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Sustainable, wild, beautiful, and happy

Article - September 13, 2011
Ranked among the world’s happiest nations, Costa Rica is a breeding ground for an incredible wealth of flora and fauna, and is about as close to paradise as it gets
Few countries in the world can boast such a desirable status as a tourist destination as Costa Rica can. Who hasn’t heard of the rainforests here or of the awesome surfing beaches? And what about the curious monkeys, lazy iguanas, and brilliant blue butterflies? Even the ubiquitous ‘tico’ (Costa Rican) expression ‘Pura Vida’ or the logo of Imperial, the national beer, can be spotted on T-shirts back in the States.

Yet, what is it that has set Costa Rica apart from other tropical countries? Could it be the fact that it’s a stable democracy with no standing army? Perhaps it’s because of its proximity to the U.S.? Or maybe it has something to do with the combination of successful marketing of a fantastic product and the savvy foresight the government had to promote sustainable tourism before it was all the rage elsewhere in the world.

 With unparalleled flora and fauna despite its itty-bitty size (Costa Rica, smaller than West Virginia, is home to 5% of all the bio-diversity in the world), some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, and a tourism sector dominated by small and medium businesses, the Central American nation is a dream-come-true for environmentally conscious travelers and lovers of nature. More than a quarter of the national territory belongs to national parks, biologic reserves, and wild life refuges. The National Parks System was founded 40 years ago and the concept of sustainable tourism was already well-defined and implemented by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute’s (ICT) Sustainable Tourism Certification Program (CST) by the turn of the millennium.

According to CST, “the development of sustainable tourism must be seen as the balanced interaction between the use of our natural and cultural resources, the improvement of the quality of life among the local communities, and the economic success of the industry, which also contributes to national development. Sustainable tourism is not only a response to demand, but also an imperative condition to successfully compete now and in the future.“

Companies that apply for CST certification can use the CST label as a key sales point in their promotions and can participate for free or for reduced rates in international fairs.

Thanks to initiatives such as this, the ICT is not only ensuring a high quality offering, it’s also strengthening the tourism sector, the industry that most contributes to the country’s social and economic development.

Today, Costa Rica is considered a pioneer in ecotourism – the ICT now works with neighboring nations to help them apply the tried and tested model of sustainability – and over the years has successfully evolved this sector, specializing in and offering a widespread level of responsible tourism unavailable elsewhere as yet. This translates directly into higher quality of life for residents and a surefire magnet for tourists. Indeed, Costa Rica is ranked first in the UK-based Happy Planet Index 2.0 and its two million annual visitors made it the most visited country in Central America. It also tops the list for tourism competitiveness for Latin America.

As if this weren’t enough, the 2010 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) compiled by Yale and Columbia universities ranked Costa Rica first in the Americas with a score of 86.4 and third worldwide, behind Iceland and Switzerland (in contrast, the U.S. received just 63.5, placing it 61st out of a total of 163 countries).

Many countries boast natural beauty and diversity, yet few have managed to pass legislation to protect it and spread the eco-ideology throughout society as well as Costa Rica has.