By Kirsty Fairhurst-
With its vast landscapes, unique history, and indigenous cultures, Latin America offers individuality and diversity to the tourist and, for this reason, it has relied on tourism increasingly for the growth of its economy. Tourism's direct contribution to the GDP of the continent in 2018 was $134 billion. By 2028, this is projected to reach $229.7 billion. However, its unparalleled scenery and indigenous voices are threatened by this growth. A mechanism to find this balance must be developed so that the very areas people come to visit can not only survive, but thrive to enjoy the benefits of tourism for longer.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Being roughly 5 times smaller than the UK, it counts for more than 4% of the world’s biodiversity; It has more species of butterflies than the entire continent of Africa. This natural haven is a top tourist destination meaning Costa Rica relies on tourism for 10.3% of its GDP and for 1 in 10 jobs. Due to this, it has become a pioneer in ecotourism. The country has 27 national parks allowing one-quarter of its land to benefit from some kind of environmental protection.
A key success story of Costa Rica’s attempt to drive ecotourism is its Blue Flag Ecology Program (Bandera Azúl Ecológica) launched in 1996. Under this initiative, public bodies of Costa Rica have developed a strict set of criteria for when a certain beach can be awarded the Blue Flag - a beach must receive a score of at least 90%. The criteria include quality of the ocean water, quality of the drinking water, and environmental education. For such an expansive program, it relies on the cooperation of many institutions. It started as a way to educate both tourists and local people and promote conservation and with such rigorous standards, it’s easy to think that they would be impossible to reach. However, as of 2013, 90 of Costa Rica’s beaches proudly fly a blue flag. To attain this, all parts of the community must work together, including hotels, travel agencies, schools, and local tourism boards. Tamarindo beach, a Blue Flag beach on the very West of the country, partners with various other organisations such as Salve Monos, a local organisation to protect the monkeys living in the area; Surf Rider Foundation, an international organisation dedicated to improving surfer and ocean conditions; Asada Tamarindo, a local company that distributes water to the community. Only a few are mentioned here, however, it is easy to see how the sowing of one ecotourism seed can lead to the growth and expansion of conversation throughout communities.
The Blue Flag incentivises ‘community leaders’ who can engage with both the natural environment and the community. It not only enhances protection for nature, but it also allows the local community to be represented. It has expanded throughout the country and has the potential to be awarded to non-coastal communities as a way to prevent pollution of the natural environment.
These kinds of local initiatives are not the only way to strike the balance, however. If we take a look at Chile, at the opposite end of the continent, we see a different, more common approach based on working with the private sector. In a nutshell, Chile’s National Forest Corporation, CONAF (La Corporación Nacional Forestal), responsible for protecting Chile’s indigenous forests and vegetation, aims to preserve protected areas through collaborating with the tourism industry directly. Its director highlighted the need for effective integration between local communities and public use of protected areas.
Engaging with the private sector means allowing private companies to set up hotels, campsites, sports activities such as rafting and mountain biking, within the protected areas. These are called ‘concessions’ that are a kind of lease or permit granted to a private entity. Clearly, these companies may not always, for example, successfully integrate with the local community and protect the natural vegetation and water supply. As countries such as Chile become more and more popular with tourists, the protected areas are becoming overwhelmed. The tourism industry will jump up and down at this as it makes room for greater profits. Concessions must, therefore, play the role of calming the excitable, and often destructive, tourism toddler and encourage it to think long-term.
Due to their many advantages, concessions are used widely, including in Costa Rica. However, in order to protect its biodiversity, the concession agreements here are spearheaded by environmental protection. As a minimum requirement, every concession service requires that the company spell out how they will deal with environmental waste and implement it. This means that socially conscious and environmental principles must form part of the core of a company benefiting from the tourist industry.
A balance between growing tourism industries and protecting the environment is difficult to get right and all countries, both in Latin America and the rest of the world, seek it. What is clear is that with the involvement of the local community and local organisations, the natural environment can reach the highest standards whilst still being enjoyed. If private entities are allowed to take advantage of Latin America’s breathtaking landscapes without environmental limitations, the effects will be detrimental to the local people, and the indigenous species that call it their home.