Sunday, November 8, 2009

Size matters: Models of ecotourism development in Costa Rica

Can ecotourism protect the exotic destinations that we love? The answer is a qualified yes, according to an article in this month’s Environment, Development and Sustainability.

The article's main finding is that bigger is usually not better: greater benefits of scale, including more employment opportunities for local communities, are outweighed by increased negative impacts, an outcome that possibly can be ameliorated by the involvement of local populations in ecotourism planning and management. The authors constructed a ‘development balance sheet’ to compare and assess the potential environmental, economic, and social impacts of ecotourism.

According to the study, the benefits of ecotourism include reduced deforestation, as well as a diversified economic base that happens to fund education and social programs.

Drawbacks include pollution, land clearing, disintegration of local communities’ social and cultural structures, and price increases in land markets, food, and other basic services. In addition, these local impacts are not necessarily accompanied by economic development, as tourism dollars often leave the country, to be enjoyed by the foreign owners of tourism operations. This phenomenon, known as leakage, is more prevalent with larger ecotourism developments, which typically require investment capital unlikely to be available locally.

The article notes that “ecotourism’s principles may be corrupted, watered down, and hijacked.” This seems to imply failures of institutions or regulation, whereas, in our experience, negative impacts often can be avoided by owners and developers exercising sound planning and implementation, in spite of inadequate or corrupt regulatory institutions. Responsible developers understand their impacts on local ecosystems and communities, and as a result they minimize their footprint on the landscape, provide adequate waste treatment, and engage local communities through high-quality employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The authors' point, however, no doubt holds at anything larger than the project scale, beyond which institutional governance capacity is required. And even when developers act responsibly, they lack the appropriate ongoing impact monitoring and maintenance of important local ecosystem services, which can be expensive in fragile coastal environments.

National-scale impacts – in addition to the immediate local effects – may also be worth considering in tallying the net benefit of ecotourism development. In the case of Costa Rica, foreign exchange from ecotourism has contributed to the country’s relatively progressive environmental record: the ecotourism industry has both created value for biodiversity and given the country the money to actually pay for it. The more than one million tourists who visit the country each year presumably help to pay for the country’s pioneering environmental programs, including its payments for ecosystem services (PES) program that pays landowners to leave standing forests intact.

Thus, in a country with the institutions to leverage tourism dollars for environmental protection, ecotourism can be a powerful conservation tool. Indeed, as the article concludes, “ecotourism can be a promising development strategy if good institutional capacity exists, especially at [the] local level.” Responsible developers can take this part of the way, but before the industry matures, with large – and, according to the article, potentially more damaging – tourism projects, local and national institutions must form to support sustainable models of development.

In turn, investors in ecotourism should seek out projects with the capacity to make environmentally responsible decisions and to effectively partner with local communities. These responsible projects are the ones that will thrive if and when institutions emerge to manage ecotourism development.

Koens, J., Dieperink, C., & Miranda, M. (2009). Ecotourism as a development strategy: experiences from Costa Rica Environment, Development and Sustainability, 11 (6), 1225-1237 DOI: 10.1007/s10668-009-9214-3