The Jica Study: A tour operator’s view
As the owner of a tour business, I have enjoyed an extraordinary opportunity to explore Costa Rica. Over the past fifteen years I have visited nearly every corner of the country, seeing so many beaches, rain forests, and volcanoes, so much biodiversity that I have become really hard to impress. Yet last year when I visited Puerto Jiménez with the Expotur delegation, I saw something that made me want to come back. This was not my first visit. I was already familiar with the Osa and the Golfo Dulce. For many years I had recommended it to eco-travelers as the most intense nature experience in Costa Rica. I had visited the major lodges--Marenco, Aguila de Osa, Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, Tiskita, Rainbow Adventure, and Lapa Rios. These are all beautiful places, but they are not communities. Perhaps Puerto Jiménez appealed to me because it reminded me of my own hometown in Montana—a place where folks still said "good morning" to a stranger when they passed on the street and where the waitress or storekeeper would chat about the daily news as they served a customer. I saw an unspoiled small town made up of real people, who worked hard to support their families and provide for their children’s future, but still took time to be neighborly. From the enthusiastic faces at the Expotur feria where local hotels and tour operators met with foreign travel agents, I understood that people in this town were placing great hope in tourism, and as a tourism professional I wanted to know whether that hope was well-founded. Was this business that I had spent so many years in building providing new sources of income and opportunity for the people who lived on the peninsula? And what was the effect of this tourism activity on the natural heritage of the Osa, its lovely coastline, its wildlife, and especially its magnificent and endangered tropical rain forest?
So, in January I returned, planning to spend a month learning everything I could about the effect of tourism on the Osa Peninsula and the people who live there. Within days I learned that the big news in town was a study commissioned by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that among other things proposed a new zoning plan for the Osa and Golfo Dulce. I admit that the idea of the ICT and Japanese working on a zoning plan evoked memories of the Golfo de Papagayo with big hotels and multinational investors given free rein to develop some of the choicest coastline.
The study recommended an expansion of the tourism market to include middle income "sund-and-sand tourism," which made me shudder at the image of a new Tambor or new Cancun. But when I obtained a copy of the study and started to read I became excited by the possibilities. The chapter on conservation went straight to the core of the Osa crisis. Most important, it urged an immediate end to logging permits. It also made two imaginative proposals that should rally support from both local people and international conservation organizations.
The first of these is to declare the Osa and the Golfo Dulce a World Heritage Site under UNESCO. This would recognize the unique biological significance of the Osa and help to lift it out of the quagmire of local politics and private exploitation. Second, development of an Osa Peninsula Trail, similar to the John Muir and Appalachian trails of the United States, would attract more of the right kind of tourists while providing a means of patrolling and maintaining a vital biological corridor.
The plan notes that increasing the numbers of tourists requires an increase in available accommodations, particularly in rooms that bridge the gap between expensive nature lodges catering to well-heeled foreign tourists and small locally-owned hotels with standards based on the domestic market. As a tour operator I would have to agree. Many of my favorite clients are people whose deep love of nature is not equaled by the depth of their pockets. All too often I have been forced to send families, teachers, retired people, and other budget-limited travelers in search of a real rain forest experience to a more "affordable" destination like Manuel Antonio or the Sarapiquí. Yet the solution proposed by the JICA study--the development of mid-range hotels of 20-100 rooms--still worries me because it conjures the image of bland, mass-designed hotels encroaching on mangroves and fragile turtle-nesting beaches. Such hotels might reduce the cost of lodging by bringing in volume, but they will also cheapen the experience. Too many of their guests would know the Osa only through hotel restaurants, hotel boutiques, and hotel-run excursions into the rain forest.
