ECOTOURISM, SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, AND CONSERVATION EDUCATION:
DEVELOPMENT OF A TOUR GUIDE TRAINING PROGRAM
IN TORTUGUERO, COSTA RICA
by IQ 0
Susan K. Jacobson, Ph.D., Assistant Director
Program for Studies in Tropical Conservation
Department of Wildlife and Range Sciences, University of Florida
118 Newins-Ziegler Hall, Gainesville, FL 32611-0304 (Phone: 904-392-8372)
Rafael Robles, Biol.
Tortuguero Coordinator of Environmental Education, Ecotourism, and Extension
Caribbean Conservation Corporation
Apartado 6975-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica
The recent increase in the number of visitors to Tortuguero National Park's turtle nesting
beach may dramatically impact the thousands of sea turtles whose survival depends on this 35-km
stretch of Costa Rica's northwest coast. The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the Tortuguero
National Park, and the University of Florida are developing a tour guide training program to help
maximize the benefits of ecotourism to this rural area, while minimizing the environmental and
social costs. The goals of the program are to: (1) mitigate impacts of tourists on the nesting
turtles and on Tortuguero National Park's other resources, (2) provide environmental education to
an important segment of the local community not traditionally reached through school or
development projects, (3) provide environmental information to tourists, thus enhancing their
visit, and (4) provide local economic benefits.
In developing the course a survey of scientists and park managers was conducted to ascertain
resource management needs, priorities for information to be disseminated, and potential impacts
of tourism on the resource base. Current and potential tour guides were surveyed to identify
their information needs, solicit their input in the training program, and to determine their
baseline knowledge, attitudes and skills. Written questionnaires were developed and given to 400
tourists to determine their activities and environmental information needs, and hotel owners were
censused to examine the economic feasibility of a local guide program.
A pilot tour guide program indicated that all four goals can be achieved. Eight local tour
guides, with varying educational backgrounds, completed the pilot training program. They
demonstrated increased awareness of and concern for Tortuguero's natural resources. The pilot
program resulted in greater control of tourists on the turtle nesting beach and provided lucrative
part-time employment. An extended training course is being planned to provide further
environmental education programming and to increase year-round employment opportunities for
the tour guides.
Ecotourism, or natural history oriented tourism, is a growing phenomenon in developing
countries (e.g. Laarman and Durst 1987, Boo 1989), and has been identified as an important and
sustainable development initiative in Costa Rica (Hill 1990). Ceballos-Lascurain (1987) defined
ecotourism as "traveling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the
specific objectives of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and
animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these
areas...." Dependent on using natural resources in a relatively undeveloped state, ecotourism is
based on scenic vistas, wild rivers, pristine forests, and abundant wildlife, and necessitates the
high quality maintenance of these resources. Ecotourism represents a potentially nonconsumptive
use of natural resources that may generate substantial economic return, thus playing a role in the
sustainable management of resources, from rainforests to coral reefs, in Costa Rica and other
The positive and negative impacts of ecotourism economic, social, and ecological vary
considerably. In Costa Rica, the benefits of ecotourism have ranged from economic inputs into
rural communities, to the preservation of a cloud forest (Healy 1988, Hill 1990, Jacobson in
prep.). Tourism employs a relatively high number of people (for example, in Mexico an
investment in the tourism industry created three to five times the number of jobs that the same
investment in oil, mining, or energy industries would have created). Other benefits of the
tourism industry include: 1) the industry is growing (predicted to be the largest world industry
by the year 2000 (Beekhuis 1981), 2) the tourism market comes to the producer, 3) it may help
diversify economies (Pearce 1981), and 4) it can stimulate economic activity and growth in
isolated rural areas (e.g., Jacobson 1990, in press).
Negative aspects of the ecotourism industry are as plentiful as the potential benefits. For
example, tourism often provides an unstable source of income -- weather, politics, and exchange
rates can cause great fluctuations in tourist numbers; substantial leakages of income out of the
host countries often occur; investments for infrastructure may be high; and "success," in the form
of too many tourists, can destroy the industry. Furthermore, environmental impacts from
pollution, social impacts resulting in cultural deterioration, and so on, have been frequently noted
(see Mathieson and Wall 1982, for review). In spite of the potential negative impacts, many
regions or countries, such as Costa Rica, are eager to embrace ecotourism for the expected
foreign exchange earnings (Hill 1990). Additionally, ecotourism may provide benefits by
promoting the preservation of natural areas and environmental education, the focus of this
project in Costa Rica.
