Protecting Biodiversity – and Making it Accessible – Has Paid Off for Costa Rica

Jerri-Lynn here. This study looks at the importance of biodiversity in fostering ecotourism, and finds the factor to be key, provided  it is paired with access to good infrastructure. Both factors are necessary to attract visitors.

Developing sustainable tourism is one way countries can encourage economic growth without signing up for the environmental destruction that comes with resource exploitation projects – e.g., fossil fuels, logging, mining.

By Alejandra Echeverri Ochoa, Postdoctoral Scholar in Biology, Stanford University and Jeffrey R. Smith Postdoctoral, Researcher in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University Originally published at The Conversation

After two years of pandemic lockdowns and border closures, global travel appears to be rebounding in much of the world in 2022. Wilderness is a big tourist attraction – but do countries that protect their natural environments earn a payoff in tourism revenues?

Surprisingly, little research has been done on this question. Some early studies in Africa demonstrated that people from across the world travel to find “the big five” – elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions and leopards. But it remains unclear whether people will travel to see a wide variety of plants and animals, or just a select few iconic species.

As scholars who study conservation and ecology, we wondered whether biodiversity – specifically, the number of species in a given place – influenced where people chose to travel for tourism. We analyzed that question in a recently published study focused on Costa Rica, a country that markets itself to the world as green and biodiverse, and derives almost 10% of its gross domestic product from tourism activities.

Our study assessed whether the opportunity to see many vertebrate animal species mattered to tourists visiting Costa Rica, and if so, how important it was compared with other features like hotels and beaches. We found that an abundance of animal species alone does not drive tourism; rather, in Costa Rica, our research shows that biodiversity needs to be paired with infrastructure like hotels and roads that enable access to nature. Costa Rica has shown other countries how to do this and is reaping benefits from it.

Biodiversity, Satellites and Social Media

For our study we used millions of sightings of animals in Costa Rica from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a public repository of open-access data about all types of life on Earth. The GBIF shares reports from members – including governments, conservation groups, libraries and scientific societies – about observations of plants, animals and other living species, with geographic locations. Scholars and governments draw on this data to inform scientific research and policy decisions.

We paired these wildlife observations with satellite-derived maps of climate conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, and habitat elements, such as tree cover and impervious surfaces like roads. Using this data, we created distribution maps across Costa Rica for 699 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. We selected species that had more than 25 data points in the country.

We then used these maps to see how important species richness was in driving two types of tourism. First we considered general tourism, measured by where people go to take pictures and upload them to the Flickr photo sharing site. Second, we looked at checklists on eBird, a social media platform where people who identify as birders can share which species they see during nature walks.

Next we added other factors that are widely known to drive tourism, including the location of hotels, roads, national park boundaries and water features like lakes. This allowed us to consider how important biodiversity was compared with other key tourism drivers.

Our data came from NASA’s Global Roads Open Access Database, a global map of roads; the GeoNames database, a global source with the coordinates of all registered hotels and lodges; and the Natural Earth database, which contains a map of the world’s lakes and oceans. We used those maps to predict where tourists were going by mapping where people were taking pictures that they would then upload to Flickr, or where they were bird-watching and uploading their lists to eBird.

Nature Plus Small-Scale Infrastructure

We found that tourism is highest in zones of Costa Rica where both biodiversity and infrastructure are present and accessible to tourists. One such area is Monteverde, a lush high-elevation forest that National Geographic calls “the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves.”

Here visitors can find the resplendent quetzal, a green bird with a red belly and long green-bluish tail that glistens in the sunlight. Considered sacred by Aztecs and Mayans, the quetzal is a major draw for bird-watchers and other tourists. Another species of high tourist interest is the red-fronted parrotlet, a small green parrot with a red forehead that is found only in Costa Rica and northern Panama.

Places like Monteverde are top tourist destinations in Costa Rica because they are replete with endemic and threatened species that visitors want to see, and that can only be found at those locations. Importantly, these areas also have enough ecolodges for people to spend the night.

Understandably, places that have high biodiversity but no infrastructure receive fewer visitors. For example, Amistad International Park, which is located in both Costa Rica and Panama, has a large tract of forest and many species. But very few people go there compared with other high-biodiversity areas. Our results indicate that this is because there aren’t enough roads to make the park accessible and see wild animals and birds.

Conversely, places with very high levels of infrastructure and very few species also are not desirable to tourists. Think of big-city hotels where tourists may stay for a day or two for convenience, but don’t book longer stays because of the limited access to wild species.

Our findings suggest that for countries like Costa Rica to continue deriving economic benefits from tourism, they need to invest in both infrastructure and biodiversity conservation. We believe that, rather than building large resorts or multilane roads, countries would be wise to adopt Costa Rica’s model of tourism infrastructure, which is mainly small ecolodges and nature hostels. Sustainability is a central theme of the nation’s tourism policy, which emphasizes supporting small- and medium-sized businesses.DJust Enough development

Governments around the world will convene in the fall of 2022 for a critical conference on protecting the world’s wild species over the coming decade. One of the main goals for this meeting is to negotiate ways for humans to live in harmony with nature.

