From a tiny platform 110 feet up an enormous stinking-toe tree, I had a monkey's-eye view of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. The rain forest was coming back to life after a sudden and violent tropical downpour. Puffs of water vapor hovered above the broccoli-green canopy. Close to my perch, a pair of slightly damp toucans were oiling and rearranging their feathers. And just to my left, at eye level, a troop of capuchin monkeys was traveling through the treetops in uncanny silence, the young clinging to the fur on their mothers' backs.
This jungle vision was so enchanting that I forgot I was completely wet, and I almost forgot that I'd have to descend the tree the same way I'd come up: a nerve-jangling journey in a tiny bosun's chair attached to a pulley. The whole experience seemed to me the epitome of ecotourism—a gentle and conscientious trespass into another world.
Ecotourism is big business: it's one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry, and ecotours have established themselves as a classic element of the modern itinerary. Being hoisted aloft to view the canopy of a rain forest, watching green turtles waddle up a Caribbean beach to lay their clutch of eggs, enjoying the space and silence of wildernesses that are beyond the reach of more cosseted travelers: these are as much a part of travel today as snapping on a pair of skis or gliding in a gondola through the canals of Venice.
But ecotourism is not just big business—it's also a Big Idea, one that has been touted for ends as various as developing the economies of poor countries, spreading the gospel of sustainable development, curing the environmental devastation that can result from conventional tourism, and safeguarding the world's endangered habitats. The ambitious claims made for ecotourism stretch credulity: If ecotourists are bridging cultural divides, saving the planet, and eliminating poverty on their vacations, what superhuman feats are they performing when they're at work?
After 72 hours in Costa Rica, I still wasn't sure if I'd even seen an ecotourist. I'd spotted several toucans; a sloth cleaning its armpit with long, yellow, Howard Hughes-like toenails; a black tayra (a member of the weasel family) slinking through the jungle; a red-eyed tree frog suspended in a pool of water like an embarrassed skinny-dipper; so many scarlet macaws that I'd stopped counting; and capuchin, mantled howler, and squirrel monkeys. But no ecotourists—or none I could be certain about.
I'd caught tantalizing glimpses of distinctive ecotourist plumage: a flash of khaki shorts, a dollop of sun block on a prominent beak, the characteristic tread marks of stout walking shoes. In Manuel Antonio National Park I saw a man wearing an Indiana Jones hat. His camera was attached to two feet of telephoto lens. Was he taking nothing but photos and leaving nothing but footprints?It sure looked that way. But unless I followed him back to his hotel, I would never know whether he was staying at an environmentally friendly ecolodge with composting toilets or a foreign-owned mega-resort where he had just spent six days gambling, snubbing the locals, and amassing a sizable collection of endangered birds' eggs.
The International Ecotourism Society has defined ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." This sounds like a simple enough definition, but teasing out all its nuances can seem as hard a job as untangling the hair in that sloth's armpit. For a would-be ecotourist like me, it's difficult to know where to start. There's now talk of a certification system that would gauge the greenness of hotels and tour operators around the world, allowing travelers to make informed decisions about where to stay and whom to go with. But it will be a long time before such a plan gains global acceptance.
So I'd come to Costa Rica to try to see ecotourism in the flesh. This small Central American country is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet: for example, it contains more species of butterfly than the entire continent of Africa. More than a quarter of Costa Rica is protected land. In 1993 tourism overtook the export of coffee and bananas as its biggest earner of foreign currency. I looked upon my trip as a visit to the greenhouse of ecotourism, to see some of its thoroughbreds, its hybrids, and its more frightening mutations. I found that the varieties of ecotourism in Costa Rica are almost as diverse as the country's butterflies: they come in all shades of green. But at its best, ecotourism comes close to fulfilling some of those lofty claims made for it.