Boo (1989) found that 30% of surveyed Costa Rican tourists reported that natural history was
an important factor in deciding to visit Costa Rica. Over half of those surveyed had visited a
protected area, and many had visited several during their trip. Increased tourism to parks and
protected areas potentially could result in increased revenues, better protection, expanded
interpretive facilities, or even the establishment of new reserves. Expanded interpretive
programs in protected areas, in turn, can help foster more favorable attitudes towards protected
areas, promote natural resources conservation, educate school children, train resource managers,
and increase a park system's flow of benefits to the public by serving as an educational resource
(e.g., Dietz 1986, Fitter 1986, Jacobson 1987, Olson 1984, Sharpe 1982).
Yet, although Costa Rica is world renowned for its extensive and spectacular park system,
many of the parks lack the basic infrastructure, such as trained guides, environmental and
interpretive information, and visitor centers needed to support tourism. Opportunities to absorb
tourist dollars, to promote environmental education, or to provide employment for local
communities are missed. For example, Tortuguero National Park, in Costa Rica's northeast coast,
has experienced a rapid increase in visitors. Attracted by sport fishing, sea turtle nesting, and the
wild expanse of rivers, forests, and beaches, visitors have increased by 24-fold in the past
decade, and tourism was the primary industry in Tortuguero in the 1980's. Place (1988) found
that more than half the residents worked at least part-time in the tourist industry or with the
CCC Turtle Research Station. In 1989, Brown (in prep.) reported 39% of the respondents were
employed in tourism occupations and that 51% of their family members worked in tourism, for
the CCC, or for the park. Based on her research in 1986, Place (1988) noted the potential
benefits that might accrue from a local tour guide program. Local infrastructure development
had not kept pace with rising tourist numbers.
In 1990, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) expanded its role in Tortuguero
beyond the Green Turtle Research Station, where it had been supporting a 35-year turtle tagging
research and conservation project, to work in cooperation with the Tortuguero National Park
(TNP) and the University of Florida on the development of a training program for tour guides.
The goals of the program are to: (1) mitigate negative impacts of visitors on Tortuguero's natural
resources, particularly the endangered sea turtles that nest on the beach each year, (2) provide
conservation education to local residents, especially a group that was not reached through the
school system or through other development activities, (3) provide environmental information to
foreign and domestic visitors to Tortuguero, thus enhancing their visits, and (4) provide an
additional source of income for the local community.
Thus, the tour guide training program addresses four primary areas: (1) resource management
needs of the nesting turtles and other wildlife of TNP; (2) information needs of local tour guides
based on their interests, knowledge, and skills; (3) information needs of foreign and domestic
tourists, as well as their number of visits, group size, and activity patterns (as Boo (1989) notes,
this type of information is "non-existent in most cases," for visitors to Latin American parks); and
(4) information on the economic feasibility of a tour guide program, based on seasonality and
hotel capacity for tourists in Tortuguero.
Input into the development of the tour guide program was obtained from the groups affecting
and being affected by ecotourism and a potential guide program in Tortuguero (Fig. 1).
Participation by these groups -- residents, hotel owners, resource managers, and the tourist
themselves -- is essential for the long-term sustainability of the industry and the natural resource
base, in order to integrate economics with the conservation of Tortuguero's natural resources.
An understanding of the needs and interests of each of these groups provides the foundation for
the tour guide program.
Table I shows the information solicited from each group through the use of written and oral
questionnaires. These background surveys, conducted with each of the groups, helped to identify
priority subjects to be included in the tour guide training course, local and international
priorities, technical feasibility, ecological and economic sustainability, and cost effectiveness. An
evaluation of a pilot guide program targeting tourists visiting the turtle nesting beaches was
conducted in August, 1990. This helped determine to what extent the objectives of the tour
guide program could be achieved, and identified further training needs for Tortuguero guides.
Available data on the behavior of the nesting turtles also was assessed to determine the impacts of
tourists on this particular resource.
Tortuguero National Park
Located in northwest Costa Rica, Tortuguero, the "Turtle Region," was first chronicled as a
traditional nesting ground for sea turtles by the Dutch in 1592 (Boza & Mendoza 1981). During
this century, the exploitation of the turtles for their meat, calipee (used in making turtle soup),
eggs, oil, and in one species, shell, led to their decline or disappearance in other regions. In
1956, a University of Florida professor, Dr. Archie Carr, began a study of the green turtles
nesting in Tortuguero using a tagging program to determine "where the turtles came from and
where they were going" (Carr and Carr 1972), and later a hatchery program to try to release
young turtles to beaches where their populations had been extirpated. In 1959, Carr founded the
Brotherhood of the Green Turtle and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC). The
objectives of the CCC, a non-profit organization, were the study and conservation of sea turtles.
