Sunday, May 23, 2010

Balancing tourists and turtles in Costa Rica

Turtles are often a draw in coastal tourism destinations. As popularity grows, though, pressure to develop more tourist accommodations creates a conflict with the need to protect the turtles’ sensitive beach habitats.

A recent paper in Conservation and Society – ‘Tourists and turtles: Searching for a balance in Tortuguero, Costa Rica’ – examines several aspects of ecotourism in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. The results raise some interesting questions about balancing the trade-offs between access to ecotourism destinations and protecting the very natural resources that tourists have traveled to see.

The research focused on tourist perceptions of turtle tours - guided opportunities to see turtles nesting on the beach - and whether they were satisfied despite some restrictions that were intended to minimize the human impacts on the nesting turtles.

ResearchBlogging.orgTortuguero instituted a new tour format to address tourism-associated impacts on the beach, including "trampling, sand compaction and/or nest disturbances, all of which can be detrimental for nesting sea turtle populations."

Under the new system, "groups now wait in respective beach sections until a turtle is 'spotted' for them... Tour groups wait off the beach, and are later directed to turtles via spotters' radioed instructions."

This amounts to a potentially significant inconvenience for visitors. Yet a majority of tourists (64%) had positive responses to the added wait. Indeed, the authors conclude, the data "suggest that the primacy of seeing turtles dominates the tour experience.

Therefore, as long as most tourists still see turtles, most will leave satisfied." Especially when the wait was accompanied by a knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, the visitors were willing to accommodate the new format.

Bottom line: Do what is necessary to protect the resource (in this case, turtles). A majority of people who travel for ecotourism experiences are willing to sacrifice some comfort or access if it means greater protections.

Meletis, Z., & Harrison, E. (2010). Tourists and turtles: Searching for a balance in Tortuguero, Costa Rica Conservation and Society, 8 (1) DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.62678