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It's Not Easy Being Green

THE MATERIAL CHANGES HAVE PUT ADDITIONAL STRAIN on the environments visited. Even so, despite some quibbles—in particular that not enough tourist revenue remains in local hands—Tortuguero is widely cited as an ecotourism success story. For the time being, the town appears to be balancing the needs of the visitors with those of the community and the fragility of its beautiful setting. Other parts of the country have been less successful. Manuel Antonio National Park, on the country's Pacific coast, remains breathtakingly lovely—its rain forest abuts a sandy beach and blue bay. But around it there are symptoms of overdevelopment: garish neon signs line the road; hotels are being built for visitors who want to explore nature but wouldn't dream of putting up with the austerity of strict ecotourism. The best hotels find creative ways to stick to their green roots. With Hotel Sí Como No, Jim Damalas has built something that compromises neither the environment nor vacationers' expectation of luxury. Waste is biodigested, water heated with solar power, and the structure itself set so gently in a patch of secondary forest that only one tree had to be cut down during construction.

To explore the palest end of the green spectrum, I stayed at the ecotourists' bête noire: the Barcelo Playa Tambor, Costa Rica's largest resort, on the Península de Nicoya. Environmentalists opposed the building of this enormous 402-room hotel, which is virtually indistinguishable from other resort hotels around the world. Although it offers nature tours among more conventional activities, the manager, a friendly Spaniard named Antonio Mas, told me he is under no illusions that his hotel is ecotouristic. He added that the only protests he hears now are about the caged macaws on the hotel grounds. They had once been allowed to fly freely, but too many got sick from being fed tidbits from the all-inclusive buffet. The spectacle of scarlet macaws keeling over from a surfeit of pizza and caramelized banana sounds like an ecotourist's bad dream. The birds are now locked up for their health's sake—giving new meaning to the expression "protected species."

At the other extreme is the Corcovado Lodge—a tent camp on the edge of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula that advertises with the catchy slogan: "All the comforts of home, if your bedroom is a 100-square-foot tent and you have to go outside and walk 20 yards to the bathroom." I loved the solitude and the spectacular collision of ocean and rain forest. After my chairlift to the treetops, I lay in a hammock and listened to the surf pounding the shore. In the evening I had a beer in the palm-thatched bar. When the electricity went off around 10, there was a sudden whir of furry wings as an entire rain forest's-worth of insects gathered around my flashlight.

Whether future developments follow the Corcovado route, trading luxury for space and serenity, or end up resembling Barcelo Playa Tambor, largely depends on the consumer. Visitors to the country are effectively voting with their wallets on the direction they want ecotourism to take. Responsible operators like Horizontes and Costa Rica Expeditions, the country's oldest and biggest ecotour companies, try to ensure that hotels and ecolodges maintain environmental standards, that a fair proportion of the income they generate finds its way back into the local economy, and that the natural beauty that entices people to Costa Rica in the first place is not put in jeopardy.

But in the end, the most well-intentioned operators will have to consider their customers' priorities. And even in Costa Rica, the true ecotourist can be an elusive animal.

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