Report From Puerto Jimenez

Planning for Tourism

--Carol H. Cespedes, Ph.D.

Over the past fifteen years my tour business has taken me to nearly every corner of Costa Rica. From the dry forests of Santa Rosa to the reefs and wetlands of Gandoca Manzanillo, I have seen so many beaches, rainforests, and volcanoes, such an abundance of natural beauty and wildlife, that I have become really hard to impress. Yet last year when I visited Puerto Jimenez 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 Jimenez 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. From the enthusiastic faces at the trade show 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 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 rainforest.

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 lived there. Within days I learned that the big news in town was a study commissioned by the 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 "sun and sand tourism," which made me cringe as I imagined a new Tambor or new Cancun. But when I obtained a copy of the study and started to read, my cynicism evaporated. 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, the idea of developing an Osa Peninsula trail similar to the John Muir and Appalachian trails of the United States would attract more tourists of the better sort while also 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 pocketbooks. All too often I have been forced to send families, teachers, retired people, and other budget-limited travelers in search of a real rainforest experience to a more "affordable" destination like Manuel Antonio or the Sarapiqui. Yet the solution proposed by the JICA study - the development of mid-range hotels of 20-100 rooms - still worried me. I feared the prospect 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 would 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 rainforest.

I believe that there is already a middle ground, an option for the middle-income ecotourist, in the development of small-scale moderately priced lodging owned by local people or at least people with a long-term commitment to the community and to the natural environment. Before my 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 des 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 Titi, where Enrique Segnini, a local farmer has built attractive, airy cabins in a patch of forest frequented by squirrel monkeys. More projects like this can bridge the price gap while also giving local landowners an incentive to preserve the forest.

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, 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 rainforest, 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 ecotourist 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. The JICA study designates the town of Puerto Jimenez as a "primary tourist center," but it must also stipulate that this means investment in local businesses and infrastructure.

As I wrote earlier in this article, Puerto Jimenez reminds me in many ways of my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. All over the world there are beautiful small towns struggling to keep their soul as tourism replaces the traditional agricultural base of the economy. There is new money, new opportunity, immigration of outsiders, rapid increase in land values. There is deterioration of the community and environment as water, sewage, roads, schools, and health services become inadequate. There is resentment of the newly rich and of prices that escalate more rapidly than the local wage structure. But there is also a commitment to solve these problems as a community. That is the key.

If Puerto Jimenez is to enter into a period of intensified tourism development, it will need to take immediate steps to upgrade infrastructure and services. It 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. It must deal with these issues in spite of from the municipal government, located across the gulf in Golfito. Happily, the JICA study has fostered the formation of a grassroots association formed to implement its recommendations. From attending one of the recent meetings of ADETUS, I see the association emerging as a voice of the community rather than simply a tool of the ICT. Outside investment can bring new resources and expertise to bear on local problems, but outside business or government entity can be trusted to take 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 Jimenez 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 Jimenez are independent 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.

Carol H. Cespedes is the owner of Halintours, Inc, of Austin, TX, U.S.A. Email