Eco-Tourism: Where Money and Preservation Intersect

Before the green-label overload, most tourists chose to travel to Costa Rica, the economically prosperous, democratically stable Central American getaway, simply because, “I heard there are lots of monkeys on the beach,” or “jungles are sweet.” 

They came for leisure, but instead of helping the country, they hurt it, part of an industry that actually degrades local environment and culture, hiding the wealthy visitors from pervasive squalor. There is a problem to be dealt with here. If tourists and host countries invest properly in developing eco-tourism, it can overcome negative aspects by assigning economic value to the preservation of natural resources. 

If we really loved monkeys shouldn’t we just leave them alone? Unfortunately, in order to preserve, a degree of exploitation must be accepted, if not actively promoted, in national policies. In order to preserve, the natural environment must have a higher economic value than what it would be worth if put toward alternative uses.

In other words, providing tourists jungles in which they may view monkeys has to mean more to national GDP than clearing land for other purposes, such as for cattle grazing, logging or agriculture. It represents the ugly truth: It is not in our economic interest to preserve vast swaths of land and leave them there, untouched. If you think that monkeys are rad in a zoo, you’ll perhaps shell out for the trip to see them in their natural environment. You’re less likely to shell out to an organization or government to just leave the monkeys, and their jungle habitat alone.

Is there any hope for truly improving our record of environmental preservation if it is contingent upon economic growth through tourism that is, in itself, inherently unsustainable? If enough tourists visit a place annually, their impact on the country and the environment will eventually be felt.

At over one million visitors yearly, some argue that Costa Rica has already reached this tipping point. Too many people are tromping through natural parks and increasing pressure on public transport and local waste disposal systems. You can paint it as eco-tourism, but that does not mean that it will be forever. For those of you who just slammed their head against their hand and scoffed, “Can’t we do anything that does not hurt the environment?!” The answer is no!

Despite this, eco-tourism is all we have. And Costa Rica does it well. It has an impressive record of environmental management, ranking third overall on the Environmental Performance Index, published by the Yale Center for Environmental Policy. After experiencing rapid deforestation in the name of industrial development in the 60s, Costa Rica turned around and set aside 25% of its land area in National Protected Areas and developed policies to promote rural reforestation measures.

In addition, they can brag about the high rate of local ownership of businesses, the overwhelming presence of smaller (thus more eco-friendly) hotels and restaurants, a nation-wide recycling program, and adventure tourism that take tourists into the forests to learn about animals and plants in order to promote better stewardship. On top of all of this praise, the national government announced their intention to become a carbon-neutral economy by 2021.

Eco-tourism at least takes the environment and local culture into account in its development and is the best-adapted mechanism for preservation presently available. Tourists demanded that Costa Rica shape up and it responded by becoming an international leader in environmental management. But we, the tourists, have to do our part. Do not feed the monkeys soda and do not go to beaches where they are overpopulated. We cannot wait to be told by a label that our actions are responsible. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jessica Rudder

Jessica is a master's student in the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. She is a researcher for agriculture and development institute on campus. She cares about food policy, poverty, and sustainability.

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