The organization helped initiate protection of the nesting turtles (between 5,700 to 23,000 each
year) at Tortuguero.
In 1970, Tortuguero National Park was established to protect the 35 km beach along its
boundary, the largest nesting site for green turtles in the western hemisphere. In 1975, the park
was expanded to include 18,950 ha of forest (classified as Tropical Wet Forest, Tosi 1969),
encompassing most of the Tortuguero basin watershed. In addition to the four species of marine
turtles that nest on its beaches, the park protects a variety of threatened and endangered species,
as well as over 55 species of fish in the lagoons, over 350 species of birds, and some 140 species
of mammals (Boza & Mendoza 1981). Much of the Park is inundated during part of the year; the
area receives an average of 5.8 m of rain annually (Myers 1981). An elaborate network of canals
and rivers cross the park. Their green swamp forests and purple hyacinth blossoms are a natural
Tortuguero is a small coastal village with a current population of approximately 300 people,
located near the north of the Tortuguero River and the Caribbean Sea (Lat. 100 37' N, Long. 830
33' W). Since the establishment of Tortuguero, the economy has been based on the exploitation
of natural resources. Originally the products of the green turtles (Chelonia mvdas) were
exploited, becoming a large-scale industry in 1912 when an 18-ton cargo boat came regularly
from Limon to catch the turtles. The current decrease in demand for turtles and stiffer
regulations have rendered turtling an insignificant part of the economy. Between 1940 and the
1960's, lumber became the primary industry. Tortuguero's population quadrupled when a saw
mill was built in town, and the first school and stores opened. By 1972, the sawmill closed,
leaving the town overpopulated and poor. Many people left Tortuguero and the population
declined by 2.2% between 1973-1984 (Place 1988).
The establishment of Tortuguero National Park in 1975 removed some natural resources, such
as wild animals for hunting and land for farming, from local access and exploitation. Several
recent studies have examined the relationship of the park to Tortuguero residents. For example,
Place (1988) asked heads of households she interviewed to compare their lives with their situation
a decade before. Eight families felt their diet was worse, 9 reported it was the same or better,
and 10 deferred answering. Ten of 21 families reported their quality of life was worse, primarily
because of inflation and unemployment, and 11 felt it was the same or better. Since there were
no control subjects, such as another community away from the park, the overall impact of the
park on the local community's attitudes and lifestyle, however, was unsubstantiated. In 1989,
Brown (in prep.) again surveyed Tortuguero's residents and found that 100% of the respondents
thought it was "good" that the park was protected. The vast majority recognized the value of the
park in providing direct employment, tourism development, and the conservation of nature.
Surveys were developed to address each of the four goals of a tour guide program and their
(1) Resource management needs of the nesting turtles and other wildlife in the region.
Questionnaires were developed and conducted orally with six Tortuguero National Park managers
and CCC scientists to ascertain potential impacts of tourism on the resource base, resource
management needs, and priorities for information to be disseminated to guides and tourists. Data
on turtle nesting behavior in relation to human activity was obtained from CCC scientists. The
tracks of turtles crawling up the beach serve as an index of their behavior. Researchers recorded
the number of tracks of turtles that return to the ocean without digging a nest, those that dig only
a partial nest, and those that nest completely, every night during the nesting season, thus
permitting turtle behavior relative to human activity to be compared. Park managers and
scientists also were asked to rank a variety of subjects for inclusion in a guide training program,
and their additional input was solicited.
(2) Information needs of tour guides.
Questionnaires for tour guides were developed and conducted orally for 18 of 20 existing and
potential Tortuguero tour guides; 9 employed by hotels and 9 self-employed or recently trained
guides working'in the community. They were surveyed to identify their information needs and
solicit their input in the training program. To determine their knowledge and skills, observations
of the community guides that had completed a pilot training program were made during each of
their tours, as part of an evaluation conducted one month after the implementation of the pilot
program. Observations were made of group activities on the beach, amount of activity, amount
of lights used, and patterns of groups and individuals.
(3) Information needs of foreign and domestic tourists.
