Field Notes of an Accidental Eco-Tourist: Part I
Costa Rica would probably not be my first choice for the first totally workfree holiday I’ve taken in three years, and the Central Pacific coast wouldn’t be my first choice in Costa Rica. The travel scene in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region is centred around the town of Jaco, a mostly charmless agglomeration of concrete midrises, interchangeable seafood restaurants, surf shops and "gentlemen’s clubs."
But I had a few blessedly uncluttered weeks in December, the long-range forecast for the Canadian prairie was promising highs in the negative double digits, and I have a relative with a timeshare on a quiet stretch of coast just north of Jaco. And in addition to being hot, gorgeous and all kinds of relaxing, it proved itself an interesting vantage point from which to observe the parallel crises of our day: the unfolding financial collapse and the looming/unfolding climate catastrophe. It was a strange, uneven experience, a bit like shopping at a big-box store just outside the gate to the Garden of Eden.
Herewith, some somewhat random field notes, which I'll deliver in a four-part series.
Part One: Does Eco-Tourism Matter?
I. The Curse Of Knowledge (Tropical Holiday Version)
Being mostly immersed in business-as-usual vacationland for three weeks was a useful reminder that my sense of urgency is not a universal feeling. As someone rarely immersed in the standard sun-seeker’s world, I’d sort of forgotten how little of the climate crisis that I feel every day in my bones is readily apparent to one and all. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath call this “the curse of knowledge.” It’s a particularly important point for sustainability advocates to keep in mind as we go about persuading the general public that we all need to make immediate and enormous changes to the infrastructure of our lives.
But because of my curse, I had one mantra stuck in the back of my mind throughout my time in Costa Rica, spinning around there in a loop like a club DJ’s ambient refrain: The last time . . . the last time . . . the last time . . . My wife and I talked about it every other day. What if this was the last time – the last chance to play in the surf at Playa Hermosa, the final patio sundowner, the very last time we and the society we live in would have the wherewithal to permit this kind of magnificent escape?
The last time. It seemed both glaringly obvious and ridiculously improbable, something we understood intellectually even though it didn’t quite mesh with the world that filled our senses. Still, if the cost of building a sustainable way of life was the end of tropical vacations, we agreed it would be a small price to pay. But it would be dishonest – not to mention ineffective – to describe it as no kind of loss at all. We are all invested in this unsustainable system, and there are parts of it that each of us cherishes. Perhaps a round of golf in paradise means nothing to you. Maybe your thing is a lifechanging Annapurna trek or a trip to the World Social Forum or a cozy Colombian-made Patagonia fleece you practically live in or the affordable, authentic sushi you practically live on. The sense of loss attached to the prospect of this stuff’s departure would be ultimately much more direct – more visceral – than anything we saw in the pristine jungle, and there might be more urgency to a project predicated on saving it.
In other words, a more direct way of ensuring hope for the rainforest might be to ask: is there any hope at all for the timeshares?
II. The View From Eco-Tourism’s Birthplace
If you know Costa Rica from anything other than first-hand experience, this is probably what you know: it is a pioneer in the field of eco-tourism. Costa Rica has long been regarded as a model of sustainable tourism development, a deep-green nation in many senses of the word, beginning with the dense foliage that blankets its rugged terrain. What exactly it is that puts the eco in eco-tourism, however, is less obvious at close range.
Though the brochure image of Costa Rica is often rainforest-themed, the sandy beaches and world-class surf of the Central Pacific has seen considerable development in recent years, including a giant Marriott resort complex further up the coast called Los Suenos, around which were constructed several cliffside enclaves of timeshare townhouses. One of these – a secluded, picturesque spot over a steep hill several kilometres past the Marriott and several more from any non-resort services – was my homebase in Costa Rica. And so whatever else eco-tourism meant, for me it meant constant commuting in a 4WD Suzuki Grand Vitara. This seemed to be a pretty common predicament for the would-be eco-tourist – whether by Grand Vitara or chartered minibus or (in more remote enclaves) rented ATV, eco-tourism in Costa Rica today is largely a commuter affair.
