When you travel, one of the easiest and most meaningful things you can do is meet the locals. To the best of your ability – no matter what the language barriers – strike up a conversation. Find out their story, their culture, their way of life.
During our last trip to Costa Rica to film our debut documentary, called 2.5%, we befriended several of the locals and talked to them about how tourism has affected their lives. Tourism is a US$2-billion-per-year industry and employs 13 percent of the nation’s population; nearly every Tico (as Costa Ricans like to call themselves) is directly or indirectly impacted by this industry.
Didier Acevedo, a tour guide based in Guanacaste, spoke to us about some of the effects of the tourism industry in Tamarindo, a famous beach that is one of the country’s most popular tourist cities. Though tourism has undoubtedly brought many economic benefits, Acevedo spoke also of an increase in drugs and prostitution, escalating land prices, as well as not being able to afford eating in local restaurants.
Despite some of these negative effects, the Ticos are a resilient and happy people who often find ways to help each other out. We met Cesar Carmona, an empanada vendor based near the Liberia International Airport in Guanacaste. Carmona sells affordable, clean food for local workers – including tour guides and drivers – who cannot afford to eat in the airport.
When we traveled to the Osa Peninsula, home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity and the last standing virgin rainforest in the area, we were struck by how different the tourism scene was there. A quieter, off-the-beaten path region of the country, the Osa is known for its ecotourism, where the airlines and ecolodges work with the local community to reduce the impact to the environment.
That said, recent talks of a new international airport and cruise ship terminal near the Osa Peninsula have raised alarm as to whether mass tourism will threaten the fragile ecosystem and undermine ecotourism efforts in the area. As Marco Hidalgo, Executive Director of the Fundación Neotrópica – a non-profit dedicated to conserving the Osa – told us, “We don’t want to be another Guanacaste.”
We all can play a part in protecting the places we cherish. Conscious travel – travel that is local, sustainable and responsible – simply requires us to open our senses and make a concerted effort to connect with the destinations we visit. Appreciate the environment, the heritage, the culture, and most of all the people. Not only will you learn a lot from them, but you’ll also gain incredible insights about yourself.