A survey of tourists was developed as a written questionnaire and pre-tested by former tourists
to parks in Costa Rica, with additional input from CCC staff. Four hundred questionnaires were
distributed to the six hotels, numbers varying according to the hotel capacity, in English and in
Spanish. Questionnaires were placed in prominent areas with a box for their return, and hotel
owners/managers were asked to encourage tourists to fill out a questionnaire upon their
departure. The questionnaires asked about tourist's activities in Tortuguero, their interests and
information needs, their mode of transportation, ages, origin, reasons for visiting, expenses, size
of groups, and opinions of tourism impacts. As Boo (1989) noted, much of this information is
unknown for visitors to Latin American parks.
(4) Economic opportunities based on tourism.
An oral census was conducted of all six hotel owners (or managers, depending on availability) in
Tortuguero to determine the seasonality and capacity for tourism. Their input in the
development of a tour guide training program was also solicited.
A pilot tour guide training program was developed by the CCC in July, 1990, to address the
immediate problem of tourists running amok on the beach and disturbing nesting turtles. This
also provided an opportunity to ascertain the economic feasibility of a guide program. A 10-hour
training course encompassing sea turtle natural history, regulations, and communication
techniques was provided to any interested individuals in Tortuguero over the age of 17. Upon
completion of the course, a guide cooperative was established and the Tortuguero National Park
helped enforce the use of tour guides by tourists on the nesting beach. An assessment of the tour
guides knowledge and skills was conducted at the end of their first month of guiding. Direct
observations of each of their guided tours were made to assess: (1) knowledge and skills of
guides, (2) information transferred, (3) communication skills, (4) group effects on turtle nesting
behavior, and (5) financial feasibility of a tour guide program.
SURVEY OF RESOURCE MANAGERS
Oral interviews were conducted with the Tortuguero National Park Director, the Park
Manager, a regional Park Director and three scientists affiliated with the CCC Turtle Research
Station. When asked about the impacts of tourism on the park's natural resources, all respondents
indicated concern about the negative effects of the tourists. It seemed evident that the tourists'
lights, flash photography, and movements on the beach at night frightened the turtles from
nesting. The scientists also complained that the tourists interrupted their nightly turtle tagging
work by asking questions or shining flashlights. Additionally, the problem of littering,
particularly by domestic tourists was noted, as well as other pollution -- sewage waste, fuel from
boats, etc., also resulting from increased tourism.
The resource managers also commented on the benefits of tourism. They commended tourism
for bringing in park fees (even though small -- U.S. $1.10 for foreigners, $.60 for Costa Ricans),
and adding an additional cadre of people on the beach to report suspicious activities. Of note,
the behavior of several turtle researchers on the beach was reported a few times by concerned
The resource managers were asked to assess the results of the pilot tour guide program. They
all felt it was a "big help" in regulating the'tourists on the beach and monitoring their activities
(E. Chamorro, pers. comm.). As one result of the program, they were able to collect more park
fees. The resource managers were supportive of the development of an extensive guide training
program (Fig.2). Their ideas were solicited concerning the content of such a course. From a list
of 15 topics, the resource managers and scientists ranked sea turtles and other wild animals,
plants, ecology, rainforest conservation, and communication techniques as the most important
subjects to include in a tour guide training program. The topics of marine ecology, geology, and
local culture were considered among the least important. Additional topics suggested for the
training course included: group leadership; human activities impacting the Tortuguero watershed;
sea turtles international laws, conservation, exploitation in neighboring countries; the history of
the CCC turtle research project; general wildlife laws in Costa Rica; human relations; and aquatic
SURVEY OF TOUR GUIDES
All 18 prospective and existing tour guides operating in Tortuguero during this study were
interviewed using oral questionnaires. Subject matter they considered of most interest to be
included in an extensive tour guide training program dealt with the natural history of sea turtles,
other wildlife, and plants (Fig. 2). Foreign language training, particularly English, also ranked
highly. Least important subjects included the human use of plants and animals and local cultural
history. Financial management and communication techniques also ranked poorly. Several other
topics were suggested for inclusion in the course. These consisted of: ecology of the river and
canal; fisheries; geography and cultures of the world; climate, weather and rainfall patterns; the
national parks of Costa Rica; and how to receive economic aid.
The men provided guidance for the logistics of a training program. A course of several
months in duration, meeting on Mondays and Tuesdays, days on which fewer tourists are in
Tortuguero, were suggested. Fourteen of the 18 men felt a certificate program for Tortuguero
guides should be established to regulate the occupation. Three of the four guides in opposition
were already employed as hotel guides, and did not want to restrict guiding opportunities. All 18
men indicated they would be interested in taking an extensive training course if it were offered.
