Last updated on January 30th, 2021 at 08:08 pm EST
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Sustainable Tourism In Costa Rica
Responsible travel and sustainable tourism are all the rage right now. Or are they? Hasn’t caring for the environment and other cultures been a topic of conversation within the travel and tourism industry for years? Decades even? But now the public is starting to catch on. Waves of plant-based-eating movements and a heightened awareness of climate change have shed light on what we’re losing at an alarming rate: our land and forests; our wildlife and marine life; our air quality; and so much more.
If you travel often, you know phrases like “responsible travel” and “sustainable tourism” are bounced around like beach balls. If you’re bound for Costa Rica, one of the world’s leading ecotourism destinations, you’ll quickly learn how sustainability is taken seriously here. As a Costa Rica traveler, you should know that visits require environmental and cultural conscientiousness. If you choose to explore Costa Rica’s precious, varied, and wildlife-filled ecosystems, or its culturally rich communities, it is expected, not just recommended, that you do your best to counteract any negative impact your visit may leave on the country, its people, and its natural resources. Don’t know where to start? See our guide below for ways you can travel responsibly and fuel sustainable tourism in Costa Rica.
Plan an efficient trip
One of the most impactful ways you can contribute to sustainable tourism in Costa Rica is by minimizing in-country travel. If you start planning your vacation well in advance, and you give yourself ample time to research where you want to go, what you want to do, which transportation services you want to use, and which routes you should take, you’ll build an efficient trip that avoids wasted travel time and wasted carbon emissions.
Research your trip using Ecosia
The search engine Ecosia makes caring for the environment easy. Simply use Ecosia as you would Google, Yahoo, Bing, or another engine to search the web, and in return for your preference, Ecosia will allot a portion of their profits to their tree-planting initiative. If you think Ecosia is one of those companies that donates a shred of its income but wants tons of credit for their philanthropic work, think again. Just last month alone, more than half of their income was invested into tree planting, and more was added to a reserve to help fund large environmental projects. Best of all? Ecosia‘s operations are transparent. Here, they post financial statements and a confirmation of where trees are being planted around the world so you can track how much of Ecosia‘s money is being donated, as well as where and how it’s being put to use.
Go carbon neutral
Businesses or operations that are “carbon neutral” commit to saving carbon emissions that are equal to their own carbon footprint. “Carbon negative” businesses and operations go one step further by saving carbon emmissions that are greater than their own output. Costa Rica has several companies that claim to be carbon neutral (only a handful are carbon negative), including Sansa Airlines, a Costa Rican airline (learn more here), and Mapache Rent-A-Car, a car rental agency. To learn more about Mapache’s environmental efforts, including how they recycle the water they use to wash vehicles, see our related blog post This Is The Costa Rica Car Rental Agency We Rent Cars Through.
If you’re curious about your own carbon footprint, use the carbon emissions calculator here to determine the degree of carbon emissions you should save in order to live a carbon-neutral life.
Though most transportation services are big contributors of carbon emissions, if you aren’t able to travel in Costa Rica using a carbon neutral airline or rental car (see above for more information), you can decrease your carbon footprint by relying on ride share services to get around.
Public transportation is the most inexpensive form of ride share transportation in Costa Rica (it carries the greatest number of travelers too), but we can appreciate that local buses aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for the next best option, consider using shared shuttle services to get around. Unlike private transfer services, shared shuttle services are in-country shuttles that you share with up to 11 other passengers, possibly strangers. This means that roughly 12 people can travel between two destinations for the same carbon emissions output as a lone traveler.
Choose an ecofriendly accommodation
Want to stay at an ecofriendly accommodation in Costa Rica? Now’s your chance! The country is filled with all kinds of ecolodges; some are beachfront properties, others are tucked away in forests, and several hide on the slopes of mountains and volcanoes.
It’s important to note that the word “ecolodge” isn’t regulated in Costa Rica. Many environmentally conscious properties don’t call themselves ecolodges, and a few properties that do couldn’t care less about the environment (some are even guilty of greenwashing). A good rule of thumb to go by when searching for ecofriendly accommodations in Costa Rica is to look for a page on the accommodation’s website that documents the property’s conservation efforts. In most cases, if the accommodation was built or functions in a way that helps save the environment, protect wildlife, or offset carbon emissions, the property will advertise these points online in an attempt to attract green-minded guests. Here’s a list of some sustainability efforts you may see advertised on Costa Rica hotel websites:
- They serve farm-to-table meals prepared using local ingredients or ingredients grown/raised on-site
- They power the hotel using solar panels and/or hydroelectric generators
- They encourage guests to reduce energy and water use
- They use low-flow toilets and energy-saving lighting
- They use compost and/or bio-digester machines
- The property and/or furniture was built using fallen/reclaimed wood
- The property protects many acres/hectares of land and reforestation efforts are underway
- They offer toiletries, including soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and lotions, that are prepared on-site, void of harmful chemicals, and offered in refillable containers
- They use biodegradable cleaning products
- The property has a living roof
- The property has feeders and plants that help feed birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects
Though there’s no guarantee that accommodations that claim to support sustainable tourism in Costa Rica actually fulfill their promises, you can usually trust properties that have joined forces with notable alliances around the world, including the Rainforest Alliance and the Nature Conservancy. Most Costa Rican accommodations that have partnered with organizations like these directly state the affiliation on their website or display the organization’s logo.
For Costa Rican businesses only, the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT) developed CST, a certificate program for sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. Companies that register for the five-point program and receive high ratings (typically 4 or 5 points) are some of the most environmentally conscious businesses in Costa Rica. A list of Costa Rican hotels and their CST rating (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 out of 5) can be found here.
