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The New Costa Rica

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Launch Slideshow
Photo: Amanda Pratt

Harmony provided an alternative to traditional bare-bones ecotourism, one that took into account the growing market for upscale travel to Costa Rica: it was a vision of what might please both environmentalists and developers. I spent a blissful day exploring the sandy beach and walking the forested dirt roads that pass through two-shack roadside towns where locals gather for barbecues. At night, I ate locally caught red snapper in Harmony’s restaurant. (Here, aside from the banana and coffee paper on which the menus were printed, there were no obvious signs of environmental sacrifice.) I could have lingered much longer but one last appointment remained in San José: my meeting with the president.

Costa rica’s tourism industry today attracts 1.7 million visitors to the country every year. As my cab approached the presidential office building, I had narrowed it down to this or unendurable boredom as the only possible explanations why President Arias had agreed to meet with me. I was ushered inside and after I’d waited a short while on a yellow leather couch, Arias appeared, wearing a gray suit and sporting a silver mane. His diminutive stature and drooping eyes gave him the appearance of a man ready for a nap. He led me into a wood-paneled chamber, where we sat down. Soon we were engaged in a discussion about his plans for Costa Rica, which include attempting to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. That ambitious goal will be part of his Peace with Nature initiative, a regulatory conservation agreement like the Kyoto treaty for which he plans to seek international standards and signatories. "In a year or two, I want to launch it in New York, at the UN," he said.

Arias is also unapologetically pro– big business. He has staked his legacy on his controversial support of cafta, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. But while some activists feel otherwise, Arias does not see this policy as being at odds with environmentalism or promotion of ecotourism. "These are challenges," he told me, raising a finger in the air. "Ecotourism is a balance between cement, bricks, iron, and ecology." Maybe it really is that simple, I thought, as we stood and shook hands. Then again, maybe he has never been peed on by a howler monkey.

Julian Rubinstein is the author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber.

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