@WorldChanging - Does Eco-Tourism Matter?
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by Jen Biederman on 01/24/2009
WorldChanging.com Articles: Tools, Models and Ideas for Building a Better Future.
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...
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...
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.)...
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...
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... 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.
Read the entire article, by Chris Turner, which originally appeared at www.WorldChanging.com.
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.