Ecotourism: a thin veil of disguise?

My fiancé and I are planning a honeymoon to Costa Rica (rough life, I know). The single most used term I keep seeing throughout my travel research is “ecotourism.”
The small Central American country prides itself on its environmentally friendly approach to playing host to millions of yearly out-of-towners. To its credit, the Costa Rican government has done a fine job of cleaning up its marred environmental past. A sizeable chunk — 23 percent — of the country is now federally protected, and it’s safe to assume ecotourism influenced the government’s thinking process.
Ecotourism sells. In fact, ecotourism is reportedly one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry. Many people — myself included — operate on the ethos of “leave no trace,” a nice way of saying pack your junk out and keep moving.
So when a country markets itself on similar principles, people who aren’t leaving a trace tend to notice. This is why Costa Rica is so appealing to the masses, and why the country is experiencing rapid growth. 
While ecotourism sounds cute and cuddly, it certainly has its share of shortcomings. Part of the problem is that the concept of ecotourism is becoming increasingly difficult to define.
An environmentalist and a developer might have two entirely different definitions of ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society puts it this way: Ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
But what began as an honest effort to conserve natural and cultural resources is now a hotly contested issue in some parts of the world. Oddly enough, ecotourism can work in reverse. Simply put, more people begets more traffic, begets more infrastructure, which ultimately spells disaster for the environment. Many animals are leaving their feeding and spawning grounds because the steady deluge of ecotourism is too damn noisy.  
Call it what you want, but it’s not always pretty. 
For example, Natures Sacred Paradise, a theme park in Quintana Roo, Mexico, calls itself an ecotourism destination.
Basically, the developer saw an opportunity to clear the jungle, hired his bulldozers and created an “authentic” — albeit caged in — Mayan experience. The local Mayan population was displaced, and the park reportedly keeps endangered species in captivity to attract visitors. This scenario happens around the globe more often than you think. Does this sound like “responsible travel to natural areas”?
Sadly, the Costa Rican tourist board, known as the ICT, has been just as guilty in the past. The ICT was caught up in quite the environmental controversy in the ‘70s. In an effort to draw more tourists to the country, the ICT developed a plan that called for massive development on the Gulf of Papagayo. What the plan lacked was an environmental impact study, fresh drinking water, or concern for many pre-Columbian archeological sites. Scandal erupted in the ICT (whose slogan happens to be “No Artificial Ingredients”) when the project was called an environmental disaster.
Furthermore, many Costa Ricans are throwing the word ecotourism around loosely in a seemingly desperate attempt to squeeze every ounce of currency they can out of ecotourists.
The power always lies with the consumer, and in this case a discerning tourist capable of deciphering the ecotourism babble can send a strong message.
Tough regulations and quotas must also be enacted for ecotourism to work (Costa Rica now restricts the number of people who enter the wildly popular Manuel Antonio National Park, and for good reasons). Be safe, travel smart, and don’t fall for the plethora of ecotourism gimmicks.


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