnut mandible toucan and scarlet macaw. It overlooks the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and the Golfo Dulce, the Sweet Gulf. "The lodge supports local micro-businesses wherever possible," says Soley, the sustainability manager. Locals use recycled or renewable materials, like the locally grown Suiita palm, to make everything from the reusable bamboo straws in the restaurant to the furniture in the lounge.
The food is also grown or sourced locally. Three quarters of all ingredients come from San Jose, cutting down on the amount of gas guzzled and emissions spewed by transporting food from other parts of the world. All guests make their dinner selections in the morning so that the kitchen can order exactly the right amount to minimize waste.
During the four days I stayed at Lapa Rios, I began to appreciate first-hand the rich, diverse beauty of our surroundings. I swam underneath a waterfall. I surfed at a volcanic black sand beach. I hiked through the rainforest, watched howler monkeys swing through the trees, and held a baby green iguana, thanks to one of Lapa Rios’ wildlife guides. But I had the most fun walking hand in hand with Sweetie, the matriarch spider monkey, meeting and feeding animals at the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary.
We finally had to board a tiny airplane and fly back to grungy, bustling San Jose. As we took off, I had a clear view of the landscape and coastline leading away from the small town of Puerto Jimenez. Just inland from the shimmering water and untouched beaches I could see an abrupt shift from wild primary forest to the monoculture of a palm plantation. I later discovered that the massive plantation grows African palm oil, which a few years ago replaced smaller banana farms.
Honey, with the Center for Responsible Travel, told me that a massive development boom began in Costa Rica in 2002, particularly along the Pacific coast in a region called Guanacaste, when a new airport established direct flights from that area to the United States. The period from 2002 to 2008 saw an explosion of vacation homes, high-rise condos, and about a hundred new all-inclusive resorts.
Giants like JW Marriott, Hilton, and Four Seasons now dominate Guanacaste’s tourism industry. These complexes flatten thousands of acres with manicured lawns, spa centers, and golf courses. The Marriott, an imposing 310-room hotel that features four restaurants, two bars, and Costa Rica's largest swimming pool, also boasts 7,223 square feet of indoor meeting space for up to 500 people.
The top ecolodges are expensive (Lapas Rios will cost a couple $760 per night during the peak season), but the best traditional hotels are in the same ballpark (rates vary daily but run around $745 a night for an ocean-view room at the Marriott). For the country as a whole, though, sustainable tourism is the better deal, Honey says. "The research that we’ve done indicates that these internationally owned complexes are a far less valuable tourism model for the country, both for high value long-term employment and benefits to conservation.
The Costa Rican government has recently proposed building another international airport in the Osa Peninsula. If these plans go ahead, the region will likely go the way of Guanacaste, and Lapa Rios could find itself struggling to compete with giant cookie-cutter hotel complexes. If that happens, the eco-lodge experience I enjoyed could become a thing of the past, along with the lush wild rainforest and fascinating local culture it nurtures.