Do Ecotourism and Sustainable Hospitality have a future in Costa Rica?

2014 is an election year in Costa Rica.   Even though, tourism is the second most important contributor to the country”™s GOP (after microchips), the tourism industry in the country typically does not have much of a voice among the country”™s political decision makers.   The great majority of tourism businesses are ecotourism and boutique hospitality companies that have even less of a voice.   Why is that?   And what consequences does that bring for the future?

Guests and employees enjoy a soccer match with a rain forest backdrop near Lapa Rios Eco Lodge.

Let”™s start here.   We  are very optimistic about the future of Costa Rica and its tourism development.   At Cayuga, we always see more opportunities than threats. But there are a few ” clouds” on the horizon that could affect ecotourism and sustainable hospitality in Costa Rica and we feel this is a good medium to raise consciousness about what lies ahead.   Let”™s not just sit back and observe, but get active in shaping the future of tourism in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has a great reputation abroad and rightly so”¦   We are known as the happiest country in the world, friendly locals are welcoming foreign tourists, we offer incredible biodiversity and natural beauty, two oceans ““ rain forests- volcanoes”¦ What more do we need to say.   Many travelers have experienced several destinations in Costa Rica by rental car or public transportation (including domestic flights) and enjoyed the vast variety of experiences that one can have in such a small country.   They stopped at small restaurants along the way, hired local tour guides and bought souvenirs in small shops.   The beauty of the traditional Costa Rican tourism model is its ” democratic” approach and how the tourism dollar is evenly spread across businesses all over the country.   It is sustainable tourism at its best.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

But here is the other side of the coin.   The Liberia Airport in the northern Guanacaste region of the country made way for the development of massive all inclusive and branded resorts.   Thousands of ” all inclusive” hotel rooms often build with questionable environmental and labor practices have shot up along the northern Pacific coast and are challenging the traditional model.   Guests at those megaresorts fly into Liberia often on charter flights, are bussed into the hotels and seldom leave the hotel and if they do it is on an organized tour by the hotel operator.   There are certain economic benefits of building these kinds of hotels such as employment, but the experiences of the past decades in southern Spain (Costa del Sol), the Mexican Riviera (Cancun) and certain islands of the Caribbean have shown that such a model is not sustainable.   The local communities do not benefit in the long term.   The tourism dollar often never even makes it to Costa Rica and is kept by the operators in the tourist”™s country of origin.

Back to the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in February 2014.   Who do you think has the ” ear” of the candidates?   The couple who is interesting in building a nine room eco lodge or the 900 room mega resort developer? How do we make our politicians understand that 100 small businesses are much better for Costa Ricans and the sustainable development of the country than one mega business?   That is a hard sale”¦

A lot is at stake.   What if Costa Rica loses its positioning as a premier ecotourism destination?   There are many competing countries lined up looking forward to become the ” new Costa Rica”.   Ecotourism can NOT happen at a big branded or all inclusive resort.   Would we be killing the goose that laid those golden eggs that attracted the mega resort developers in the first place?   Can the two models exist next to each other?   Branded all-inclusive resorts that operate mostly for the sun birds up north in the Guanacaste area and individually owned boutique hotels and eco lodges in other parts of the country?   How does the positioning of a country like Costa Rica work in this case?

Explore the local town on a bike and connect with the community that you visit.


We don”™t have all the answers.    But we need to have a debate about this. We cannot ignore the big gorilla in the room?  Right now, Costa Rica is a powerful brand.   And it does not necessarily get associated with all-inclusive and branded resorts by its best prospects (a term that the Tourism ministry uses a lot to talk about Costa Rica”™s potential target market).   This target market thinks small, friendly and natural when they envision a vacation in Costa Rica ““ not big, impersonal and concrete.

Maybe we have part of the answer?  Many sustainable boutique hotels and eco lodges in Costa Rica have positively influenced the communities where they operate.   It is important to involve the local community in every aspect of the operation and always maintain a sense of place.   Hiring a local staff and purchasing local products are also a key element to achieve sustainability in the operation.   Some great models for this kind of sustainable development are the Lapa Rios Ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula, Arenas del Mar Beachfront and Rainforest Resort in Manuel Antonio and the Harmony Hotel in Nosara.

The three candidates that have best chances of becoming Costa Rica”™s next president are Johnny Araya, Otto Guevara and Jose Maria Villalta.   We included their campaign websites below in case you want to send them a message supporting the special and unique tourism model that makes the Costa Rican Vacation experience so special.   Help us explain to them the importance of small, sustainable, individually owned tourism business and ecotourism operations.   Pura vida!!!

This blog post expresses the opinions of Hans Pfister, co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.   The Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels and Lodges are comprised of 8 individually owned boutique hotels and eco lodges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.   If you would like to send your comments, please do so to [email protected].    


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