Costa Rica is known throughout the world for supporting sustainable tourism. After
having lived in this country for 6 months, I have developed a rather critical view on
this topic. Costa Rica is very small and has only about 4 million inhabitant. In the
year 2004 total tourist arrivals by air exceeded the 1 million mark1 and more visitors
are estimated for 2005. Sustainable tourism and high tourist numbers are
unfortunately two issues that do not really go together and not everything is rosy.
An example is the pacific coast around Tamarindo: the scenery there is dominated
by large hotel complexes rather than beautiful nature and there are without doubt
more tourists in this region than there are inhabitants.
A very serious problem in Costa Rica is environmental pollution. There is only one
sewage treatment plant in the whole country and it is truly shocking if one thinks
about all the waste water that reaches the soil without purification. Especially in a
city like San José that has about one million inhabitants such a situation is very
severe. It is not surprising that large parts of the population suffer from diarrhoea
and other water-related diseases. Another factor is that many big hotels transfer
their waste water into the ocean and in some regions (e.g. Quepos) the
government advises people not to use the beaches.
Another great problem in Costa Rica is waste management. There are neither
dumping grounds nor incineration plants. The direct result is that most hotels burn
their waste and carbon dioxides reach the atmosphere unfiltered.
In my opinion one should wonder if Costa Rica can deal with the environmental
problems that are caused by its own population and whether the country is really
able to absorb more tourists each year.
However, one should also recognize the positive sides. More than 25 per cent of
the country area is protected through a network of national parks, reservations and
private properties. All national parks only allow a certain number of visitors each
day in order to protect the sensitive environment and some are even closed to the
public and only open for scientists and students. More and more areas are being
incorporated into the network each year and this is a very positive development for
a third-world country.