By Jack Suntrup
TAMARINDO, Costa Rica — In the middle of Costa Rica’s dry season, water bubbled from fountains in front of hotels as the sun blazed down on a bustling strip of souvenir shops.
“A dream hotel is very, very green,” Marie-Cécile Béal said Friday afternoon (January 14, 2014) in her Playa Potrero home. “(But) we live in a desert.”
To be sure, the hotels along the Guanacaste coast in northwestern Costa Rica aren’t necessarily in a desert, but arid conditions, especially in the dry season, are causing some local people to take notice of water supplies. Development of any kind has come under the watchful eye of residents concerned about the area’s natural resources.
A hotel boom has brought in tourists who use twice the amount of water that the local population does, and in luxury hotels, that number could be even higher, according to Béal and her husband, James Siu Arriola, co-founders of the Instituto de Oceanología.
The institute has been working to reduce development on what’s left of the local beaches and to increase conservation using methods such as legal action and beach cleaning.
Béal said that although hotels appear interested in working with local citizens concerned about the water supply, they have done little to change their operations.
Still, some hotels prominently display environmental certifications.
The Costa Rican government has experimented with the Blue Flag program, which is supposed to incentivize conservation.
To earn a flag, businesses and communities must present goals at the beginning of the year concerning water use, electric use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2012, water use decreased by 112,920 cubic meters in areas that joined the program, according to the Blue Flag Commission.
The program also sets clean beach standards.
The Blue Flag program aims to expand with logistical support and funding for specific projects, such as cleaning the heavily polluted Virilla-Tárcoles river basin, according to the Tico Times.
Trade associations such as chambers of commerce have also started awarding sustainability certificates.
Béal and Siu argue that the certificates are too little, too late for resorts already built on sensitive land.
The benchmarks, too, can be weak, meant more for marketing than to make a project actually “sustainable.”
There has been documented discharge of sewage into the Pacific Ocean by hotels, commercial businesses and homes. The Center for Responsible Travel cited carelessness, leakage from septic tanks, and direct and illegal dumping of sewage into the ocean in its 2010 report.
In some cases, environmental controls appear to be getting tighter. The government has yanked Blue Flag certifications from resorts that continued discharge into the ocean.
According to the responsible travel center’s report, 80 percent of businesses near the Guanacaste coast were found to be in compliance with government regulations in 2008.
Béal said the land is best left alone, whether developments have branded themselves sustainable or not.
But not all tourism and development is bad, she said.
Béal said she hopes visitors will take home lessons of conservation and the importance of the environment, and maybe even pitch in while they’re in the country.
“There are some kinds of tourism that give back to the community,” Béal said. “This is the kind of tourism that we want to promote as an organization.”