Is Holiday Season Travel to Costa Rica not sustainable?

We would like to make a case here that if you consider yourself a sustainable traveler, you should try to travel during low demand periods (a.k.a. the green season) and avoid peak seasons in popular holiday destinations.

We just finished another “peak” or “holiday” season there at our hotels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  It was a record one for all of us.  This season of high demand for hotel rooms typically runs from just before Christmas through the first days of the new year.

Lapa Rios on the Osa Peninsula
The natural beauty, beaches and pristine rain forest attracts more than two million visitors to Costa Rica every year.  Demand is very concentrated in peak periods.

We estimate that we could easily fill some of the rooms we sell at some of our hotels and lodges like Lapa Rios Ecolodge, Arenas del Mar Resort, Latitude 10 or Kura five to 15 times during that season.  The waiting lists are endless.  Despite this being the most expensive time to travel, demand is through the roof.  There seems to be very little price sensitivity.

The reason for this demand pattern is that is the way that businesses and schools schedule the Christmas and New Year’s Vacations in North American and Europe and the cold weather in most of our feeder markets.  Everybody wants to travel on the exact same dates compressed into 10 to 15 days. Such concentration of demand cannot be sustainable.

Take the example of the beach town of Tamarindo in Guanacaste.  Imagine the social and environmental impact that a sudden temporary influx of 40,000 tourists into a small town of less than 4,000 inhabitants during that time of the year.  Fresh water has to be brought in trucks to supply demand for showers and irrigation, waste water treatment systems collapse as they were designed for “average” loads, traffic jams form along the narrow beach roads as cars are parked in the street, supermarkets run out of basic staples and trash recollection collapses.  Similar things happen in Jaco, Quepos in Costa Rica and San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.

Tamarindo Beach
Tamarindo beach in Costa Rica during the green season.  During peak season, this beautiful beach would be covered with tourists, cars parked on the beach and surfers fighting for waves.  The guest experience is better in the off season and the destination does not suffer as much from environmental and social impacts.

The green season months are quite the contrast.   Tourism employees are laid off temporarily and struggle to support their families due to a lack of tourism dollar income. Businesses are struggling to make their payments.  So what can we do to change this imbalance?
Waste water treatment plant at the Harmony Hotel in Nosara.  Not every hotel has its own state of the art treatment plant.  The public systems might collapse with too many visitors during a short period of time.

We need to do a better job explaining to our potential visitors that by coming in the green season, they will have a so much better experience then in peak season.   While you are able to have a very special and unique vacation experience here in the green season, a visitor coming during the peak season might actually be quite disappointed in some destinations.  Crowded beaches, poor service in the restaurants, too many people on tours and excursions, no good spot to catch a wave in the ocean without running into another surfer, etc.

Santa Teresa Beach in early December
Santa Teresa Beach.  Very busy in the peak season.  You will have it almost to yourself in the off season between late April and early December.

The benefits of the green season are not only better rates and increased value for your dollar for hotel rooms and plane tickets, but also more quality attention by the service staff in the restaurants, the local tour guide and the driver that picks you up at the airport.   You help provide year around employment to the locals working in the tourism sector.
Danny Jimenez has been with Lapa Rios Eco Lodge for over 19 years.  Offer employment all year no matter what season is an important element of Cayuga’s commitment to sustainability.

Think about this when planning your next vacation.  President’s week weekend is coming up in a couple of weeks.  Another peak travel period.  You are probably more likely to have a better vacation experience in late April or May and help the destination to develop in a more sustainable manner.  We would love to hear your comments or ideas on how to deal with this issue.  Send us a note to [email protected]


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