UPALA, Costa Rica – Ecotourism is the answer that Latin America needs to drive the development of its rural populations: the biodiversity of those areas plus their culture and local gastronomy can add up to a vastly improved local income.
The expert in environmental architecture, ecotourism and sustainable planning, Mexico’s Hector Ceballos, told EFE that Latin America altogether has the greatest biodiversity on the planet.
On the other hand, its social inequality is one of its greatest obstacles, which makes it necessary to work with sustainable policies to achieve development.
“It’s odd that the poorest areas have the greatest biological riches, but that is the contradiction we live with here. In our region there is poverty and vast inequality, but ecotourism can help if we manage to preserve the natural environment and provide sustainable development for all the communities in the country,” Ceballos said.
In recent years Costa Rica has worked on training various rural communities to be ready to receive local and foreign tourists, so visitors get to know what genuine people its locals are and what enjoyable vacation options they offer.
An example of that is the Juanilama Agroecological Association in the northern town of Pocosol in the canton of San Carlos. The community is made up of 525 people, including 25 families dedicated to rural community tourism, with mostly the housewives involved.
With government institutions and volunteers supporting their own efforts, they have created different activities for tourists like hikes along paths where they can observe the flora and fauna and which end at a waterfall, construction of a nursery for growing fruit trees, a tour of local farming activities, and classes of traditional cooking, dancing and artisanal soap-making.
“Rural community tourism is a way for us housewives not to have to leave home and go work somewhere else, but rather we can take advantage of our local area. The government started helping us and we began to work together. We have land and we work on it. Here, for example, we can offer the tourist a farming tour and show how we harvest the land,” one of the program coordinators, Yamilet Soto, told EFE.
The farm woman said that ecotourism “benefits the family and the community,” since they don’t have to go to the supermarket to buy pineapples, pepper, plantains, bananas, meat, eggs, peas or beans, because they grow their own.
“We also help schools, colleges and the development association...we teach our kids to be nice to nature, that what we do, we do it with love, and that by making use of the most minimal spaces we can get ahead. This project on my land has allowed my kids to go to university,” Soto said.
The project kicked off almost 20 years ago. The locals began receiving eight people a year, while in 2018 a total of 2,300 tourists came to their town, which motivated everyone to keep working and improving their offer.
“Everything we do here has given us work and that has kept people of this community from going to look for work in urban areas, but rather they stay here and offer different services for tourists. Here in Juanilama we’re the real thing, we’re farm hands and we’re proud of it,” Sandra Molina said.
Ecotourism may be summed up as environmentally responsible touristic planning, which lets people enjoy natural, cultural and gastronomic beauties.
Ceballos was in Costa Rica for the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People and Peace, the only event of this kind the country offers the world in terms of sustainable tourism.