The men were asked what obstacles prevented them from earning a good salary from tour
guiding. A quarter of the guides said there were no obstacles; four guides cited a need for
English language training; four complained of the lack of tourists, seasonality, and the lack of
tourism promotion. The need for their own boats and their lack of experience and contact with
hotels also were mentioned as obstacles. Several guides were more specific about the lack of
tourists and complained that even during peak seasons, "if it is rainy, tourists don't go out." The
short duration of tourist's visits, the lack of control over prices -- tourists look for the cheapest
guide or boat to rent, and the lack of a tourism organization were mentioned also.
In spite of these obstacles, all of the respondents were very interested in tourism development
in Tortuguero. Given several development options to choose among, all of the guides felt that
they and their families would benefit mainly from increased tourism development and wildlife
conservation. Increased agricultural development, increased timber production, and increased use
of wild animal products were strongly disfavored.
The background of the men was important to consider in the development of a guide
program. Almost all the people participating in the pilot training course had attended at least
several years of primary school. In contrast, many of the hotel guides had attended some
secondary school. The guides ranged in age between 17-40 years old. Many of the guides,
particularly the men, had been in Tortuguero for under 10 years. Several of those participating
in the pilot program had moved to Tortuguero from Nicaragua and Guatemala in just the past
three or four years.
SURVEY OF TOURISTS
A total of 245 of 400 questionnaires were completed and returned; 16 questionnaires were less
than half complete and excluded from the analysis. Of the remaining 229, 174 were in English
and 55 were in Spanish. A total of about 2500 tourists visited Tortuguero during the course of
this study. Some of the 155 surveys not returned were kept by tourists as souvenirs, according to
hotel operators. Comparisons in responses between male and female tourists were made from
completed questionnaires. The low number of Costa Rican tourists (7%) completing the surveys
made it difficult to compare domestic versus foreign tourism needs for all but a few questions.
Three of the hotels had their own boats and brought in tour groups two or three times each
week for two-day visits. The government boat from Limon, the nearest big city, transported
people to Tortuguero each Thursday. The mean number of days spent in Tortuguero was 2.54
(S.D.=0.92) and, in fact, 94% of all visitors spent either two or three days in Tortuguero. Its poor
accessibility renders one-day visits virtually impossible. For 90% of the tourists, it was their first
visit to Tortuguero; the second visit for 5%, the 3rd-10th visit for 4%, and more than 10th visit
At least half of the tourists surveyed came to Tortuguero with an organized tour. In addition,
many of the tourists traveling with family or friends were actually with an organized tour as well,
so the total number of those surveyed who were with a tour was probably at least 75% of the
visitors. The size of the groups ranged from 1 to 55; the majority of the tour groups to the three
majoi hotels had between 20-55 people.
Only 7% of the tourists surveyed were Costa Rican. The majority, 60%, were from the
United States or-Canada. Twenty-nine percent were from Europe; 2% from South America; and
1% from Asia. According to records of TNP, 56% of visitors to Tortuguero were Costa Rican in
1981. Domestic tourism has dropped to only 13% in 1989 (R. Jiminez, pers. comm.), as a result
of great increases in foreign tourism.
The surveys indicated that Tortuguero was visited equally by males and females; half the
surveys were filled out by males and the other half by females. The total number of people
represented in the survey responses was 409: 203 males and 206 females. The average age of
people filling out the surveys was 38 years old (S.D.=12.7, N=209); the ages of all tourists
recorded in the surveys were as follows: 2% between 1-9 years old, 14% between 10-19 years old,
22% between 20-29 years old, 24% between 30-39 years old, 23% between 40-49 years old, and
15% over 50 years old.
The amount of money spent on a visit to Tortuguero ranged from US $29 to $650 per person.
The average cost was $154 (S.D.=87.5, N=159); over half the tourists spent between $100-$199.
Itemized costs of lodging, travel, food, local activities, and gifts are presented in Table 6. These
data were provided by only a quarter of the respondents because many indicated that they paid
one price for a package deal that included everything. The costs for local activities and gifts
averaged $18, and miscellaneous items averaged $16. A number of respondents indicated that
they also included their bar bill in one of these categories, the only expense not covered by their
The tourists were asked to rank 15 types of potential environmental information sources
according to their usefulness from 1 (extremely useful) to 5 (not useful) (Fig. 3). The highest
scoring sources included evening guided turtle walks, regional bird lists, information personnel
and guide services, and a Tortuguero park map. Among the least popular were natural history or
cultural exhibits, films and slide shows (X2=174.4, p<0.0001). There were no differences in
responses between males and females for all 15 activities (X2 tests, p>0.05).
