Carlos Lizama, ACOPROT president (left) and Carlos Benavides Jimenez, the Costa Rica minister of tourism at an EXPOTUR press conference. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
At this year’s annual Expotur 2010 travel and tourism conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, tourism officials reiterated their commitment to promoting and delivering sustainable travel and addressed the potential for tourism growth in Costa Rica. This year’s theme — Creating the Perfect Business Climate — was appropriate, as the Costa Rica Association of Professionals in Tourism (ACOPROT) hosted hundreds of travel companies and industry professionals from May 20-21 in San Jose, Costa Rica. This year’s sponsors included Continental’s Copa Airlines, the Britt Coffee Tour, Marriott Hotels & Resorts and Hilton Worldwide.
The night before the annual trade show, now in its 26th year, opened on May 20, tourism and government officials gathered at the Museo de Los Ninos (Children’s Museum) in San Jose for the official inaugural ceremony. Delivering the keynote address was Alfio Piva, the first vice president of Costa Rica under the newly elected Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first female president who was sworn in on May 8.
In Piva’s speech, he said that, “The secret of Costa Rica’s tourism industry is the industry’s commitment to sustainability and conservation … Sustainable tourism is not just for naturalists; it is for everyone.”
For a number of years, Costa Rica has built its tourism reputation on sustainable travel at a time when many other destinations have only recently begun to promote eco-friendly travel practices and options.
The Certification for Sustainable Tourism Program
In 1999, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), or Costa Rica Tourism Board, created the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) Program. This program, which is somewhat similar to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), ranks applying hotels on the degree to which they comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management.
In the 10 years since its launch, the program has continued to grow and to gain international recognition. Today, tourism officials were quick to point out that programs such as the CST were not only good for the planet but also good for the economy and business.
“It’s a program that has been commended internationally, and we’ve shared it with other countries, too,” said Carlos Lizama, president of ACOPROT. “Sustainability is a responsibility for those of us living on this planet. We need to understand that this is the main reason but it’s also convenient from the economic point of view to know that there are more groups and more demanding tourists who only want to stay in sustainable hotels. Being sustainable is good but is also has to be a good business.”
Sustainability for All
Although Lizama and other tourism officials touted the success of the CST program, they also noted that there was room for overall improvement in the country’s plans for making all of the destination’s tourism as sustainable as possible.
“Sustainability is a permanent challenge,” said Carlos Benavides Jimenez, the Costa Rica minister of tourism. “The challenges and threats to [100 percent sustainable tourism] are business practices more so than policy. Sustainability is seen and respected here. The problems are with implementations and how to promote wealth for citizens and opportunities.”
Benavides Jimenez also said that he viewed eco-friendly tourism as something that can — and should — be applied on an industry-wide scale, and not just limited to smaller businesses or travel niches.
“Sustainability doesn’t only have to be thought of on a small scale,” he said. “We’ve developed standards that are applicable to the industry everywhere … to be as universal as possible is the biggest challenge.”
Looking ahead, Benavides Jimenez said that the ICT was looking to extend its popular CST program to other travel-related organizations such as car rental companies and tour operators and the expansion of its Blue Flag program to natural areas, which currently awards blue flags to beach areas that promote and maintain high water quality and low water consumption.
More Hotels, More Growth
Although Costa Rica, as with many other travel destinations worldwide, has had to grapple with the current global economic crisis, Benavides Jimenez said that more hotel and visitor growth was also a major objective for the ICT.
“Demand is lower now but we know that in the next few years there should be at least 5,000 to 6,000 more rooms,” he said.
Looking at tourism figures for 2009, he said that the U.S. and Canada are still the country’s strongest markets; 60 percent of income collected from air transportation into Costa Rica comes from the U.S. and Canada.