When Covid-19 shut down Costa Rica’s tourism sector in March, it dealt a crippling blow to the economy. The tiny Central American nation’s pristine beaches, lush forests and abundant biodiversity typically draw visitors from overseas in droves. Last year tourism accounted for more than 8 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and employed 9 per cent of its workers.
Costa Rica is now banking on those visitors returning — and soon. This month, despite rising rates of Covid-19 infections in the US and Europe, Costa Rica reopened its borders. The government hopes the return of US tourists in its high season, which kicks off at the end of the month, will haul back $1.5bn in revenues and create 80,000 jobs next year.
A tourism sector so dominant might be expected to do more environmental harm than good. But Costa Rica’s government has long seen tourism as a vehicle for its conservation efforts, and for half a century has worked to build a reputation as one of the world’s foremost eco-tourism destinations. The pitch has resonated with travellers increasingly aware of their carbon footprints.
Playa Hermosa, on the Pacific, is an attempt to demonstrate that tourism can drive sustainability. The area lies partly on a wildlife reserve and while its spectacular waves make it a surfing destination, the beach is home to three endangered turtle species and the threatened scarlet macaw.
Costa Rica has stringent environmental protections on land. But marine conservation has lagged behind — less than 3 per cent of marine areas are protected, compared with a quarter of the landmass. Development of coastal areas has brought problems including the erosion of sandbanks, deforestation for pasture, and water and sewage management. The challenge for coastal communities, says Haydée Rodríguez, deputy minister for water and sea, is “to find economic alternatives that are sustainable, long-term and add value, especially in the current crisis”.
Authorities in the Garabito canton, home to Playa Hermosa, are addressing environmental issues through tourism. Their master plan for sustainable development is designed to mitigate environmental damage, preserve wave quality, and protect flora and fauna — for instance by recovering turtle nesting areas. The plans are seen as a model for coastal conservation both at home and abroad; they helped Playa Hermosa clinch designation as the world’s 12th “surf reserve” in September.
Playa Hermosa has already proved tourism can be sustainable. When surfers first started flocking there, it had only one tree. Local non-profit Costas Verdes began a reforestation project which has planted 20,000 native trees since 2009.
José Moya had been fishing off Golfito, a town in the far south of Costa Rica, for decades when the United Fruit Company, which had made the area a prime banana plantation, pulled out in the 1980s. When more than 10,000 people were laid off, many went back to fishing. With no limits or licences, fish stocks were exhausted by the indiscriminate use of trammel nets, which ensnare fish in a mesh sandwiched between layers of netting.
Golfito is home to a diverse fish population, including barracudas, and is also a breeding area for hammerhead sharks, humpback whales and dolphins. Overfishing triggered a vicious circle: as stocks were depleted, rather than fishing less to allow populations to recover, fishermen fished more because they needed the money.
About six years ago, Mr Moya, 65, had an idea that changed his fortunes: taking tourists out in his fishing boat. “It’s less damaging for the fish stocks because tourists are happy if they catch four fish,” he says. “Now I work three days a week. Before I had to work every day, day and night.”
Fishing in Golfito is now regulated, in line with Costa Rica’s wider goal of protecting 30 per cent of its coast by 2030. Six associations offer fishing, whale watching tours, or visits to coral reefs with a local captain. Golfito’s remote location, near the Panama border, tends to attract local, rather than wealthy international visitors. Even so, for Mr Moya there will be no return to fishing. “Tourism’s still a better bet,” he says.
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