Over half of the respondents indicated that viewing sea turtles was their primary reason for
visiting Tortuguero, and 91% of the tourists reported doing so during their visit. Tourist
activities would obviously vary seasonally. Tortuguero's pristine environment and local wildlife
and forests were the next most prevalent reasons reported for visiting. Fishing, the beach, local
culture, or desire for an adventure was selected less than 6 percent of the time. Additionally, the
tourists were asked to rank nine subjects from 1 (most interesting) to 9 (least interesting). As
presented in Fig. 4, sea turtles and other wild animals were ranked of most interest, while
geology and human uses of plants and animals were ranked among the least interesting. Domestic
tourists ranked rainforest conservation as a less interesting subject than foreign tourists
(X2=20.51, p<0.01). No differences were evident between sexes (X2 tests, p>0.05).
Over 90% of those surveyed indicated they would ieconimend-a visit to Tortuguero. Of the
remaining respondents, many wrote that they were concerned about the negative impacts of
tourism on the nesting sea turtles, and suggested it would be better not to promote tourism to this
area because of ecological costs. More explicitly, 71% of the respondents believed that tourism
helped promote conservation of the Tortuguero's natural systems (plants, animals, marine life,
etc.) of Tortuguero. Twelve percent believed it did not, and 16% did not know. Of note, tourists
at the two hotels that host the largest tour groups had fewer positive responses than other hotel
guests (X2=15.32, p=0.053).
SURVEY OF HOTEL OWNERS/MANAGERS
The owners or managers (depending on availability) of all six hotels were interviewed to
ascertain their ideas concerning tourist information needs, a tour guide program, and the
economics of local tourism.
The hotel operators' ranking of the relative interest of the presented subjects were similar to
how tourists ranked them, and to the rankings of guides (Fig. 4). They scored the subjects of
geology, human uses of plants and animals, and local cultural history as being of the least interest
to tourists. Sea turtles and other wildlife again scored the highest.
Their ranking of the importance of subjects to be included in a tour guide training course
was similar to the opinions expressed by the tour guides (Fig. 2). Financial management, marine
life, and human uses of plants and animals again scored among the lowest subjects. Sea turtles,
wildlife, plants, and rainforest conservation were ranked highly, as were foreign language
training and park regulations. Additional subjects to include in a course were suggested. These
encompassed: group leadership, tropical agriculture, fishing, timber production, economics of
Tortuguero, and observation time with turtle researchers.
Opinions about the development of a tour guide program in Tortuguero varied. Only one of
the hotel operators felt community guides would directly compete with his hotel's programs. The
majority of the operators felt a training program would be useful, but were against the
establishment of a certification program in Tortuguero to regulate the guides. Only one operator
said he would be willing to help pay for the expenses of a tour guide training program. And only
one operator felt that it was important that the tour guides were residents of Tortuguero.
Economics and seasonality of tourism
Among the six hotels operating in Tortuguero, a night's stay runs the gamut from US $2.00
for a bed to $135.00 for a double room, private bath, and meals. The hotels have a total of 106
rooms and a total capacity of 287 people per night. However, capacity, is severely limited by
transportation. Two of the hotels depend on a weekly government boat from Limon to bring
tourists, three hotels have their own private boats, and one hotel primarily relies on chartered
boats and planes to bring people in and out of Tortuguero. For the hotels with private boats,
usually only two boat trips are made weekly, limiting the number of nights people visit. Two
private homes also board tourists and, additionally, camping is permitted in the park; however,
these tourists are few and were not included in computations. The CCC Turtle Research Station
has long-term tourists, volunteers, and researchers that spend from a week to several months
during the turtle nesting season at Tortuguero. From June to September, 75 people stayed at the
Although the total capacity for tourists at Tortuguero is potentially over 8,000 people per
month, even at peak months for 1989-1990, each hotel is only 10-75% filled (Fig. 5). This drops
to 4-20% in the lowest tourist months. Green turtle season, July through September, was
considered a relatively good tourist season and during July of 1990 the hotels had about 1300
tourists. In actuality, the visitors are not spread evenly through the week, but come primarily on
week-ends. Thus, Friday or Saturday night may receive as many as half the people for the week.
This, in turn, affects the overall number of tour guides needed.
PILOT TOUR GUIDE PROGRAM
Before the 1990 turtle season, few regulations governed human activity on the nesting beach.
Park managers and CCC scientists reported frequent disturbances of turtles coming to shore by
tourists walking up and down the beach, waving flashlights and taking flash pictures of turtles.
