Our struggles with the CST Sustainability Certification in Costa Rica

April 6, 2016

Posted on Aug 15th, 2013.

How to take sustainability in tourism to the next level?

This is not an easy blog to write, but we think it is time that the discussion about this topic out in the open.   We see the necessity for the CST program to evolve and move forward.   Sustainability has changed, Costa Rica is not the same as 20 years ago and guests have new needs, perceptions and expectations.   Let’s take sustainability certification to the next level.

A bit of history.   The CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) is a Costa Rican Certification system that has been developed in the late 1990’s and has been one of the most celebrated certification systems in the tourism industry.   Two of the Cayuga Collection Properties (Lapa Rios Eco Lodge and Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn) were among the first properties to be certified and also the first to receive the highest five leave certification.   Other Cayuga managed hotels like the Harmony Hotel in Nosara was the first hotel in Guanacaste to receive five leaves and Arenas del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort in Manuel Antonio was the first five star hotel in Costa Rica to receive 5 leaves.   Grano de Oro in San Jose is the fifth hotel in the Cayuga Collection to receive 5 leaves.

We have not only been pioneers in the program but also have full heartedly supported the program over the years.   The inspectors and all the people working in the CST department are excellent professionals.   We have the highest respect for their hard work and devotion to the program.   Without their passion for sustainability, the program would not have been so successful.   The program has helped us in the first years to order and organize our sustainability efforts. We had been traveling abroad telling interested audiences in how great the program worked for us.

But the world changed.   As the years passed, the CST became more and more bureaucratic and for many hotels, the focus was on ” getting the leaves” instead of working on real sustainability programs that have a strong impact on the environment and the community.  We started to question certain requisites of the certification and many colleagues from other hotels and lodges expressed their frustration to us. Everybody believes in sustainability and is passionate about it and there is strong desire to fix things and make them better.   But there seems to be something wrong with the certification as of now.

Earlier in 2013 we have started to talk about reforms, ideas, changes and hope that in the next few weeks and months we will be able to form a task force to reform the CST and make it a more user-friendly tool that still guarantees that the Costa Rican Hospitality Industry leads the world in terms of sustainable practices, but not at such a high price.

What triggered us to write this blog, was a letter we received from a hotelier and conservationist that has been protecting an important area of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica (near Piedras Blancas National Park) and who we respect for his conservation efforts for more than 20 years.   This is a lodge that is not affiliated with the Cayuga Collection, but it summarizes the way many of us feel.

For years, I have been following with great concern the development of the CST in Costa Rica. What began as an excellent concept for the sustainability of tourism businesses has developed into a bureaucratic apparatus that has blown out of proportion and is mainly serving as a new source of income for local companies.  It is hardly possible for a hotel to fill out the  questionnaire without the help of a highly-paid consultant who is employed permanently for the sole purpose of helping the business with the CST. A hotel with a gross income of millions can afford this with ease, but this is not possible for a small eco lodge. During the past half year, our manager has dedicated more than half of her working hours to the CST certification, resulting in a neglection of her job as manager of a hotel.  

Whether  a bed-and-breakfast in the city, an all-inclusive golf  resort on the beach, or an eco lodge in the jungle: the same criteria and the same questions are valid for all three. One example: a chemical examination of the water quality costs us the same as it costs a 5-star resort with 200 rooms. A company offered to help us become carbon-neutral for $1700. This cost  is no problem for a large hotel, but we cannot afford it. A large business can buy hybrid vehicles and install an expensive solar energy system, easily resulting in the attainment of Level 5. Small business soon reaches the ceiling of their financial means.  

It is my opinion that ICT should create a fairer classification system that depends on the size and yearly income of a business.  There should be stricter criteria and more questions for large business, and more basic questions for small hotels that emphasis sustainability but omit less important criteria. Otherwise, I am afraid that in a few years only a few expensive luxury hotels will be part of the CST, which will have become an elite program for businesses that can afford the certification.  The small hotels will give up.  This cannot have been the original intention of the ICT when it created the CST program!  

This blog is published with the intention to move forward and make things better.   We are planning to have meetings with the CST and ICT about this in 2014.  If you are interested in helping to create a better Certification Program or have comments and observations about this topic, let us know. Write to us at hans@cayugaonline.com.