Countries such as Costa Rica, Kenya, New Zealand and Australia are known as ectourism hot spots. Ecotourism requires that the footprint of the traveler on natural resources be a sustainable one. Nations with large undeveloped land bases became interested in ecotourism because it provides a way to generate income that benefits the local economy and at the same time protects the ecosystem. In Costa Rica, tourism earnings surpass those of coffee and bananas.
The development of ecotourism dates back to the 1960s when public concern about environmental issues increased. Conservation groups formed to lobby governments to set aside land not just for tourists or endangered animals but to also preserve the natural integrity of the ecosystem. These groups found that support for conservation efforts was stronger if people experienced endangered species first hand. In other words, people who have a direct experience with nature are more likely to be sensitive to environmental issues. For those living in large urban areas in the west, there is a disconnect between the natural environment and the urban one. As great as the latest developments in technology are, the opportunity to unplug for a week and connect with nature is good for our well-being and the planet.
The whale watching industry is probably the first example of ecotourism. This industry developed in response to the depletion of whale populations and the need to protect them. By 1967 publicity from these activities and from scientists created enough public pressure that the humpback was made a protected species. The lesson learned here is that public awareness is critical in winning battles to protect both natural resources and species.
Costa Rica realized early on that its greatest economic asset was in preserving the incredible biodiversity of the country that attracts visitors to this region. Costa Rica began developing its ecotourism industry in the 1970s, and then with the support of the IMF and the World Bank, the country began to pursue an aggressive tourism strategy in the 1980s. It offered tax breaks to hospitality businesses to provide incentives to practice sustainable business in Costa Rica. Crocodile Bay is one of the many world-class resorts that has emerged as a result of these incentives. However, the industry itself is not without growing pains and challenges.
For something to fit within the paradigm of ecotourism it needs to meet some guidelines. It has to promote positive environmental ethics and behaviors and not degrade resources. Essentially, it is sustainable tourism with an emphasis on the natural environment. Ecotourism inherently takes the perspective that humans are part of nature not above it. Inherent in this idea is a world in balance. Many countries now look to Costa Rica to model their ecotourism. The industry provides a means to generate business that benefits local economies without destroying natural resources. It is becoming increasingly attractive to developing nations who will be the first to be impacted by climate change. While Costa Rica still needs develop and improve its ecotourism model, it does have a solid foundation. Currently, this small country is on track to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021 and the thriving ecotourism industry has certainly played a critical role in enabling the country to become carbon neutral and that is something to learn from. After all, this is the happiest country in the world.