Minimizing Impacts – Maximizing Benefits

Costa Rica’s Cautious Approach to Cruise Tourism

Carlos Alberto Lopez, Erika Harms, Fabian Roman and Martina von Münchhausen

Costa Rica has developed a diversified tourism model primarily based on the natural resources of the country. It includes different tourism offers which are conducted in parallel. There is no dependency and no displacement by the cruise industry, unlike in other Caribbean destinations. Through the use of existing ports and engagement of local stakeholders, environmental and social impacts are kept in check.

Costa Rica, a small country located in Central America, is well-known for its nature and adventure tourism. International tourism is one of the main sources of foreign exchange. With approximately 260,000 visitors a year, the country still receives relatively few cruise travellers in comparison to other Caribbean destinations. The taxes paid by cruise passengers are minimal compared to those paid by tourists staying over night. Cruise passengers are categorised as "in-transit passengers" and not as tourists. Cruise ships are treated like any other vessels.

Port infrastructure and management

The main ports of entry are Puerto Limón on the Caribbean and Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Limón receives most of the cruise ship visits. The ports of Limón and Puntarenas are run exclusively by government entities. Even though on the ground tourism activities servicing the cruise industry are privately run, the government has established public-private partnerships to ensure the offer stays in local hands. It monitors environmental and social impacts through the national Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST).

Costa Rica has not made any special arrangements for cruise ports or adapted its facilities to cater specifically to cruise passengers. There are no exclusive shopping facilities or beach resorts. The ships share the port facilities with container ships. Though Limón is not an "elegant" port, it is safe and does not pose any new environmental threats – unlike in other Caribbean destinations where the construction of new ports and cruise terminals has a critical impact on fragile marine and coastal habitats.

Ensuring local benefits

The Port Authority, the Ministry of Tourism and the municipality collaborate to ensure maximum benefits for local communities while enhancing visitor satisfaction and ensuring their security. Tours are designed in collaboration with local players. In a participatory approach additional income opportunities have been created, which also reach the surrounding municipalities. They include a market style set up for local artisans and retailers.

Tours of 2.5 to 4 hours are designed for passengers to return to the ship in time. They are well organized and carried out in a professional manner by trained guides, avoiding overcrowding at the sites visited. They are conducted primarily in buffer areas and under strict regulation. Tortuguero National Parkto the North is very popular. Tourists can see the rainforest, take a boat trip on the canals and see wildlife. The safety criteria are high, the groups are small, and the boat guides are well trained and organized. Cruise visitors can enjoy a first taste of Costa Rican nature without actually entering sensitive and protected areas.

One source of income that is higher in Costa Rica than at other ports is the expenditure of the crew. The crew uses the time to seek medical and dental services and purchase goods required during their stay on board. In Costa Rica the income generated per crew member is higher than the income generated per cruise passenger.

Managing Environmental Impacts

The provision of water and energy has been well regulated in Costa Rica, as well as the discharge of solid waste and treatment of water. All is available at the port of Limón, but the services have to be paid for, unlike at other cruise destinations. The government charges for the services it provides, which is in addition to the two US-dollar tax per passenger imposed by the government.

Limón has facilities to properly recycle hazardous residues such as "sludge" of the cruise ships. The same applies to garbage, which must be pre-segregated. Any form of the "discharge" of organic waste or wastewater of all kinds is strictly prohibited. If cruise ships are ready to cover the charges, they can expect a decent disposal at Limón.

Costa Rica is known for its strong environmental protection, a stable health system and strict hygiene standards. The tourists – including cruise tourists – usually behave very responsibly and adhere to the rules. Enforcement in case of non compliance, however, is weak.

Dealing with an industry set to grow

The overall impact of the cruise industry in Costa Rica is positive. The challenge is that the cruise industry is not officially classified as tourism. Traditional tourism policies do not apply and no adjustment have been made to enable the country to meet the needs and requirements of a growing industry and its impact.

Sustainability is front and centre for the government of Costa Rica and most tour operators servicing the cruise industry are certified. However, the cruise sector has not been a priority for the development of additional service facilities in the port areas such as bars, restaurants, or shops.

Nevertheless, cruise tourism is set to grow and the country will need to adjust to meet the demand before it becomes a threat. The way tourism is practised in Costa Rica could be adapted to its cruise tourism: maintaining small groups, but improving the facilities around the port and surrounding communities to receive more cruise passengers. Costa Rica could be seen as a model for other ports, including a model of how tourism entities collaborate and plan to deal with growth, diversifying the offer and empowering as may local players as possible.

Carlos Alberto Lopez is Biologist and graduated from the University of Costa Rica. He is working in environmental education for children, adults and tourists in Costa Rica.
Erika Harms is Founder and President of Planet4People, a consulting firm that works with governments, businesses, civil society and communities to build sustainable practices.

Fabian Roman is Founder and President of Fundacion Plan 21 and director for the institute for Sustainable Tourism of Latin America and the Caribbean of the University for International Cooperation in Costa Rica.
Martina von Münchhausen works for WWF World Wide Fund for Nature in Hamburg, responsible for WWF’s sustainable tourism program.

Edited by: Christina Kamp

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