This affected the first 7 km of the 35 km beach, where historically about 10% of the turtles nest
(C. Luthin, pers. comm.).
In July 1990, the CCC and TNP organized a 10-hour pilot guide training program consisting
of sea turtle natural history, park regulations, and communication techniques. All interested
individuals in Tortuguero over the age of 17 were invited to attend. Twelve men began the
course and 8 completed it. A cooperative was established by the 8 new tour guides for the
purpose of organizing the guide program and rotating guide duties. A fee of about $2.00 per
person was charged for each tour and all proceeds were pooled and split by the guides at the end
of the week. Tortuguero National Park staff helped enforce the use of tour guides by tourists
walking on the nesting beach at night. An assessment of the tour guides' knowledge and skills
was conducted at the end of their first month of guiding. Direct observations of each of their
guided tours were made to assess (1) knowledge and skills of guides, (2) information transferred,
(3) communication skills, (4) group effects on turtle nesting behavior, and (5) financial feasibility
of a tour guide program.
The pilot guide program limited the number of tourists roaming the beach by confining
tourists to only being out with a guide in groups of ten or less. Additionally, only the guides
were allowed to use flashlights. Although ten people per group was selected as an arbitrary cut-
off number, observations of four guides with 12-15 people indicated a group of this size was too
difficult to keep under surveillance by one guide. Several people disappeared from one group,
and in the three other groups, tourists sauntered up to 300 meters behind the guide.
Several of the hotels in Tortuguero bring 20-40 tourists per group to the beach with one or
more guides. Although these guides are better trained in controlling their groups, frequent
reports of excessive use of flashlights, for up to 30 minutes duration, and wandering tourists,
were reported by CCC staff. Tourists from one hotel, known for taking out large groups,
complained in written surveys and to CCC staff on more than half the tours under consideration
that their group, ranging from 20-45, was too large for comfortable viewing, and that the lights
and activity of so many people had caused turtles to retreat back to the ocean without laying
eggs. Several tourists in each of these groups felt they were such a disturbance that they
suggested tourists should be prohibited from the beach. In contrast, groups of ten or smaller did
not engender these complaints.
Tourists are not the only activity on the beach at night. Teams of CCC turtle taggers walk
the beach, covering two mile transects six to eight times in a night. Park guards also regularly
patrol the beach. A week of nightly observations from 23-30 July, at the busiest area of the
beach, quantified human activity patterns during early evening hours when tourist numbers are
greatest. The maximum number of people passing the observer during a 90-minute interval
included 90 tourists, one guard, and ten taggers; the minimum number during the same time
period was no tourists, 5 taggers, and 2 park guards.
The impact of human activity on turtle nesting behavior also was examined in these two
areas. The number of half moons, false nests, and successful nests were compared between two
stretches of beach during the month of July. The mile of beach fronting the town of Tortuguero
(Mile 3-4), where the maximum amount of human activity and lights were present, was compared
an area of less use (Mile 4-5), although still not an ideal control because some tourist activity
occurred here as well. As shown in Figure 6, there was no significant difference between
disturbed and successful nesting in these two areas x = 0.758. p > 0.0) (A. Figuero, unpubl. data).
These results additionally were reinforced by nesting data collected during this time from an
undisturbed section of beach (Mile 6-7) where half moons and false nests were similarly
prevalent (P. Dutton, pers. comm.).
Input from resource managers, current and potential tour guides, hotel owners/managers, and
the tourists themselves was necessary to ensure that the objectives of the tour guide program
could be achieved. The pilot program demonstrated the varying degrees of success in achieving
each of the four goals, namely to: (1) conserve natural resources and mitigate negative impacts of
visitors on Tortuguero's natural resources, particularly the endangered sea turtles, (2) provide
conservation education to local residents, particularly to a group that was not reached through the
school system or through other development activities, (3) provide environmental information to
foreign and domestic tourists to Tortuguero, thus enhancing their visits, and (4) provide an
additional source of income for the local community. This study also highlighted the need for
and feasibility of an extensive training program for guides.
Mitigation of tourism impacts on natural resources
The disturbance of the nesting sea turtles was thought to be the most pronounced negative
impact of visitors on Tortuguero's natural resources. The pilot tour guide program was successful
in helping to mitigate the impact of tourists by controlling the number of people on the nesting
beach at night. A number of tourists in large tour groups (>20 people) complained of the
negative effects of their groups on the beach and reported frightening turtles back into the sea
before nesting occurred. By forcing tourists to be accompanied by a tour guide in small groups,
disturbance on the beach was minimized. Flashlights were prohibited except for use by the
guides, and flash photography was allowed only after the turtles had begun laying eggs, a time
when they were less susceptible to disturbance. These regulations have been suggested for
controlling human activity on other turtle nesting beaches (e.g., Florida Department of Natural
Resources, unpubl. recommendations).