I believe that there is already a middle ground, an option for the middle-income eco-tourist, in the development of small-scale, moderately priced, lodging owned by local people or at least by people with a long-term commitment to the community and to the natural environment. Before my Osa visit was cut short by a horseback accident that left me with a fractured arm, I had a chance to experience some of these. At John Reid’s Jardin de Aves I slept on a comfortable bed in a room perched high above a cascading stream with only a fine screen separating my bedroom from the birds, monkeys, and kinkajous who played and foraged in the forest outside. The price for this night of exotic luxury--only $35 based on single occupancy. Not far away I visited a new project, Cabinas Tití, where Enrique Segnini, a local farmer has built attractive, airy cabins where tourists can spend a night in the forest after enjoying the birds and squirrel monkeys on a remote part of his finca. Enrique priced an overnight including meals and transportation from the road by horseback at only $38.
The JICA study refers to the inability of local people to meet "international standards," but does not specify what these standards might be. Is it air conditioning, chlorinated swimming pools, cable television? The Osa really does not need standards like these. But if instead the study refers to international standards of sustainability and environmental responsibility, then local proprietors are in an excellent position to provide environmentally appropriate lodging in small but medium-priced properties, dispersed into areas where the presence of tourists serves to protect rather than encroach upon the rain forest, reefs, and mangroves. Outside support should emphasize credit and advisory services for small, locally-owned facilities rather than investment in large hotels (on the Osa a property of more than 20 rooms is definitely a large hotel).
As a tour operator who has seen a fair share of sun-and-sand destinations around the world, I question whether the Osa Peninsula is right for this type of market. The beaches that exist are interesting to the eco-tourist because of mangroves, tide pools, and turtle nesting grounds, but to the sun-and-sand devotee they hardly compete with the white sands of the Caribbean. Bringing in the beach-tourist crowd will only have a negative impact on the sense of unspoiled nature that is the Osa’s strongest asset. Increased tourist numbers will strain the capacity of the environment for refuse and wastewater disposal, and the tendency of large hotels to provide all-inclusive services will keep tourist dollars from reaching the local market. Not even designating the town of Puerto Jiménez as a "primary tourist center" can guarantee that it will receive sufficient economic benefits to outweigh the stress on the environment and local infrastructure.
As I wrote earlier in this article, Puerto Jiménez reminds me in many ways of my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. In fact, I could write a whole volume on the parallels and common problems encountered by small towns all over the world as tourism rapidly replaces the traditional agricultural base of the economy. There is new money, new opportunity, immigration of outsiders, rapid increase in land values. There are major strains of the local infrastructure as water, sewage, roads, schools, and health services become inadequate and major political battles rage over how to fund improvements. There is resentment of the newly rich and of prices that escalate more rapidly than the local wage structure. But in Bozeman there is also a strong base of local institutions and political power and a commitment to solve these problems as a community.
Puerto Jiménez’s situation is similar. For all its charm, the town shows signs of an infrastructure being overwhelmed by the needs of a growing population. If it is to enter into intensified tourism development it will need to take immediate steps to upgrade this infrastructure. It first needs an adequate supply of clean and safe drinking water, environmentally safe sewage disposal, up-to-date methods for trash disposal and recycling, and improved health services. While these issues need to be addressed in any growing community, Puerto Jiménez is in a particularly vulnerable position because of its isolation from the municipal government, located across the gulf in Golfito. Perhaps ADETUS, as a local association for implementing the recommendations of the JICA study, can be the community’s arm in solving these problems. Tourism investment can bring new resources and expertise into the community, but the basic rule of development is that no one takes care of the interests of the people unless they are prepared to take care of themselves. The first step is the empowerment of the local community.
While still in Puerto Jiménez I posted a couple of messages to an Internet mailing list trying to communicate the scale of the change that I believe is coming to the Osa. One well-known personality in the Costa Rica tourism industry responded that they are always doing studies, but 99.97% of the plans and recommendations in the studies are never implemented. This may be true, but the people of Puerto Jiménez are independent frontier folk who have already learned to mobilize and resist outside forces. To the extent that they understand the forces that are building, they will, I believe, have an excellent chance of determining the future of their children and their community.
Article courtesy of Carol Cespedes, Ph.D, Courtesy of El Sol de Osa The Osa Peninsula’s Newspaper