This struck me as symptomatic of a core oversight in the pre-Anthropocene definition of eco-tourism, a trait speaking to a time in the not-too-distant past when sustainability meant little more than careful ecological stewardship. The general argument in favor of eco-tourism (at least versus other types of tourism) is that it is educational, even revelatory; it presumes to teach travelers about the environment and encourages visitors to be respectful of the sensitive natural habitats and social systems that surround their resorts. I had plenty of time on my many commutes around the Jaco area to wonder, though, whether much green knowledge was actually passing osmotically from the rainforest to the resort.
III. So What Is Eco-Tourism, Anyway?
In Costa Rica, eco-tourism is, to begin with, a brand. Every other collection of beachfront villas calls itself an “eco-lodge” or “eco-resort” in Costa Rica, and just about every tourist activity drapes itself in imagery of pristine rainforest canopies and rainbow-beaked toucans. Perhaps the strangest use of the prefix was the collection of outsized timeshare villas next to the Marriott resort’s back nine that called itself “Eco-Golf Estates.” (On the other hand, I saw more toucans and iguanas on the Marriott’s back nine than I did on my tour of the rain-soaked jungle canopy at the Rainmaker Conservation Project, so maybe eco-golf isn’t an oxymoron after all. It was a shorter drive too.)
In any case, the promise of Costa Rican eco-tourism has, in many locales, been boiled down to a single awkward institution: the zipline canopy tour. There seem to be a dozen on offer just in the Jaco area, and I partook of one on a previous visit a few years ago. Each provides about the same experience. The “tour” invariably consists of a series of platforms mounted on towering tree trunks high in the rainforest canopy. These are linked by long steel cables and traversed at high speed by yelping eco-tourists, who dangle from the cables by industrial-grade climbing harnesses like overly safety-conscious Tarzans.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I mostly remember the ride, not the setting. The tree trunks and canopy could’ve been molded plaster and polymer clay populated by animatronic Disney characters for all the tour had to do with visiting a real rainforest. And yet I’m guessing the average annual attendance at any given zipline tour is at or near the total for any given Costa Rican national park, which seems to point to at least one lesson learned from a quarter century of eco-tourist development: Pristine nature is, to many an eco-tourist, a bit of a bore. Lacking in zip(lines), if you’ll pardon the groaner.
IV. But What About Real Eco-Tourism?
On this trip, I skipped the zipline ride for a foot-propelled canopy tour at the Rainmaker Conservation Project near Manuel Antonio National Park, high in the cloud-shrouded mountains a little over an hour south of Jaco. The highway south passed through a mammoth oil-palm plantation, after which we turned off onto a narrow, rutted dirt track that wound past simple homesteads and signs advertising tilapia farms, arriving finally in a clearing at a steep, jungle-covered hill’s base. Visions of scarlet macaws and hooting capuchin monkeys dancing from branch to branch danced in my head. They were soon replaced by the sopping tedium of the rainsoaked hike and the drone of the guide’s nature-doc narrative. In the brief moments that weren’t blurred by pounding rain, we saw a line of leafcutter ants and a millipede and a lot of the same towering green rainforest you can see throughout Costa Rica.
My daughter started to get cold and listless, and my profoundly height-spooked mother started to fret about the altitude we were reaching. The much-ballyhooed highlight of the Rainmaker tour is a vertiginous walk across a series of swaying Indiana Jones rope bridges 250 feet above the jungle floor. The traverse was indeed gutclenchingly awesome, and in the brief moments during the crossing when my attention wasn’t wholly fixed on making sure my suddenly playful little girl didn’t take to hopping or skipping, I stole brief, humbling, exhilirating glimpses of the canopy. It is, to be sure, as monumental a sight as any in nature. Still, it’s the presence Indiana Jones bridge network – another thrillseeker’s rebuke to the true eco-tourist’s pursuits – that makes the tour.
