(This is the third and last in a series.)
The Frommer’s guide to Costa Rica states:
Still, tourism is the nations true principal source of income, surpassing cattle ranching, textiles, and exports of coffee, apples, bananas, and Intel microchips. Over two million tourists visit Costa Rica year, and over half the working population is employed in the tourism and service industries. Ticos whose fathers and grandfathers were farmers and ranchers find themselves hotel owners, tour guides, and waiters. Although most have adapted gracefully and regard the industry as a source of jobs and opportunities for economic advancement, restaurant and hotel staff can seem gruff and uninterested at times, especially in rural areas.
Happily, the staff at the Ramada Inn my wife and I stayed at was warm and cordial, not seeming forced at all. I was there mainly to keep her company while she was at a conference in the hotel, but looked forward to a couple of day trips when she was available.
We decided to go into the interior to see a live volcano at Arenal, a tour that included a few hours at a nearby spa called Tabacón that had hot baths fed by thermal underground springs. As it turns out, the volcano erupted in 1968 and wiped out the village that the spa now resided on. Although Costa Ricans are proud of their volcanoes, you can get much closer to them in Nicaragua if memory serves me right. On a tour in Sandinista Nicaragua, our group stood right on the rim of Masaya Volcano and watched the steam pouring out. It’s the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere that you can get so close to.
The ride from San Jose to Arenal is long and exhausting even though the scenery is beautiful. Along the winding mountain roads, the tour guide pointed out other attractions such as bungee jumping and paragliding spots. Since my knees go weak when I am in the observation towers of tall buildings, I made a mental note to skip these places if I came to Costa Rica again. Of considerable more interest were the canopy tours, an ingenious way to see the forest flora and fauna at the top of the trees. A cable extends from the top of a mountain all the way into a valley. You hook yourself to a harness attached to the cable and wend your way down getting a bird’s eye view of the continent’s (if not the world’s) most spectacular biodiversity display.
A few days later we went out to Tortuga Island off the Pacific Coast. You are on a bus for three hours and then on a boat for another hour or so until you arrive at this gorgeous and unspoiled island with a beautiful beach. The only problem with this day trip, as was the case with Arenal, is the amount of time it takes to get there and back. It is almost like going from New York to Boston to spend three or four hours walking around Cambridge. Cambridge is a beautiful and historic town but not one to be experienced in that fashion. To enjoy Boston and Cambridge, it is best to stay there for a few days. Same thing with Costa Rica. Once you get off the plane in San Jose, your best bet is to get transportation to a hotel or lodge near the Pacific or Atlantic coasts or in the interior.
If tourism is Costa Rica’s main industry, it is the “green” and “primeval” aspect that draws people. It is everything that Acapulco or Cancun is not. At least that is the selling point. It turns out that the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is becoming another playground for the super-rich just like other resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. On our trip out to Tortuga, the tour guide showed me a map of the region and pointed to the area just north of where we were going. He said, with some degree of pride, that the hotels there were the favorite haunts of Angela Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio. I chuckled to myself as I recalled Stan Goff’s warning against the Pacific Coast. He advised us to go to the Atlantic Coast, which was not blemished by such hotels and was primarily the home of English-speaking people of African descent just like those in Nicaragua. The area is unspoiled, beautiful and rich in biodiversity. The problem, however, it is fairly remote and can be reached only by boat in most places, just as is the case with the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. From an economic standpoint, we can only assume that the small lodges that predominate in the East do not generate as much revenue as the multinational-owned hotels on the West.
Despite Costa Rica’s well-deserved reputation as a country committed to biodiversity and an ecotourism that respects that biodiversity, there are enormous pressures on the country to bend to corporate interests that put profits above nature, even if they are proclaiming their “green intentions”.
In 1995 Grupo Situr, a Mexican company that clearly sought to build something like Cancún but with “environmentalist” pretensions, initiated a huge project on the Gulf of Papagayo. They referred to their plans as Ecodevelopment, even though they began cutting down trees, draining mangrove swamps, building roads without permits as well as beginning construction far too close to the beach. The end result has been hotels like the Four Seasons that charge $500 per night, golf courses, marinas, polo fields and all the rest of the nonsense that would attract Leonardo DiCaprio, a typical Hollywood environmentalist.
Around the same time plans were announced for “Green Luxury” at Playa Grande, another Pacific coast town. The most hyped feature was the installation of yellow lights all around the development. Supposedly the local turtles were averse to normal lighting but cool with yellow.
The main architects and financiers were Heydar Ghiai and Sons, an Iranian firm that had been one of the shah’s favorites. The son Yves assured Martha Honey (whose excellent book “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development” this post relies on heavily) in an interview that “We are the only group of developers really caring about the environment in Costa Rica”.
It turned out that the yellow lights were just as bothersome to turtles as regular lighting. More importantly, Playa Grande is the nesting ground of leatherback turtles, whose yearly pilgrimage to the white sandy beaches coincides with the tourist busy season. As tourist season kicked in, illegal collection of eggs grew out of control.
When a long-time defender of the leatherbacks tried to get the area around Playa Grande to become a national park with all the protection of wildlife that entailed, the Ghiai’s used their influence to proceed with almost no restrictions.
When my wife and I were trying to decide on a Pacific coast day tour, Manuel Antonio National Park was in the running against Tortuga Island. Stan Goff had recommended the park that was near beaches and a rainforest. I was intrigued to discover that tourists were advised to stick to the paths in the wooded areas since they contained the notorious Fer de Lance and Bushmaster snakes, whose bite can kill you within an hour or so.
Frankly, the water in the nearby town of Quepo and around the park was probably more dangerous than the snakes since both lacked sewage systems and allowed refuse to be dumped directly into the sea. Like American parks in the Rocky Mountains, Manuel Antonio has a huge number of visitors each year putting a strain on its ability to maintain a healthy ecosystem. This is one of the main contradictions of ecotourism obviously. In order to generate revenue, the parks have to attract tourists.
As much as I respect what the authorities are trying to do in Costa Rica, I am pessimistic. The economic pressures on the country are immense. In the mid-80s an economic crisis led to the same kinds of privatization and austerity programs now being forced on the Greeks. The White House, seeking an ally in the region, against Sandinista Nicaragua, used a carrot and a stick approach to line the country up against the FSLN. This meant shoveling aid on the country mostly calculated to foster Cancún type hotels while privatizing utility companies, etc.
It would be a great tragedy if economic pressures forced Costa Rica to retreat to the point where its amazing biodiversity began to diminish. As the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica points out:
With a land area of only 51.100 km2 (0.03% of the planet’s surface) and 589.000 km2 of territorial waters, Costa Rica is considered to be one of the 20 countries with greatest biodiversity in the world. Its geographic position, its two coasts and its mountainous system, which provides numerous and varied microclimates, are some of the reasons that explain this natural wealth, both in terms of species and ecosystems. The more than 500,000 species that are found in this small country represent nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. Of these 500,000 species, just over 300,000 are insects.
As we slouch toward Bethlehem in the 21st century, the struggle to preserve flora and fauna against the relentless drive for profit, mounted more and more often in the name of ecology, the connection with the broader struggle for peace and social justice will become inextricably linked.