Lecturer, Environmental Ethics and Development
School for Field Studies, Atenas, Costa Rica
The southern Nicoya Peninsula was called the “next Tulum” in a New York Times article. Tulum is a beautiful area, but it you’ve been following the environmental impacts of over tourism there, this comparison should scare you. Most of the tourists that visit the Santa Teresa area each year come with positive intentions to connect with the magnificent beauty and regenerative energy of the ocean and forests. Paradoxically, unchecked tourism can, specifically at the high rates being seen here, damage the very ecosystems travelers are drawn to. The community is particularly vulnerable when the local water and waste infrastructure are woefully inadequate for this influx. The question being asked by Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper (NPWK) and responsible businesses in the area is how to effectively protect and sustain environmental resources in the face of growing tourism.
One solution is to directly involve tourists in responsible practices by informing visitors which businesses are committed to environmentally sound practices. With that knowledge, they can support sustainable practices. NPWK is launching the Ocean Friendly Business certification to promote environmentally responsible business practices. The certification will help those businesses effectively convey their practices and values to travelers. NPWK has already taken huge strides in promoting environmental protection by starting recycling collection services throughout the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, beach clean-ups, educational programs and promoting alternatives to single use plastics. Participating businesses in this certification will demonstrate commitment to recycling, avoiding single-use-plastics and water consumption, having an effective water treatment system and using biodegradable and eco-friendly cleaning products.
In May I lead a group of student researcher from the School for Field Studies, located in Atenas, Costa Rica, to assist NPWK collect data on tourist interest in a local tourism certification program. Our objectives were to determine travelers’ level of self-reported concern for the environment, general engagement with certification processes and whether they are more likely to visit a business in Santa Teresa with the Ocean Friendly Businesses Certification.
Our sample of 106 tourists was primarily from North America, South America and Europe (see map above). We found that most tourists reported high levels of general environmental concern with an average of 3.1 on a scale from 0 – not at all concerned to 4 – extremely concerned. As for opinions on environmental certifications, 95.3% stated that they believe certifications are a good way to convey information on environmental sustainable practices. 91% stated that they have purchased goods because of their environmental certification in the past.
There was also strong interest in a local certification initiative. When participants were asked about how certifications would influence their decision-making process, over 80% stated that they would be more likely to frequent a business with the local certification (see graph below). Though these rates of positive response are likely high due to subjects’ overreporting positive environmental behavior, even when adjusted for bias, the results indicate high participant interest.
Costa Rica has been a leader with its Sustainable Tourism Certification, managed by the Instituto de Costarricense de Turismo. However, it can be difficult for small businesses to participate due to the many areas of evaluation and time required to monitor all aspects of their business. The benefits of a local program are that it can 1) focus on the most pressing local, environmental issues and 2) adapt to the needs of the community over time. NPWK is already working with local business to address those issues by supporting the implementation of biogardens, making alternatives to single-use-plastics and chemical cleaning products available for purchase and facilitating waste reduction/recycling. Our small study indicates that the certification would give businesses a way to communicate these pro-environmental practices to tourists, many of who are ready to vote for responsible tourism through their sending. A regenerative tourism model directs the economic contributions of visitors to address local issues. Guiding tourists to responsible businesses can be an excellent tool to help attract more clients to fund local environmental protection efforts.