By Drew Monkman & Sandra Candela
For the past three years, my wife Michelle and I have spent part of the winter in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, near the border with Panama. Like many of the tourists attracted to this area, we love the rich biodiversity, the beautiful beaches, the extensive rain forest, the friendly people (called “Ticos”), and the largest cultural diversity in all of Costa Rica. Indigenous peoples, Ticos of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, and ex-pats from all over the world live in this small town. Puerto Viejo is also an international surfing destination and home to the largest and most powerful wave in Costa Rica, known as Salsa Brava. Despite these many attractions, there is very little in the way of “Big Tourism” and the attendant golf courses, condominium communities, and large hotels. Like many tourists here, we find this small-scale ambience attractive.
I also enjoy visiting this area to improve my Spanish. When I am in Puerto Viejo, I meet up regularly with Sandra Candela, a local Spanish teacher. Originally from Colombia, Sandra has lived in Costa Rica for 17 years and has been a keen observer of how tourism has impacted local indigenous communities, namely the BriBri and Cabécar peoples. They are among the poorest populations in the country. Sandra has a master’s degree in Agroforestry from CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza). She also works as a natural resources consultant and cocoa specialist. Sandra runs her own raw cocoa business known as Rawo Cacao.
Costa Rica stands as the most visited nation in Central America with three million foreign visitors in 2018. Like in many other areas of the country, the influx of foreigners has led to the rapid development of the Talamanca coast in the past 10 years. In addition to tourists, development has also brought an avalanche of Costa Ricans from other parts of the country, Nicaraguans, and semi-permanent residents from across North America and Europe. Much of the local economy is controlled by these same foreign citizens who have invested heavily in restaurants, small hotels, and other tourism businesses. Although some foreigners come to Costa Rica to buy land for the purpose of building extravagant hotels, golf courses, and condos, this has not been the case in Talamanca, at least not so far.
Negative Impacts of Tourism
Although tourism-based economic activity supports the majority of the local workforce, many of the employees in these businesses are also foreigners. There are several reasons for this. First, there is the shared culture, the fluency in languages such as English, Italian, or German, and the trust that exists between people of the same nationality. Furthermore, many of the foreigners who come and expect to stay for an extended period of time are highly educated and have skills that are important in tourism.
Unfortunately, much of the local workforce lacks the necessary language skills and training, which often results in low-skilled employment. This lack of opportunity for local people in Puerto Viejo has caused a certain degree of friction with foreigners. Furthermore, the lack of state control over working conditions remains problematic.
In addition, an important component of the aid received by some of the businesses in Puerto Viejo has been through volunteers from all over the world. The fact that there are so many volunteers also causes conflict with the local workforce.
With regard to the natural environment, development has led to increased levels of water pollution and waste, along with the destruction or degradation of many natural habitats. The impacts have been greatest in the Terrestrial Maritime Zone, a designation created by the government to protect coastal areas from development. In turn, this has resulted in the decline of some species. The widening and paving of the main road along the coast has not only led to more traffic but has also resulted in greater risks for wildlife. For example, sloths, armadillos, and crabs are routinely run over on the road. Development has also led to an expansion of the electricity network. When howler monkeys and sloths travel across these unprotected power lines, large numbers die or are injured through electrocution.
Many of the tourists visiting small scale tourist destinations like Puerto Viejo come here to avoid the “unauthentic” mass tourist experience. This is especially true for younger, backpacking visitors. It is quite clear that Puerto Viejo is tapping into the “cultural market” where unique cultures and tropical locations can be marketed to tourists. It is therefore not surprising that Puerto Viejo has become something of a “McDisney” town. To what degree it offers an authentic cultural experience – whatever that might mean – is questionable. Nearly all of the businesses in town cater to tourists, be they souvenir shops, restaurants, small hotels, and businesses offering cultural tours to local cacao farms and indigenous communities.
Positive Impacts of Tourism
On the positive side, many of the foreigners and Costa Ricans who come to live or visit here are extremely interested in protecting nature and worry about uncontrolled habitat destruction. An impressive number have taken the lead in initiating programs and businesses that seek to protect local nature. A leading example is the Jaguar Rescue Center. It is a temporary or permanent home for sick, injured, and orphaned animals, such as monkeys and sloths. The center provides veterinary services, care, and comfort to animals that could not otherwise survive. It also plays an important role in environmental awareness and education, both for the local population and for tourists. The center was founded by two European biologists, Encar García and Sandro Alviani.
It could also be argued that the concern for the environment by foreigners – but also by a quickly increasing number of Costa Ricans themselves – has contributed to greater ecological awareness in the region in general. This increased level of concern for nature was the impetus behind the creation of the nearby Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. More than 30 years ago, Ticos and foreigners worked together to create a reserve to protect endemic species. It includes a 10-kilometer strip of beach, 740 acres of lowland rainforest, a coral reef, and two large wetlands.
Another case in point is the example of the Puerto Viejo dock project, which is part of a Costa Rica government initiative to boost tourism on the Caribbean coast. More than a dozen community organizations recently signed a statement opposing the construction of new docks. They expressed concern for local marine ecosystems, including the extensive coral reefs in the area. The organizations believe the project proceeded without an adequate environmental impact study and contains “a series of grave deficiencies and inconsistencies.”
Puerto Viejo now offers a wide range of small, eco-friendly hotels. Many of these hotels hire local guides to take tourists out to see wildlife and cultural attractions. Visitors can also hire local guides through a non-profit organization called ATEC (Asociación Talamanqueña de Ecoturismo y Conservación). In 1987, a group of Costa Rican and foreign residents began to meet to discuss their concerns about the rapid social, cultural, and economic changes accompanying the increase in tourism in the area. In 1990, they were incorporated as a grassroots non-profit association.
Costa Rica has long been a pioneer in ecotourism and is still considered a world leader. For example, the “Bandera Azul Ecológica” (Ecological Blue Flag Program) was established to try to curb the negative impacts of mass tourism by helping local communities reduce pollution and protect the environment. Under the program, beaches are evaluated according to criteria such as the water quality of both the ocean and of drinking water, waste disposal, sanitary facilities, signage, tourist safety, environmental education, and involvement of the community in beach maintenance. Only beaches with a score of 90% receive the Blue Flag. Although the program has had some success in improving ecological awareness, it is far from perfect. There appears to be little follow-up after the Blue Flag is given, and beach maintenance is spotty at best.
An Uncertain Future
With tourist travel on hold as a result of COVID-19, areas like Puerto Viejo have seen their economy plummet. Most businesses are shut down and unemployment is rampant. The indigenous community of Kekoldi (part of the Bribri people) has been especially hard hit. This illustrates the vulnerability of basing an entire regional economy on tourism. For the international travel sector to recover, tourists will need to feel confident that their health is protected. In the meantime, countries like Costa Rica will have to encourage domestic tourism as a substitute for foreign visitors. This won’t be enough, however, to maintain the number of businesses and jobs that existed before. Clearly, there is much to consider as places like Puerto Viejo strive to move forward.
Alex Paez is a local nature guide. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 506-8495-2610