We spent the month of February traveling in Central America, mainly Costa Rica. When we left Keene we joked that we were doing “research on ecotourism” but, in fact, we did learn a lot about the subject. Here are a few observations.
A Mix of Public and Private Reserves plus a Wide Spread Eco Ethics
In Costa Rica, there are national parks (25% of the total area of the country) and also private reserves (8%). Overall, the country is about double the size of the Adirondack Park. So its national parks are about equal to our Forest Preserve which is about half of the total Adirondack Park. This is pretty good in terms of land set aside for conservation. Costa Rica is frequently cited for its high level of commitment to environmental sustainability. They have set a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021. Something like 95% of its energy is derived from renewable sources, mainly hydro, wind and geothermal (they have a lot of volcanoes). More than any other country in the world they have branded themselves an ecotourism destination.
Admission Fees for Foreigners
Both Parks and private reserves charge admission with different rates for citizens vs. visitors. They all have gates with attendants and posted hours of operation and a formal sense of the area as a Park. The national parks charge $10 per person for foreigners. Fees at private parks vary from $15-$25. The all have bathrooms at the entrances. The private preserves also tend to have small shops selling things like hats, sun screen, insect repellent, bird identification cards. Some have small simple restaurants offering light food and drinks.
Excellent Guides Everywhere
In every case the guides make it clear that the funds from tourist traffic support more conservation and jobs in the region. An important point is that the private preserves are set up so only a small part (2%) of the land is accessible by visitors with the rest devoted to preservation of natural habitat and protection of wildlife. This often meant that a hotel had as small a footprint as possible. Some have highly developed trails. Most walks are short, maybe 2 hours. The funds go to research programs, typically on other parts of the property. The government provides small financial incentives for private land owners to turn their properties into preserves rather than farms, plantations or pastures.
Guides point out basic flora and fauna as well as local exotic stuff, if any. They carry scopes for birding, take photos with visitors’ cameras, and they carry laser pointers that are great for pointing to birds. The guides work as teams; each guide has only 2-5 people with them, but if they find something of special interest they use smart phones to text each other in order to share sightings. Most excursions are half-day programs. There are also early morning (dawn) and early evening (sunset + 2 hours) walks.
Guides are very well trained, certified and licensed. Schooling appears to be 2-3 years of work at a community college level or higher. They are expert bird spotters, and explain plants, tree types, canopy fungi, soils…lots of facts about how the ecosystems work. They are deeply enthusiastic in explaining things to people of all types from many countries. They are cross-trained so one day they are walking guides while the next day they are raft drivers. Most are employed by tour operators, although some are independent.
Transportation Problems Similar to the Adirondacks
The primary tourist towns are a few hours apart, and 2-3 hours from the larger airport (there are some smaller airstrips). The tour companies use small comfortable vans for airport pickups and to take people from town to town. The drivers who run these transfers make the trips interesting, stopping at good view spots or to see a random animal. In effect, the transport becomes another excursion. They talk happily with passengers about anything using either English or Spanish. Many visitors rent cars as well.
Regionally, they leverage the variability of the country….the fact that it is really different in each region is made to be of interest and a reason to travel around.
Other Tourist Activity
It’s not all about birding and species identification. There are lots of visitor-related recreation and entertainment attractions: zip lines, rappelling, balloon rides, horses, boat trips, rafting, coffee farm tours, mangrove swamp tours, chocolate plantation tours, artist coop visits, butterfly gardens, orchid farms, beach towns, etc. The main focus is wildlife and understanding the complex and varied ecosystems of this diverse country.
Hunting is illegal in all of Costa Rica. Animals with behavior issues (e.g. crocodiles) are captured and released where they are not dangerous to people
Recycling is ubiquitous in the country and they are always looking for markets for recycled materials. They explained that now they make all decks and walkways in the parks out of recycled plastic rather than wood. In the tropical climate the wood rots in as little as 5 years whereas the plastic will last essentially forever. Hotel gift shops offered a range of things made from recycled materials.
It wasn’t just professional guides and tour operators who seemed to get the idea of conservation and ecotourism. The attitudes about protecting the environment and being proud of the environmental achievements seemed universal. We heard that the private reserves are better protected than the National Parks, where budget limitations make enforcement personnel scarce. Mostly this creates problems with timber poachers coming in from bordering Nicaragua, not with local people, we were told.
There are still conflicts here between the needs of development and the goals of environmental protection. A recent project to widen and modernize a key highway going to the southeast of the country met with some resistance because long stretches of it ran through a major preserve.
Thoughts on Ecotourism in the Adirondacks
Older ADK ‘attractions’ like Ausable Chasm, High Falls Gorge, Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, could be marketed as ecotourism. There are already farms tours and farm stays. Many hotels and restaurants are tied to sustainable operations and local food. The Wild Center is an obvious center piece. We would benefit from more study the special natural ecosystems that support birds and wildlife – they are a tourist attraction. Some way of using tourism (fees) to generate a funding stream for environmental research and protection (e.g., programs against invasives) could be made attractive to tourists here as it is in Costa Rica. Eco-tourists feel good when they know that they are contributing to protecting the wild environment. Spending a few dollars as a contribution to the good work going on there feels like a good thing, not a burden.