Contributing to sustainable tourism in Costa Rica begins before you ever step foot in the country by eliminating as much disposable plastic, Styrofoam, paper, and trash from your luggage as possible. Not only does doing so reduce waste overall, it also reduces the likelihood that your garbage will end up in Costa Rica’s forests, rivers, and streets. To pack smartly, consider doing the following:
- Rely on reusable containers instead of small plastic bags for carrying snacks/sandwiches
- Rely on day packs and backpacks instead of plastic grocery bags to carry other items
- Pack snacks that don’t come individually wrapped (like granola bars), such as trail mix, fruit, or vegetables
- Pack your own set of metal utensils from home, including a fork, a spoon, a straw, and a butter knife (note: you can pick up a set from your local dollar store if you don’t want to travel with your good silverware)
- If you can’t find metal straws to purchase in your hometown, opt to buy/bring a set of paper straws instead, provided they’re not coated and recyclable
- Pack a meal-size container that you can use as a takeout container at restaurants
- Keep an electronic copy of all trip reservations in your email account or on an electronic device you plan to travel with (print paper confirmations only if they’re necessary)
Fly nonstop to Costa Rica
Though it may cost you a little more to do so, purchasing nonstop flights to and from Costa Rica is a step toward becoming a more responsible traveler. A nonstop flight to Costa Rica, which skips unnecessary landings and takeoffs partway along the journey, uses less fuel and leaves a smaller carbon footprint than flights with stopovers.
Respect beach and trail signage
Once you’re here, one of the best ways you can practice sustainable tourism in Costa Rica is to respect the country’s rules. You’ll find them scribbled on or carved into signs posted at beaches and trailheads, among other locations. Some signs warn of potential dangers, but others politely remind you of the following:
- Don’t litter
- Don’t drive (vehicles or ATVs) on the beach
- Don’t camp on the beach
- Don’t stray from marked, flattened trails
Adhere to these warnings not only for your own safety, but to help protect the ecosystems and habitats you have the privilege of visiting.
Keep your distance from wildlife
If you tour Costa Rica long and deep enough, you’re destined to encounter wildlife. When that happens, maintain a safe distance, not only for your own safety but to avoid scaring any animals. Don’t ever feed or entice wildlife with other items. If you plan to take photos, turn off your camera’s flash. For more information about taking photos of Costa Rica wildlife, don’t miss our related blog post Costa Rica Wildlife Photography.
Treat flora like fauna
Cute baby sloths and other Costa Rican fauna are easy to love, but equally deserving of our attention and protection is the flora that contributes to Costa Rica’s lush and rampant ecosystems. You wouldn’t break a monkey’s arm or remove a coatimundi from its pack, so why would you go trudging through the forest, yanking on vines, snapping tree limbs, and picking flowers, ultimately disrupting nature’s course? Since all living things are vital to the environment, it’s important to respect trees, plants, flowers, mosses, lichens, and other flora you encounter in Costa Rica.
Recycle whenever, wherever you can
Back when Ricky and I first lived in La Fortuna, years before the Arenal Volcano stopped erupting and waking us (nearly nightly) with thunderous growls and shakes, the town didn’t have much of a recycle program. We used to carry our recyclables from our home to giant bins up the street that were put there by our neighbors who wanted to spark change. Fast-forward to today, and we’re happy to report that several homes and businesses in La Fortuna and around Costa Rica now recycle on the regular. If you opt to stay at a Costa Rica hotel, you’ll likely find a row of bins that invites you to sort your recyclables by type. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of possible categories you might comes across, in case they’re only listed in Spanish:
Don’t take what isn’t yours, but take what is
We love the sign stationed at Playa Hermosa along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast (pictured at the top of this post). It reads: “no saque más que fotos, no deje más que huellas” which translates to “don’t take more than photos, don’t leave more than footprints”. It’s the perfect way to sum up a trip to one of Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches. To make sure you leave it just as beautiful as how you found it, it’s vital you don’t take sand and shells as souvenirs, or leave your trash behind. The same rule applies to hiking trails in Costa Rica. Don’t take flowers, seeds, sticks, tree bark, or any other natural fragments, and don’t leave anything unnatural in your wake, such as food wrappers or water bottles.
Adhere to toilet rules
Have you heard the rumor about toilet paper in Costa Rica? That it’s placed in garbage bins, not flushed down the toilet? If so, we can confirm that the rumor is true, at least in most areas of the country. Some resorts and accommodations have newer waste disposal systems that can handle toilet paper being flushed down the toilet, but most do not. This means that you’ll need to remind yourself to place toilet paper in the waste bin, not in the toilet (most hotel bathrooms have signs to remind you). If you don’t, you risk wreaking havoc on the sewer system and possibly contaminating the environment.
Donate your time or money to a worthy cause
If you have a little extra money to spend, consider donating it to an organization that works hard to save the environment; protect wildlife or marine life; or better Costa Rican communities. Pack For A Purpose is a good and well-known international one that has partnered with several businesses in Costa Rica. If you’d prefer to give to a smaller, local organization, there are plenty to choose from, including Kids Saving The Rainforest, the Corcovado Foundation, and many more. If money is tight, donate your time. Several wildlife rescue centers and sea turtle conservation programs accept short-term and long-term volunteers.
Choose environmentalism when you’re given a choice
A word to the wise, follow prompts you are given to practice sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. If a hotel says they’re trying to conserve electricity and they ask you to turn off lights and air conditioning when you leave the room, do it. If they suggest you reuse your towel to conserve water, try it. If you’re told a beach or trail is inaccessible, perhaps because the property is undergoing reforestation or is home to wildlife habitats that can be damaged by humans, avoid it. Businesses and tour guides can only go so far in their strides toward environmentalism. When the baton is passed to you, be ready to do the responsible thing and run it to the finish line.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What other tips can you share that promote sustainable tourism in Costa Rica?