Costa Rica News – Closing out the year with ambition for a greener tomorrow, over 200 journalists, advocates, and world leaders in ecotourism came together for the Fourth Annual International Conference on Sustainable Tourism. Hosted by the Costa Rica National Chamber of Ecotourism (CANAECO) and the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), the P3 event (Planet, People, Peace) covered environmental issues for the future of tourism and sustainable practices.
“The major goal of the conference,” said CANAECO president, Glenn Jampol, “was to convene national and international leaders to share their strategies, best practices, and challenges in the tourism industry. The intention was to offer practical tools to increase tourism responsibly, and to reaffirm the important role that Costa Rica has attained on a global level.”
As a pioneer in sustainable tourism, Costa Rica has created a model for responsible behaviors, now being implemented by other countries seeking sustainable tourism. Capitalizing on this leadership position, P3 offered a platform for open dialogue between leaders from such countries as Brazil, Kenya, Bhutan, Peru, Ecuador, Gran Canaries, and Australia. The integration of international speakers allowed for the sharing of key strategies, practices, and open opportunities for the tourism sector.
Structure for the conference was centered on the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air. As champions for change, P3 participants gained insight from the panel of global experts. They presented an introspection of environmental impact and discussed opportunities to successfully address a developing world.
Among the keynote speakers was award-winning author Elizabeth Becker who discussed impacts of global tourism as shared in her latest release, Overbooked. “In the past 20 years, Costa Rica has skyrocketed to a top position in tourism,” said Becker. “The country is a biological super power, but the fastest growing factors are cruise ships. We can’t let success be the problem. It is about welcoming tourists yet remaining sustainable in growth.”
With over 6 trillion dollars spent annually on tourism worldwide, Becker went on to suggest that Costa Rica widen its eco-travel market by tapping into such revenue streams as medical tourism. There is a growing uncertainty about medical coverage in foreign nations, she explained, making this industry viable for travelers seeking low-cost medical treatment outside their own countries.
Educating P3 members on the importance of holistic travel was Director of the SAT Yoga Institute, Tamara Budowski. She shared the positive impact that yoga, meditation, and organic farming have contributed to tourism in the past decade, making Costa Rica a world center for permaculture, health, and inner peace.
On a national level, Lawrence Pratt, Director of the Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development INCAE Business School addressed such issues as improving the regional business climate. He addressed energy and natural resource security, trade and investment, and various approaches for strengthening public policies.
Pratt explained how to maximize the returns on investments in sustainability through a green economy. Such efforts mean establishing a low carbon and resource-efficient environment. At the current rate, he said, we will undergo a 30 percent increase in population within 40 years. As resources diminish, it is vital that we invest in sustainable tourism.
According to Pratt, “Sustainable tourism will reduce energy costs and waste, save water, create jobs, support the local economy, and decrease poverty.” Adding a powerful reality, he said, “The only thing wrong with our planet is our own behavior.”
Rodolfo Lizano, Director of Tourism Planning and Development said Costa Rica has already made enormous strides in sustainable tourism by not only promoting it, but in enforcing it through planning, marketing, people, and certification.
An impetus for this principal focus is the implementation of the Certification for Sustainable Tourism Program (CST). A product of the Costa Rica Tourism Board and supported by CANAECO, the CST was designed to differentiate businesses of the tourism sector. Certification is based on compliance with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management.
The CST rating is regulated by the Costa Rican National Accreditation Commission on a scale of 5 levels (or 5 “leaves”) of sustainable achievement. The certification can only be earned by adhering to specific guidelines such as avoiding emissions, implementing conservation, recycling products, employing the local community, promoting cultural traditions, and protecting the environment and wildlife.
Since the program was developed in 1998, more than 220 Costa Rican hotels and 70 tour operators have earned the CST certification. Among them is Parque del Lago Hotel which transformed the San Jose based property into a sustainable business. According to hotel representative, Mrs. Andrea Bonilla, “The CST has improved our hotel operational practices, and has been a tool to encourage our partners and maintain a high standard of education and modernization.”
Echoing these sentiments is Glenn Jampol, President of CANAECO and owner of Finca Rosa Blanca, a boutique hotel and coffee plantation located just outside San Jose. As a pioneer in sustainable tourism, Jampol has paved the way to green practices in development. In addition to having a low environmental impact, his hotel has created jobs for the community, improved the local economy, and funded a library and classrooms to better education.