V. So, Like, Whither The Eco-Tourist Sights?
A post-hike lunch is included in the Rainmaker tour, and as we sat on the covered patio with our plates of gallo pinto, we were visited by a rare and magnificent sight: a chestnut-mandibled toucan perched near the top of a tree next to the parking lot. Later, I saw scarlet macaws flying treetop to treetop on the side of the highway near Jaco, and I saw several more toucans on the fringe of a tricky par-four at the Marriott. The golf course was also home to a population of iguanas so big and stubborn and comfortably, permanently resident you could practically walk up and shake hands with them. And our timeshare’s balcony offered a zoo’s worth of sights every day – pelicans and frigatebirds, swinging capuchins and waddling coatimundi, plus each morning’s hummingbird feeding frenzy and multiple nightly performances of Hunting Rituals of the Patio-Dwelling Gecko. All this without even getting into the cocktail-aided visual symphonies of the technicolour sunset over the Pacific each evening.
It pains some sacred part of me to say so, but from the tourist's point of view, the rainforest in Costa Rica doesn't make much of a case – not a visceral one, anyway – for its conservation. My brain's all for Rainmaker Conservation Projects, but I left my heart on the timeshare patio. And I say this as one whose brain does unequivocally know better; as soon as I leave it on idle – behind the wheel of a Grand Vitara, for example – my mind immediately begins to fixate on the sprawling, auto-dependent landscape, the piles of plastic detritus at the roadside, the dwindling supplies of last night's seafood dinner. I can only wonder what the average pseudo-eco-tourist thinks after venturing deep into the jungle to gawp at bugs, only to watch prehistoric lizards hunt the same things on the seventeenth green back at the resort.
Conservation is an absolute good; the less land open to development and the more set aside for healthy biodiversity, the better. But its primary job, the one it does best, is to conserve. But it might not be the best school or the most effective persuasion technique, and it's definitely not a self-evident treatise on ecological philosophy and the innate wisdom of sustainability – not for one and all, anyway, maybe not even for most.
From a sustainability perspective, Costa Rica's Central Pacific coast is a place that probably has more in common with stripmalled suburbia than it does with the rainforest primeval. And there might be only two ways to bring sustainability to a place like it: through its implosion, or through a new language of eco-tourism that can speak to fans of timeshares and ziplines as well as toucans.
I was reminded, during my time in Costa Rica, of an NGO called Seacology I’d read about awhile back. Recognizing that the material needs of the world’s rural poor often meet at cross purposes with ecological goals, Seacology has established a system where it trades local needs for global ones – building new schools for Indonesian villagers, for example, in exchange for the permanent protection of a patch of nearby rainforest.
What might this same arrangement look like on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific? Maybe a small levy on timeshare property taxes and luxury-hotel tariffs and golf course green fees that goes toward expanding the national park system or – better – introducing low-emissions transport options. Maybe an acre-for-acre tradeoff between new tourist developments and green spaces. Something, anyway, that recognizes the value of human ecology and cops to the unavoidable fact that as long as there remains a way to get to perfect tropical sunsets in the midst of harsh northern winter, there will be people keen to do so.
Part Two of “Field Notes Of An Accidental Eco-Tourist” will examine the impact of the housing bubble on the far-flung, second-home-based tourist economy in Costa Rica.
Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.
Photo credit: Ashley Bristowe
Hi to all eco-tourists! Nice article!
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Ecotourism is more related with the person visiting a place and the activities they make in the places they visit, where flora and fauna are the main attractions.
Costa Rica has many pristine, virgin national parks (Manuel Antonio is the most commercial and small of them all). Right now most counties in Costa Rica will let only develop a part of the properties the rest needs to stay as forest. I wouldnt reccomend the places you visited for Ecotourism, instead I would reccoment the southern Pacific (Corcovado), Northern Caribbean (Tortuguero), Southern Caribbean, Talamanca, Chirripo, etc..
It is a conundrum or could it be a Catch-22 that you create more of a carbon footprint by visiting faraway places to view nature that is untouched by carbon footprints? For example, I need a vacation but would I spend my time feeling guilty for contributing to the eventual downfall the effects of my travel will have? I don't eat Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab (or I do not buy it in a store or restaurant) because they are threatened, but I want to eat them before they are all gone! We have to learn to manage our enjoyment and conservation at the same time, make it a win-win somehow. This article and I hope soon others are starting to question this. This is the tip of the iceberg so to speak on this topic. Keep up the good work! For any information on how change is happening in Baltimore, MD, go to www.goforchange.com.
Eco-Tourism in Tambopata is perfect !!!!
It does matter.