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COSTA RICA: Holiday Homes, Hotels Endangering Ecotourism

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSE, May 2 2010 (IPS) - The boom in construction projects on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is threatening biodiversity and compromising the future of the country’s widely promoted ecological tourism, says a study by Costa Rican and U.S. scientists.

The study, compiled over a two-year period by the Centre for Responsible Travel (CREST) at Stanford University in California, examines the problems inherent in the Costa Rican tourism model, particularly the uncontrolled sprawl of holiday resorts and homes.

“The priority is to get rich, no matter who gets trampled on in the process,” Gady Amit, head of the environmental organisation Confraternidad Guanacasteca, told IPS.

The growth of infrastructure for the tourism industry has caused irreversible damage to the northwestern province of Guanacaste, bathed by the Pacific ocean, and runs counter to the tenets of “green tourism”, a major attraction for visitors to Costa Rica.

The voracity of the construction boom is also threatening the Osa peninsula, on the south Pacific coast, one of the 25 most biodiverse places on the planet, home to 2.5 percent of the world’s species. “It’s a treasure trove of unusual biodiversity, one of very few such places remaining in the world,” said CREST advisory board member Margarita Penón.

The study titled “The Impact of Tourism Related Development along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast” was presented in San José this month by CREST director William Durham and several of the researchers involved. It recommends “rethinking” the development of tourism and associated infrastructure, before it is too late.

But the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), a government body which oversees the sector, disagrees with some of the report’s assertions.

María Amalia Revelo, deputy manager and marketing director of ICT, told IPS that the model for developing domestic tourism has been based, for the last 15 years, “on small accommodation units, complemented with medium-sized hotels.”

The average is 17 rooms per hotel, “which indicates that the country’s tourism model has been sustained over time,” she said.

Revelo admitted that there are some big hotels on the Pacific coast, but said they are not the norm, and that “big does not necessarily mean bad.” In her view, the country has managed to balance both types of hotel.

But local environmentalists concur with CREST that the main problem is in the real estate sector, which is putting up large housing developments, golf courses and shopping centres on the coastline itself.

“The hotel sector at least provides jobs, whereas residential developments, once construction is finished, do not,” said Amit.

The study emphasises that excessive development will condemn the coastal area to landslides, pollution and damage to the mangrove, coral reef and forest ecosystems, as well as to shortages of drinking water in future.

In fact, some local towns are already having problems with water supply as a result of high levels of consumption by tourists and golf courses. The community of Sardinal in Guanacaste province is in open conflict with the central government over its water rights.

In other places, like Tamarindo, home purchases by residential holiday makers have displaced the local residents. “There are no people left, and hardly any businesses,” Amit said.

The reason is that prices of land, houses and services have soared beyond the reach of the pockets of most Costa Ricans.

On the Papagayo peninsula, one of the main tourism-real estate development poles in the country, land used to cost 100 dollars a hectare, but nowadays “that money would only buy you one square metre,” Amit said.

Furthermore, the overpopulation associated with unplanned development has dramatically increased coastal pollution.

“People are bathing in pure sh*t,” Amit said bluntly.

The beach at Tamarindo has had to be closed on several occasions because of the health risk posed by high counts of faecal bacteria. The huge hotel and residential complexes have no treatment facilities for their waste water – or if they do have treatment plants, they hardly use them in order to save on maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, in Osa “the threat is looming ever closer,” said Merlyn Oviedo, who owns a small hotel in Puerto Jiménez, a rare showcase of humid tropical ecosystems.

He said tourist agents on the peninsula feel that the natural habitats they depend on are endangered by a kind of development that is diametrically opposed to ecotourism.

New highways have been built linking the capital, San José, and the central Pacific region with Osa, in the extreme south of Puntarenas province. Easy access and a shorter journey will bring yet more tourists to this area, described as Costa Rica’s last wilderness frontier.

“We want this infrastructure, but it’s scary to think what it might bring,” said Oviedo, mentioning as a negative example a “huge highway” that comes to within three kilometres of his property.

Plans to convert the local airport in Osa into an international airport triggered alarm. CREST’s director emphatically recommended ditching the idea, because it would lead to “monstrous” and predatory development. “The threat would be enormous,” Oviedo agreed.

ICT’s Ravelo denied that the pattern seen in Guanacaste would be imitated at Osa, because the two ecosystems and what they have to offer are very different. The Osa peninsula has a variety of rainforests and wetlands, while in the north dry tropical landscapes predominate.

The study is critical of the lack of regulation and land use planning, and of the absence of coordination between the 35 bodies involved in granting permits for real estate development and tourism projects along the Pacific shoreline.

The report confirms that two different interests are increasingly at loggerheads in Costa Rica: the tourism sector, which brings in two billion dollars annually and welcomes two million visitors a year, and environmental conservation in a country of just over 51,000 square kilometres that harbours 4.5 percent of global biodiversity.

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