January 4, 2012 / By Julie Ivker Dubin

The Complexities of Conservation and Ecotourism

I just had the opportunity to return to the town of Tortuguero in Costa Rica after a break of nearly 12 years. It was an interesting visit for me. I have studied, promoted and actively participated in the field of ecotourism for the last 20 years. It is something I am very passionate about as a way to encourage sustainable development – as a way to meet the needs of people today and in the future while at the same time providing an incentive to conserve natural resources. Tortuguero is generally considered an ecotourism success story.

Tortuguero town is built on a narrow strip of land adjacent to a pivotal nesting beach for various species of sea turtles. Not so many years ago, people in Tortuguero depended on the turtles as an important food source – both the eggs and the turtles themselves. Once the international community became aware of the importance of the beach for turtles, community members were under pressure to change their lifestyles away from turtle consumption and toward turtle conservation. It took time to shift perception, but eventually it worked. People who used to consume or sell turtles or their eggs now benefit from protecting them. The income for many community members now comes either directly or indirectly from the ecotourist industry that is centered around turtle “watching.” This income is more sustainable in terms of community members being able to count on it as well as sustainable environmentally.

From the perspective of the turtles, this plan has worked! The beach is now protected and activities related to interacting with turtles is highly regulated. It is a safe nesting beach. SUCCESS! This is a relatively clear and easy thing to measure.

From the perspective of the people living there, it’s a little less clear and less easy to measure. On one hand, there is a new medical clinic, electricity, better access to nearby large towns for supplies and other necessities. The school is bigger and appears to have more resources. The standard of living has clearly increased for many people in town. The positive changes that have occurred over the last 12 years were obvious to me. But as happens so often with development, especially through tourism, other unintended problems may arise. Unequal distribution of wealth, environmental impacts (separate from the protected beach area), large unplanned population growth in a small area, sharp increases in consumption of natural resources, more waste and increased social problems were also all obvious to me.

I was left questioning whether I would actually consider the Tortuguero story an ecotourism success story. I was reminded that a community and its local environment are part of a dynamic system and that there is push and pull between all parts of this system. You can’t make major changes in one part of the system without affecting all other parts. And success in one area of the conservation story (turtles) does not necessarily mean there is success in all of the others (community). It is impossible for me to say as a casual observer on a short visit to Tortuguero whether this is story of ecotourism success or not. I think it’s a wonderful place to visit to consider these questions and examine the complexities of REAL conservation challenges.