Article by Hannah Noyes, TTS25 Alumna
Tourism in Central America is growing. Over 3.2 million people visited Panama in 2012 and travel and tourism contributed over two billion to the local economy. Costa Rica has one million visitors annually, bringing in one billion a year and making tourism its second largest source of income. Communities are receiving the benefits and the detriments of this growth and in some cases are becoming dependent on tourism for survival. Do the positives outweigh the negatives?
What can be done to raise awareness of the impact that travelers have on Central America and its communities?
Tourism dollars are an importantly growing source of income for Latin American communities. Playa Gigante, a small town on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, has undergone changes as a result of the increase in tourism. Project WOO (Wave Of Optimism) is an organization stationed there that connects its participants with the community through volunteer work and home-stays while they surf the waves. The home stays are a crucial part of Project WOO and host-moms say that tourism is of great importance to their community. “There are no negatives, only positives,” said one host-mother. Visitors bring more visitors who in return bring opportunities for work and money. The mothers added that WOO has benefitted their families by starting a clinic, strengthening the school and providing a school bus. Playa Gigante appeals to a wide variety of travelers while other Central American countries, such as Panama, have different ways of pulling in visitors. In Panama, the canal brings in a steady flow of tourists and Carlos Hovsepian, a receptionist at a hostel in Panama City, said that the tourists support hostels and hotels. “Without tourists I do not think Panama will be as great as it is.”
There are some destructive aspects of tourism that go along with the positives. Sarah Gomez, manager of a hotel in Costa Rica, said that in bigger tourist areas there are drugs and prostitution. In some cases, the local people will become involved and start to use. Other concerns include visitor overcapacity and a decline in the management and enforcement of protected parks. In addition, Costa Rica and other Central American countries are experiencing the mounting issue of pollution. The influx of people in Panama City has caused it to expand with construction and cars being the biggest contributors to the contamination of the environment.
Thankfully, steps are being taken to get visitors involved and to make Central American countries more eco-friendly.
In order to prevent people from having a passive experience in Playa Gigante, Project WOO puts its efforts towards making sure its participants are connected with the community. WOO gets its visitors involved, helping them see and understand both sides of volunteer work (“helping” and being in a partnership). To avoid becoming an overbearing force WOO is doing what it can to make the community members a part of the program so that one day they can sustain it. Their ideals allow the community to be a part of the changes in their town and give its visitors a chance to participate. Sarah Gomez works at a hotel that is part of a program in Costa Rica that helps hotels become sustainable. The practices of this program are found in Nicaragua and Panama as well. Guests are encouraged to be flexible and eco-friendly by limiting the use of air conditioning and re-using towels. Compost and recycling have been started in some establishments to further eliminate damage to the environment.
Tourism in Central America can be a positive experience for the tourist, the local people and the environment. As a tourist, it is important to keep the requests of the hostels and hotels in mind, and to reduce your environmental impact by respecting the goals of these businesses.
Be curious, talk to people and learn from them.
Listen to different perspectives on how mass amounts of visitors are changing Central America. It is up to those who are able to travel to be mindful and respectful in these countries, so keep your interests peaked.
Challenge yourself to be a conscientious traveler so that the damage can be limited and the positives can outweigh the negatives.
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“Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints and Waste Nothing but Time”” TED Case Study Template. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2015.