Tourism is the largest industry in the world, with over 32 million flights carrying 1.2 billion people annually. In light of climate change, the industry must strive for sustainability. My research explored ecotourism, which attempts to minimize tourism's negative ecological, social, and economic impacts and encourage sustainable development. I assessed the parameters and implementation of Costa Rica's Certificación para la Sostenibilidad Turística (CST), and hoped to observe the CST first-hand. However, the goals of my project had to remain flexible throughout the summer due to the evolving conditions of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Despite this, I collaborated with the Institute of Central American Development Studies to develop a convenience sample and interview stakeholders remotely. My research questions were assessed through a mixed-methods approach. I spoke with employees at a rural, ecotourism company; an ecotourism transport provider; an ecotour guide at a family-owned agroforestry farm; and ICT program auditors for the CST. The way data is analyzed is a subjective and iterative process, and I aimed to use the information from local interviewees to form the basis of my conclusions. Analysis was completed using theoretical frameworks from sustainability and certification studies. I found that from the perspectives of CST auditors, certification functions as a benchmark of the country’s path and progress for sustainable development. However, ecotourism operators expressed mixed results on the effectiveness, attainment, and benefits of the CST, confirming findings from my literature review regarding common barriers to certification. The themes that emerged in the process revealed a complex set of decision-making processes and sustainability philosophies that underlie the development of ecotourism policy in Costa Rica.
Ultimately, the CST helps expand our understanding of how tourism regulations can develop responsibility and accountability through certification systems while implementing principles of sustainable development. The ICT is working to grow its model for certifying sustainable ecotourism on an international scale, addressing the need to reduce environmental degradation while increasing wealth in developing societies.