Monday, March 3, 2014

Standing Out Amongst the Rest – La Pura Vida

A couple weeks ago I was able to travel to Costa Rica for a full week on my honeymoon. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to different places around the world but this was the first time I traveled to Central America and was able to see, experience, and compare the new surroundings that Costa Rica had to offer. We flew in to San José which is the capitol and major metropolis of Costa Rica. We then drove about two hours to the Pacific Coast where our hotel was located. It was immediately evident that Costa Rica was different from anything that I’ve ever seen in terms of natural surroundings. The terrain is extreme and everywhere you look there are different colors and greenery from all the plant life.

Geographically, Costa Rica is sandwiched between Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South. It has 4.8 million people and is roughly the size of West Virginia. Being right below the equator it has a tropical climate all year round – people who love hot weather rejoice! The country’s infrastructure is underdeveloped and has rugged, uneven terrain. This description is by no means an exaggeration, we had to take a four-wheeler around to a majority of destinations because of the vast incline of the mountains and lack of paved roads. This, however, adds to the Costa Rican charm since the country is known for its vastly different flora, fauna, climate, and other geographic conditions all located in one tiny country. It is also the most visited country in Central America, Americans being the number one visitor. Since 1999 tourism has out earned Costa Rica’s previous cash crops of bananas, pineapple, and coffee – which all continue to be dominant GDP earners.

To preserve its natural elements, environmental sustainability is high on the country’s list. Just to name a few of the accolades the country has received in effort to preserve its natural surroundings, in 2011 the United Nations named Costa Rica the only country to meet all criterion that measures environmental sustainability. In 2012 the country ranked 5th in the Environmental Performance Index, unfortunately they fell to 54th in 2014 primarily due to overfishing. The Happy Planet Index rates them at 7th for life expectancy, experienced well-being, and Ecological Footprint – the U.S. ranked 105th. Amongst this, the Costa Rican government has plans to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021. This undertaking will be an extremely ambitious task for the small country that is setting itself apart from all other ecotourism destinations.

These few accolades just scratch the surface. From the conversations that I had with local ecological tour guides, they know that their pristine environment is their niche and they’re doing everything they can to preserve it from harmful elements associated with increased tourism and growth. Because of its vast majority of natural wealth and parks, ecotourism is vital. Back in 2006 when I interned at the World Travel and Tourism Council, extensively researching sustainable travel, ecotourism was an up and coming “hot” trend. Although Costa Rica is definitely not the first or the last country to take pride in its surroundings, they’re doing it right for the country, its citizens, and their environment.

When my next blog is up in April I’ll dig a little deeper in the ecotourism realm and weigh out the pros and cons of the specialty market. For now though, Costa Rica is setting itself apart from the world by balancing economic growth and environmental preservation. Taking this into consideration, Costa Rica teaches an important lesson in making your community distinguishable and attractive to visitors.