Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Much More Than a Walk in the Countryside

SAN JOSÉ, Aug 10 2009 (IPS) - Costa Rican tourism is incorporating rural community-based vacations as the fourth leg of an industry otherwise centered on beaches, ecotourism and adventure travel.

: Chirripó, Costa Rica's highest peak, located in the Talamanca range. - Daniel Zueras/IPS

: Chirripó, Costa Rica's highest peak, located in the Talamanca range. - Daniel Zueras/IPS

Some 3,000 people make their living from rural community-based tourism in Costa Rica, according to the association of tour operators who connect visitors to the delights of rural life.

Known in other places as agro-ecotourism, in Costa Rica it has been operating for 18 years. A law enacted Jul. 17 by President Óscar Arias aims to make it a permanent and growing endeavor.

“We promote a close interaction between the visitor and the community” and there is a certain degree of natural adventure, which the small farmers and indigenous peoples live day-to-day as they provide these services, Mario Ordóñez, marketing manager for the specialized travel agency Simbiosis Tours, told Tierramérica.

“The tourists cross the same hanging bridges that the community members use, or the horseback riding that the community does as part of its work. There is nothing specially organized,” he explained.

The difference between community-based tourism and ecotourism is that the latter “delinks the cultural part from the activity,” Ordóñez added.

According to experts, it is an “advanced” form of ecotourism “because it places special emphasis on land ownership by the local residents, giving it added value,” Kyra Cruz, president of the National Chamber of Rural Community Tourism, told Tierramérica.

The Bribrí indigenous community, in the Talamanca Mountains, was a pioneer in this type of tourism.

The region is located in the south of the eastern province of Limón, and extends from the Caribbean beaches to the country's south-central zone. The Bribrí, whose population is about 10,000, live in the Upper Talamanca valley.

In 1987, in the wake of the crisis of cocoa crops and low prices for bananas, “we organized to see if we could improve banana production, and we set up a telephone system and began the tourism initiative,” Guillermo Torres, manager of the Yorkín Natural Adventure organization, told Tierramérica.

According to Torres, today there are 18 families that make their living from this enterprise. They have a lodge for 25 people and are building an eight-room inn. They also offer a canoe trip to transport bamboo on the Yorkín River and activities ranging from artisanry to cocoa farming to archery.

And it has been a boom to the Bribrí language “because we teach words to our visitors,” said Torres. The emphasis on the culture of each community is one of things that attract people to this type of tourism.

The new law is intended to regulate a growing sector, one which is characterized by its small-scale operations. “Until now, in order to benefit from the tourism initiatives law, they required a minimum of 10 hotel rooms, and 98 percent didn't reach that number,” said Cruz.

The new legislation lowers the minimum to three rooms for access to aid, which includes the elimination of taxes, facilitation of paperwork by local governments and promotion of “the importance of this model of sustainable tourism,” she said.

“The law is going to be very important if the regulations are truly effective and not too bureaucratic,” Cruz added.

In the opinion of Marcy Arrieta, promoter of this alternative at the government's Costa Rican Tourism Institute, the legislation “recognizes the effort the country has made over the past 18 years,” as well as the quality of the service, with a social and economic platform “very suitable for further development.”

Community-based tourism “has become a model, extending beyond our borders,” Arrieta told Tierramérica. It has been successfully exported to other Central American countries, as well as to Colombia, Peru and Chile.

Gonzalo Vargas, president of the National Chamber of Tourism, described the benefits of rural community-based tourism this way: “The capital that is invested is nearly all Costa Rican, and better yet, from families with scant resources,” which reassures the visitors that they are consuming a product that improves the quality of life of the people who live here.

Furthermore, an incredibly high percentage of each “colón” (the national currency) that is spent on these services remains in the family or the community, he said. Of the 43,000 hotel rooms in Costa Rica, just 1,000 are found in the community-based tourism sector, said Vargas. The average is four or five rooms with a total of 10 to 12 beds, especially at the inns.

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