The Darker Side: Reflections on Tourism in Costa Rica
Hasini Shyamsundar (SFS ‘22) is a guest writer for the Caravel's travel edition. The content and opinions of this piece are hers and hers alone. They do not reflect the opinions of the Caravel or its staff.
Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Costa Rica. However, while the country is known for its ethical tourism model, which aims to promote human rights and preserve the environment, the image of flashy wildlife and adventure tourism masks some of the issues from tourism that no country seems able to evade.
One of the first things I noticed about the hotel was how young all the workers were. Most in their late 20s or early 30s, they’d greet me with a welcoming “Hola” each time they walked by. It wasn’t until my middle-aged Nicaraguan shuttle driver shared with us his own experiences working at a hotel that I realized the age homogeneity of the staff was more than just the result of coincidence. “They fired me after I became too old,” he said. “And they paid me less than they paid the locals.”
Tourism is a boon for a nation’s economy. That is undeniable. But, it comes with costs. Beyond the potential ageism and discrimination against foreign, non-Costa Rican workers, the tourism industry as a whole creates a divide between the reality of the country and the facade that it carefully curates for the millions of tourists that visit it each year. Each tour is meticulously packaged with the most intriguing elements of Costa Rica’s ecology and culture—hikes through volcanic craters, trips to small sugar farms, adventures in waterfalls, and nightlife along pristine beaches.
The hotel where my family stayed was practically its own little city. With dozens of restaurants, activities, and a mini market for daily necessities, there were numerous families that arrived at the hotel and never left during their entire stay. It left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Costa Rica, with a history and culture as rich as any other Latin American country, deserved more than for tourists to claim to have seen it after taking a dip in a hotel pool and a stroll along a private beach. While the local economy won’t complain, I feel there is a great personal loss associated with visiting a country and doing nothing to learn about it outside the confines of a resort.
While tourism has been a great help to the Costa Rican economy, inequality persists, especially for those unable to break into the industry. On the way to a guided wildlife tour, we passed by numerous sugar plantations all owned by a single family. “They take workers from Nicaragua and make them work for the whole day in the sun,” our tour guide mentioned in passing before returning to an animated conversation with the van driver. The uneasy feeling returned as I was reminded of the numerous farms in my home state of California that employ underpaid undocumented immigrants to increase profits.
At this point, I honestly can’t tell if my unease is warranted. While I personally enjoy breaking out of the bubble created for tourists by the tourism industry, it is not my place to judge others that don’t. And, while I feel for migrant workers both inside and outside the industry, I don’t know what alternatives there might be. Despite this underlying sentiment, I did enjoy myself this winter in Costa Rica. I enjoyed learning about monkeys whose laziness my tour guide attributed to vegetarianism. I enjoyed walking through the bustling streets of Tamarindo and eating local food. And, I enjoyed speaking to the service workers, whose first question to our group was often "does anyone here speak Spanish?" I enjoyed myself because Costa Rica is a beautiful country with so much to share.
But, the question persists, and I sometimes still ask myself: at what cost?