Part of the ISA program includes going on two excursions; the first being to a beautiful national park called Manuel Antonio. This national park has two beautiful beaches but, in order to get to the beaches, you must walk through a lush rainforest. Monkeys can be heard in the distance, little crabs dig holes in the dirt, and sloths hang in the trees. The second excursion is the Arenal Volcano. We did not visit the volcano, but the volcano could be seen in the distance. We stayed in a secluded resort 15 minutes from the nearest town. These two excursions were equally beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay during both weekend trips. While on these trips, I began to think about tourism.
My first experience with tourism was in Cuba. The tourism in Cuba was taken so seriously to the point where there was limited interaction between Cubans and tourists. This separation was even occasionally enforced by law enforcement. While at the resort in Arenals these memories came back to me. Although this was a beautiful resorts I felt separated from Costa Rica. It felt like I was in a completely different country. All the bartenders and waiters spoke English, and there was nothing culturally unique about this resort. I felt as though my learning experience was diminished in a way. I was not practicing Spanish nor was I learning anything culturally significant about Costa Rica. I began further questioning the significance of this trip when I began to hear students complaining about superficial issues. While tourism is not nearly as protected as in Cubas a million questions began to run through my mind about the effects of creating these tourist spaces. Some of these questions were answered in my environmental development class.
One of the positive impacts of tourism in Costa is a specific type of tourism called Eco-tourism, which is why a lot of people visit Costa Rica (this is actually one of the major reasons I chose to come to this country). Eco-tourism is when travelers come to a country specifically for the environment or nature. Eco-tourism has played a huge role in Costa Rica because it has encouraged the government to create protected areas. Protected areas are places preserved and untouched. Creating protected areas such as national parks preserve large parts of the beautiful rainforest which makes up a majority of the country. Although national parks are protected areas, the level of protection is low enough to allow visitors to enjoy. This is where some of the negative impacts begin. Before we visited Manuel Antonio, our program leaders stressed the importance of not feeding the animals or bringing outside plastics into the park. Enough people in the past had been feeding the wildlife so much that the behaviors of the animals were beginning to change. Also, the animals had become so used to people, they felt comfortable enough to open unattended bags and take food or other belonging. Apparently, this has resulted in large piles of stolen items in the rainforest.
Can you spot the blaring contradiction? Manuel Antonio is a protected area, but we are allowing people to enter these spaces and harm the very wildlife the government was attempting to protect. Measures are being taken to stop this activity, such as having your bag checked before you enter the park. Again, this method does not seem very effective because my friend was able to sneak in two pieces of banned plastic material. This theme seemed to follow me to the Los Lagos resort. The resort created this beautiful path with native Costa Rican flowers, plants, frogs, and butterflies. As me and my friends began walking, we saw trash thrown into ponds and into the vegetation. This paired with the constant complaints heard by the new group of students joining the program strengthened my belief in these activities being counter-intuitive.
While I am not anti-tourism, I do believe there are questions countries and tourists must ask themselves before contributing to the industry. As tourists or travelers, I believe we need to set intentions beforehand. It is important for us to determine set intentions so our actions while in the country follow suit. One of my intentions while in Costa Rica is to learn Spanish, therefore even when waiters or waitresses talk to me in English, I force myself to respond in Spanish. By setting intentions, we give ourselves a purpose to be in another country. Your focus shifts to your intentions. For example, maybe eating rice and beans every day wasn’t in my plans for Costa Rica, but every time I eat dinner, it is an opportunity to speak to my host mom in Spanish. This method can be applied to causal travelers as well. If your intention is to relax and find an escape, then restrictions on the food you are able to bring into the beach or the forest does not matter because the view is so worth it. Minor inconveniences are less bothersome and following the guidelines do not seem so challenging. There are viewed as stepping stones to reaching your ultimate goal.
In addition to creating solid intentions, there needs to be an awareness and appreciation of the country. Research is extremely important when it comes to visiting a new place. By research, I do not mean looking up the top 10 restaurants near the hotel you are staying at. Extensive research on the political, economic, and environmental climate is necessary before traveling. This could be as simple as reading three news articles a day about the country, or it could also be as extensive as researching the complete history of the country. To be honest, I wish I had done more research. Through this awareness, you begin to form an appreciation for the country you visit. This knowledge will allow you to have a deeper understanding of the social interactions you have and the attitudes of other people. You will become less careless and more careful about your actions.
When traveling it is essential to be aware of your actions and focus on your intentions.