According to Jampol, “We need to recognize that tourism will not stop growing, but we can help control it with sustainable practices.”
Unfortunately, over the past decade, buzzwords like “eco” and “green” have been abused by companies seeking to appeal to environmentally minded travelers. In an effort to eliminate this false advertising, the CST has integrated principal elements of sustainable tourism by analyzing management practices and the environmental and social impacts of hospitality services.
On a global level, the objective is to transfer the CST verification system to other countries, thus sharing a common foundation for promoting sustainability in tourism. International brand awareness of CST will ultimately reduced costs, increased occupancy, improve image, and offer substantial environmental guarantees.
For the traveler, CST delivers a pledge that the certified business is committed to behaviors that avoid negative impact on the culture and environment. Likewise, for the verified business, CST can be used as a promotional tool and will be included in the marketing strategies put forward by the Costa Rica Tourism Institute.
Following the CST model on an international level is Lance Barnett, Global Director of Chiquita Brand. With over 20,000 employees, the banana giant has spent the past 20 years on a journey toward sustainability by joining forces with Rainforest Alliance to certify farms in eight countries. During Barnett’s presentation, he shared that the goal, in part, was about having a framework and structure in place before problems surfaced. In the process, steps toward sustainability showed the booming brand what was possible.
“Chiquita’s passage to sustainability started with engaging stake holders and partners,” explains Barnett. “We planted trees, minimized agrichemicals, focused on crop management, built solid waste filters, developed a recycling program, protected our forests, invested $20 million in facilities, and earned Rainforest Alliance Certification in 8 countries.”
Taking an innovative approach, Barnett said that the company viewed every process from a sustainable standpoint, and continued to ask, ‘Are we doing things in the most efficient way that promotes sustainability?’ The key, he said was to make sustainability part of everyone’s job description rather than leaving those responsibilities to a specific department. Today Chiquita takes pride in their company mantra, that “Living Chiquita” means improving lives, improving our planet, and leading our industry.
Offering a fresh perspective on CST certification is Hans Pfister, President of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality. The Cayagua Collection consists of eight eco resorts and sustainable hotels throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Although all of the Cayuga properties have earned CST certification, Pfister suggests Costa Rica focus on the product rather than on promotion.
“Sustainability is something we do everyday,” he said. It’s in our DNA, and has been since the 1990s. Has it been easy? – No. It’s never easy to be a positive deviant, and it takes a deep commitment to be green and sustainable. But just because we are sustainable, does not mean that we should use it in promotion.”
Ironically, Pfister’s Cayuga resort Areans del Mar in Manuel Antonio, is Costa Rica’s only hotel that has earned both five stars and five leaves in CST certification. Yet this is not a leading marketing tool the company promotes. With a selling point of ELCR (experience, learn, connect, relax), the Cayuga luxury properties offer sustainability practices without boasting about them. Instead, they promote local guides, organic food, an authentic experience, and quality service. Sustainability practices are interwoven throughout those factors.
“What is the image of Costa Rica?” Pfister challenged P3 participants. “We need to work on the product by positively surprising our visitors. It’s about under-promising and over delivering. It’s about returning to innovation and providing authentic experiences. Let’s not put certification at the forefront of our promotion. We can do better than that. Let’s not be a standard commodity. We must be leaders and not followers. Sustainability is a great thing, and it’s the right thing to do, but let’s concentrate on product and not promotion. Let us be humble. If the product and experience are right, let others tell our story.”
Pfister’s viewpoint was supported by mixed research, that in general, it is quality, service, and reputation that sells rather than buzzwords like “sustainability.” Clearly travelers are split on opinions as well. Trip Advisor recently reported that 50 percent of travelers would spend more money to stay in an ecofriendly hotel.
Regardless of the final verdict on CST certification, participants of the P3 conference agreed that the topic of sustainability is one of high priority, worthy of the annual November event.
CANAECO President Glenn Jampol concludes, “P3 is an opportunity for a large cross section of tourism and ecotourism associations from all over the world to come and see firsthand why Costa Rica is the recognized global leader in this kind of government supported sustainable tourism.”
By Marlise Kast-Myers