If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, most likely you will hear about the Osa Peninsula, known as the “crown jewel” of Costa Rica’s biodiversity.
Although tiny, this area is home to 2.5-3 percent of all species on the planet and has been described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place left on Earth.”
For me, what makes the Osa so special is that every time I visit, I return with a special, unique story to tell. In its forests I have followed the fresh footprints of a jaguar, one of the Osa’s most vulnerable felines. While bird watching I’ve seen countless pairs of Scarlet macaws, just one of the more than 400 species that live in the region. In the mornings I’ve woken up to white faced capuchin monkeys outside my cabin window and sailed across the Golfo Dulce watching dolphins and whales follow along. Once I even swam next to a whale shark that must have been at least 8 meters long.
Costa Rica has been a leader in developing a low-impact ecotourism model. However, during the last decade, the tourism industry in Costa Rica began to see a major shift in this model. This shift is mostly perceived in the Guanacaste region (the northern Pacific coast in Costa Rica) where developments of huge “all-inclusive” resorts have replaced the more traditional low impact hotels and tourist activities and has left an expensive toll on the sustainability of the province. This has resulted in a clear conflict with nature and with the country’s original model of sustainable tourism.
So far, the Osa Peninsula has been a model for low-impact ecotourism. However, as was recently noted in the New York Times Green Blog, studies and organizations such as NRDC warn that opening an international airport in the region could forever change the Peninsula and its many treasures and abundant natural resources.
A study performed by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) identified the construction of Guanacaste’s international airport as a catalyst for fast growing real estate development. The study focused on the tourism impacts in Guanacaste and found that the lack of appropriate land use planning and improvisation led to uncontrolled growth that has had environmental and social repercussions.
As large scale real estate projects and “all inclusive” tourism development took over the Guanacaste region, the decrease in flora and fauna has been noticeable. Local communities have also been affected by the “privatization” of some beaches and mega-resorts compete with communities for water, electricity and other resources.
One of the leading Costa Rican newspapers recently published an in-depth report that ought to serve as a red flag for the future of the tourism industry in Costa Rica. Last year, the Guanacaste Household Survey concluded that about 38 percent of the population is living in poverty. The Guanacaste model is providing the local economies with far less income per tourist than was originally expected.
Costa Rican government authorities, the tourism industry (investors, operators, and tourists themselves) as well as Costa Rica’s citizens need to begin asking questions regarding the sustainability of the recent tourism boom and uncontrolled growth, and compare it to the original model based on ecotourism. It is this model that Costa Rica benefitted greatly from for the past decades. Is Costa Rica, then, ensuring the sustainability of its tourism industry?
A vision for sustainability in the Osa is necessary
The Osa Peninsula is one of the last remaining examples of sustainable ecotourism in Costa Rica. But with the current government planning to build a new international airport, the region’s future hangs in the balance.
An international airport in Osa, without strong integrated land-use planning, could result in the overdevelopment of mass tourism that Guanacaste experienced.
Costa Rica must not forget that its tourism industry grew because the country has some of the world’s most incredible natural treasures. Costa Rica has the responsibility, then, to nurture and protect these gems. This conflict in the tourism model is not about developing versus not developing. It is about clearly defining the model that as Costa Ricans we want to adopt. I am hopeful that the Osa Peninsula can be a model for sustainable tourism that strikes a balance between protecting natural resources and meeting the needs of local communities.
Top photo by NRDC. Bottom photo (cc) by TamarindoWiki.