Central American economies are experiencing an ongoing boom in tourism, and in certain regions this often comes with real estate speculation in support of a trend toward all-inclusive resorts, large hotels and vacation homes.
A study conducted by researchers at Penn State and partnering institutions, however, challenges the notion that this mass tourism model is better for resident well-being in biodiverse regions as compared to ecotourism, which has considerably less impact on the environment and local communities.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."
Carter Hunt, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State, explained that an important distinction between ecotourism and other forms of tourism is its link to biodiversity conservation.
"It does not just feature nature as part of a tour, but it also provides direct support to the mechanisms responsible for actively protecting nature," Hunt said.
Hunt and co-investigators studied the Osa Peninsula, one of the last sections of Costa Rica's Pacific coast where ecotourism is the main type of tourism and a major aspect of the local economy. Coupled with exceptional biodiversity, these conditions make the area an ideal location to test indicators of economic, social and environmental impacts of ecotourism.
What researchers found is that ecotourism is providing stable employment with nearly double the salary of other local livelihoods, more career advancement opportunities, increased support for environmental conservation and improved access to strategic resources including knowledge of national development policies for the region. Hunt said the study shows the notion "more tourism is better," does not apply in biodiverse environments.
"There are important qualitative distinctions between different forms of tourism with respect to outcomes for local people and environments," Hunt said. "This research empirically demonstrates that the aggregate impact of numerous small-scale ecotourism projects across the Osa Peninsula region has improved local residents' livelihood prospects and quality of life, while still contributing directly to the conservation of the region's globally significant biodiversity."
The results have the potential to inform socially and environmentally responsible tourism development policy in the Osa Peninsula and other biodiverse regions of Central America, Hunt said.
"Mass tourism development drives real estate speculation, which in turn displaces rural residents, compromises their access to important resources and can often rely largely on imported, English-speaking employees," Hunt said. "This means that often there are few employment opportunities for local people beyond low-paying, unskilled positions as housekeeping staff, gardeners or security."
Hunt added, "In contrast, the dominant form of tourism in the Osa Peninsula is ecotourism and this has provided very different—and better—opportunities and outcomes for local communities and environments."
Recently, results of the researchers' work were published in a 2015 issue of Journal of Sustainable Tourism. The findings will also be included as a contributing chapter in "Tourism and Poverty Reduction: Principles and Impacts in Developing Countries" edited by Routledge.
For the study, researchers conducted interviews with local residents, including both residents who work in ecotourism and residents who work in other economic sectors to determine if ecotourism offers a greater economic benefit compared to other industries, such as timber, gold mining or agriculture.
Hunt described Costa Rica as one of the 20 most biodiverse countries in the world, housing 4 percent of global biodiversity despite comprising just 0.03 percent of the Earth's land area. Within Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula – particularly Corcovado National Park – is as biodiverse as any region in the country.
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"Can ecotourism deliver real economic, social, and environmental benefits? A study of the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica." DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2014.965176