A key issue on the agenda is evaluating and managing trade-offs between protecting nature and promoting economic growth. Our results clearly indicate that these two things cannot be considered in isolation. In our view, the tourism sector should emphasize conserving species, because many people will pay to see wildlife and unspoiled places.

Today tourism employs some 700,000 people in Costa Rica. Our research shows that if other countries want to develop ecotourism industries modeled on Costa Rica’s, they should increase access to nature-based tourism opportunities by building roads and hotels.

They also need to invest in protecting biodiversity, especially species that are endemic and threatened, which can serve as tourist draws. With careful planning and an inclusive perspective, we believe that nations can build sustainable tourism programs that benefit their economies and the environment.



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  1. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Jerri.

    This is something that I was involved with in the mid noughties in Mauritius, projects that were disrupted by 2008 and abandoned.

    A few things that readers ought to bear in mind when seeing footage of safaris in Africa: There’s often a disruptive convoy of jeeps, so no real sense of intimacy. Game parks are often privately owned by western investors, vide Richard Branson and the Aspinall family (the latter being friends of Lord Lucan, which is how rumours started of Lucky Lucan being spirited away to an Aspinall game park in Africa), and locals are squeezed to the margins of what was often ancestral land. Some tourism industry operators discourage visitors from leaving resorts.

    Friends who own inland plantations in Mauritius report that the hotel magnates, often coastal planters and their relatives, are not keen on developing the “tourisme de l’arriere pays” as the money will be spent outside their control.

    There’s also a lack of imagination. Mauritius has always been marketed as ideal for holidays by the sea when it’s a lot more interesting than that. Think of Louisiana, with whom we (Creoles) have many connections, as an island in the tropics.

    The infrastructure need not be invasive or mean tarmacking and concreting over wilderness. It depends on the location.

    Finally, why do we need another talking shop? It’s often another occasion for the likes of Gates, the Clintons and even Blair to turn up, grandstand and engage in a land grab. They get useful idiots like poseur Owen Jones who thinks that the way to protect wildlife in Africa is to move locals away, ethnic cleansing by the sounds of it.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I don’t doubt that there are some very good models around, but they tend to be small scale. The basic economics of tourism is such that getting a bus load of coach tourists in is easier and usually more profitable than working with a more select and genuinely curious bunch of travelers. The additional problem is that the latter are often more likely to do things on their own terms, hence they don’t necessarily do what tourist authorities want them to do and that makes it harder to extract cash from them.

      I think the only genuinely good model of tourism is in Bhutan. And that’s because they make it very hard for tourists go get in, and charge them a lot of money for the privilege. Plus, they keep big chains and international companies well away, so all tourism money goes to local businesses. It works extremely well, but I doubt it can be scaled up in many places. But for small islands or remote areas it is probably the best option, although its tough luck on budget travelers who want to visit.

  2. Carla

    I was fortunate to be able to visit Costa Rica twice, about 25, and then 20, years ago. At the time our accommodations were simple and inexpensive, unlike the luxury eco-lodges featured today. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a Resplendant Quetzal posed and preened for us about 45-minutes — amazing! On both trips, we spent a week or more in Montezuma on the Nicoya peninsula, the first time staying in tiny Geodesic dome huts right on the beach, with outdoor bathrooms (plumbed, amazingly enough). Those huts had bitten the dust by the time of my second trip, which lasted a luxurious three weeks! I am so grateful to have had these unique experiences.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      You were indeed lucky! From what I understand, the quetzal is hard to spot — its key to survival with some very large predators. I just posted a lengthy comment below with more, might take a little time to show up…

  3. IF

    This article follows the official propaganda for Costa Rica. What we found when we visited were a desparate population seeing foreigners as ATMs. The “nature preserves” were small. “National parks” maybe a square mile in size, but often quite nice. Many private preserves of similar sizes were former cow pastures that quickly form second growth forests, but were really not as impressive as the few primal pieces of land. Entrance prices without guides (which are needed for inexperienced visitors as the jungle hides most animals) were about USD 30 per person. How that is accessible I don’t know, but this is one aspect of how the 10% of the GDP by tourism is created.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      Yes, I was seeing some of this already in the 80s and 90s. Meant to mention it in an earlier comment, but it already was too long for the algo. In any case, you bring up a critical point. Ecotourism has to include fair policies for local populations, who essentially see development for “rich” tourists as denying them the right to farm or otherwise exist off adjacent lands, as they’ve been doing for decades. Of course they “don’t understand the value in ecotourism,” when it’s at their expense. If the only way they can survive is to exploit the tourists, it’s going to hurt the government-industry effort to draw more visitors, so wouldn’t it be better to include them in the plans upfront?

