Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sustainable Tourism

I recently visited Costa Rica and Panama, which are in Central America—all right, correction, Panamanians feel more a part of the Caribbean region. I know that. In any case, both countries enjoy innumerable resources for attracting tourists and keeping them happy. However, Costa Rica is on the road to losing its national identity. Its economy can no longer sustain the cheap prices that once made the country a paradise, and it is alienating its citizens by pushing them into ghettoized areas where tourism is not rampant. Now, Costa Rica is not cheap for either the locals or the tourists. Its precious ecological resources are being exploited with few restrictions and without sensible policies to ensure the balance between economic development and environmental sustainability that had earned pacific Costa Rica its reputation as the Switzerland of Central America.

If you visited Costa Rica more than five years ago, you would be shocked by the current decline of a nation that was almost as exotic and virginal as the Amazon could be. Today, the country is almost another American state. The day tourists stop thinking of CR as cool and fun—as they have stopped thinking of Cancun as fun—it could become like Detroit has become since the car industry evaporated. Devastating! The Costa Rican economy would be in tatters, unemployment and social insecurity would destroy the nation, and major economic adjustments would be needed. Devaluation would be necessary, and its external debt would increase at least ten fold. This is an exaggeration, you might say, but keep one thing in mind: tourists are always looking for a place where they can avoid other tourists. This is ironic, but true. Currently, many Ticos complain that they cannot afford the market prices that have resulted from the massive influx of tourists. Crime is on the rise in Costa Rica, and the infrastructure is in decay—especially the transportation system. Ticos generally blame tourists for the rise in their cost of living.

On my way to Panama I couldn’t help noticing how polluted Puerto Viejo was. This Caribbean beach town on the Costa Rican side of the border has been “invaded” by U.S. Marines, prostitution and drugs are everywhere, and one gets a generally unsavory and unpleasant feeling while strolling through the town. Some people might differ with this assessment, but that would probably be because those people were either wasted to the point of not remembering anything or because they got laid as a token of Tico hospitality and are now biased.

Costa Rica must begin immediately to address the issues that are damaging its precious environment and threatening its economy. And please do not confuse sustainable tourism with ecotourism, which Costa Rica promotes assiduously—and rightly so. These are two entirely different things.

By contrast, I found Panama invigorating, charming, and very pleasant overall. Plus, Panamanians are much friendlier and eager to be hospitable. Panama has adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency, but the cost of living is relatively cheap. Some things are expensive in Panama, like anywhere else, yet you can buy a beer for 50 cents and dine very well for $2.50. The Panamanian economy is relatively well insulated against currency fluctuations—or at least so one hopes! Switching from the dollar to the balboa would not cause massive chaos. Further, through a UNESCO program, Casco Viejo (old town) is being restored to its original splendor. In addition to promoting private enterprise, this project enables virtually anyone to buy property in the old city and provides free advice on how to build or maintain the French and Spanish colonial architecture. The beautification and restoration of Casco Viejo goes on in parallel with high-rise construction in the financial district à la Miami.

While in Panama, I had the great pleasure of meeting fantastic and brilliant people—one Australian, a lovely Seattleite, and a Californian—all of whom were, like me, backpacking in the region. Although we might have had different social, economic, and political perspectives, the most important thing was what we had in common: concern for people, the environment, our futures. And we all disapproved of the malaise that affects us all thanks to bad public policies and the consequences of capitalism in its most hardcore form. You might say, “Hello? Did you need to travel miles away to find that out?” But this is the funny thing: when you live, eat, and pretty much breathe politics in Washington, DC, that innocence, idealism, or even naiveté that once was within you can be transformed by obsession, ambition, and cynicism. And so, I dedicate this post to Chrissy Shimizu, Collin Smith, and Daniel Lonard. Thanks for the good times, guys!

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