  4. Brunches with Cats

    I went to Costa Rica three times from mid-80s to early 90s, including a trip to Monteverde. Lodging was in a sort of dorm for researchers, arranged by a friend who was studying herpetology. It was low amenity, high camaraderie, with a lot of interaction with locals. I was fully conversant in Spanish at the time and did all the translating for my friend, who spoke only a couple of words. For my friend, it meant more and better information; for me, it was a more enriching cultural experience that wouldn’t have happened without being able to talk directly to the local guides and caretakers. I’m wondering whether those quarters were turned into an “ecolodge,”‘ because AFAIK, there wasn’t anything like that at the time, and probably with good reason, as tourism wasn’t seen as beneficial to that particular, very sensitive ecosystem. There are plenty of national parks in Costa Rica that are more easily accessible, and while none of them would benefit from being trampled by hoards of tourists, some are better suited for it than others.

    BTW, the chances of spotting a quetzal are very low. During mating season, there’s a better chance of hearing one, but they are hard to see. Devoted birders with the time and money to hang out and who have an expert local guide might get lucky.

    On other trips, I went to the coasts. The Pacific side was more developed at the time, with a swanky hotel overlooking the ocean. I couldn’t afford to stay there, only went for drinks one evening. That trip was with another friend. I’d made and confirmed reservations for a small hotel. We arrived late in the day, only to find that the reservations “somehow” disappeared (travel agent told them we’d be late). The owner told us not to worry, she’d “take care of us,” which turned out to be an old mattress thrown on a door on cement blocks in what appeared to be a storage space, walls made of wood slats with gaps between them, no shower, and a very long walk to the bathroom. So for two nights, we got the full-on sleeping-in-the-jungle experience, with night birds and all of the Hollywood sound effects, on steroids. Fortunately, no tarantulas. Those were at the hotel in the big city, where I woke up with one on the ceiling over the only exit. Of course, that was the trip I went on alone.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    The only way that ecotourism can continue is if mass ecotourism air travel continues to the ecotourism destinations.

    So in a world where we ” ban air travel ” , if we decide to save the ecosystems that ecotourism pays for saving, then we will have to make a special exception for the air travel involved in ecotourism. IF! . . . we want to save the ecosystems that ecotourism pays for saving.

    So . . . ban air travel except for ecotourism.

  6. Chris de Venir

    Costa Rica also has many aspects of tourism that are problematic – big cruise tourism that brings few benefits, mass tourism especially in pacific resorts. Governments have been building up those aspects as well as ecotourism.

    There is a great documentary on the tourism on the pacific coast from 2014 called ‘The Goose with the Golden Egg’ here:

    It draws out some of those problems and talks of the smaller scale model that some locals were seeking to focus more on.

  7. Skippy

    Ugh … so many have no idea of everything that one has to look at over more than a hundred years to understand Costa Rica, before one even begins to bang on about save the world eco tourism aka the term is an oxymoron.

    Where to start.

    OK after the colonialism phase, waves at Germans especially, it was just on big huge open air corporatist plantation, you name the good. Sure it was marketed as the democracy in the sea of all the emergent socialist/commie back blast to the aforementioned administration. Gezz it even had women[!!!!] in high political office going back to the early 90s.

    Here is the rub … distribution of GDP is all at the top and administrated by the PMC for decades by establishing networks for concentration of wealth for the few elites. The amount of alcoholics anonymous signs whilst traveling was epic.

    Holy cr*p the stories I could tell about the 90s and the BSD executives/wealth set that would go there to get their bum on, low key, low fee, psychological rehab. The wails of what it took to get ahead, stay ahead, and the need to get out and about to something more basic was ….

    Spent a huge amount of time around Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio south of the river below it on 6kl of beach with a handful of locals of various distinctions living their lives. The bar in Capo’s owned by an ex national foot ball goalie, the NYC bathhouse of lore family member living on the lamb, and so much, much, more, BSDs having a moment about business deals down in Tico time land.

    But with all respect to the commontariant wrt this subject matter, I will always remember two things above all others. The night a western guy came into the goalies bar and was mouthing off about being a American security operative in the drug war, hence a bad ass, and how his night ended up. I told the bar owner about his antics and the next morning the word was some naked guy was passed out on the beach near by with out anything save his birthday suit. The other would be the actions of that region when the President they were a key to his election reninged on his election promises for more infrastructural works in shutting down the entire region, roads and airports. Wellie we had gear down on the beach and were trapped in Capo’s, so after a bit and some local network calls I was allowed across the blocked and armed bridge south with a back back with an illegal imported 22 semi pistol and an a six pack of Imperial beer to sooth negotiations that might happen.

    Best bit of the 20kl run was when I was a hundred meters from the camp everyone rocked up in their vehicles because it was sorted at a national level. Ugh can’t say more because the failure to reconcile so much ideological and political rubbish is just hand waved away under the idea of eco tourism being a viable long therm economic solution.

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