Hypothetically, if it takes one person three minutes to traverse a segment of beach, then 90
people (the maximum number of tourists observed in one area during this study), all walking
individually, will cross the same segment in 4.5 hours. If the 90 people are in groups of ten, the
9 groups can traverse the area in less than 30 minutes. In other words, the segment of beach will
be occupied for one-tenth the amount of time when the 90 people are grouped. From the point
of view of a turtle attempting to nest, this decrease in activity on the beach may be significant.
It should be emphasized, however, that preliminary comparisons between sections of the beach
subjected to different amounts of human disturbance did not demonstrate different levels of
nesting behaviors. The number of false nests and half moons did not seem to vary with human
activity. This may be an artifact of the short duration of the study, or an inability on our part to
identify appropriate nesting behaviors to monitor.
Of note, the part of the beach accessible to tourists (Miles 1-5), represents only a fifth of the
total nesting beach, and historically less than 10% of the turtles nest in this area. This may
become movie significant with time as the relatively recent establishment of the park and new
regulation of human activity may result in increased nesting in this section in the future. The
park managers and CCC scientists were unanimous in their agreement that the guide program
helped minimize the activity of tourists on the beach, while maximizing the number of park
entrance fees TNP was able to collect.
Conservation education for Tortuguero residents
An important objective of the tour guide training program is to provide conservation
education for the Tortuguero community, particularly for a segment of the population not
reached through formal school programs or development projects. Because no pre-test was
conducted due to the timing of the course, baseline data was not available for comparison with
the results of the course. However, an evaluation of the tour guides' knowledge and skills was
conducted at the end of their first month of guiding. Direct observations of each of their guided
tours revealed that although the guides were fairly knowledgeable about general sea turtle natural
history, much specific information was not retained from the course. An extensive course should
ameliorate this problem, as the pilot course was only 10 hours in duration and many of the
training guides had limited formal education.
Of significance, however, was the concern for and interest in the sea turtles shown by the
guides. After a month of guiding, all of the community guides were eager to meet with
researchers to collect more information about the sea turtles. As a group, they sent a letter to the
CCC Green Turtle Research Station chastising several of the researchers for activities that had
resulted in the disturbance of nesting turtles. The guides also began discussing the feasibility of
sending a letter to the Costa Rican government requesting the end of the legal taking of 1,800 sea
turtles annually off Tortuguero's shores. This demonstrates not only a concern for the natural
resource, but the development of the motivation and skills to conserve the turtles in perpetuity.
The communication skills of the eight community guides that had completed the pilot course
varied considerably. All but one of the guides, complained that their lack of foreign language
skills hampered the transfer of information. Although this is certainly a constraint, all of the
tours observed had at least one bilingual tourist participating in the walk who was willing to serve
as an interpreter. This worked adequately for communicating basic information in most cases.
With additional training in group leadership offered in the extensive guide course, the guides
could develop an approach that could better utilize this situation. The extensive training program
will incorporate the suggestions and interests of the experienced and new guides into the course.
Topics such as aquatic ecology and natural history should provide the guides, a group with
limited formal education but much indigenous knowledge, with greater understanding and skills
to participate more directly in the management of Tortuguero's natural resources.
Provision of environmental information to tourists
During the month following the pilot tour guide training program, 475 tourists participated in
a turtle walk led by community guides. As discussed in the previous section, the language barrier
and varying knowledge levels and communication skills of the tour guides resulted in varying
amounts of knowledge being successfully transmitted to, received, and understood by the tourists.
The presence of bilingual tourists on the guided walks helped mitigate the foreign language
problem. Basic natural history facts about the sea turtle were provided to the tourists by all the
tour guides. Almost all of the tourists participating in the observed guided walks indicated that
they were satisfied with their experience watching the turtles. Fortunately, the sight of a
prehistoric 300+ pound reptile heaving itself up the beach to lay eggs is spectacular regardless of
the interpretation that accompanies it.
Better trained tour guides can certainly increase both the knowledge and enjoyment of the
tourists engaged in a turtle walk. In the future, the structure of the turtle walk will be changed
to accommodate the constraints, such as by implementing a bilingual introduction to the walk.
Based on the results of the tourist questionnaires, the type and delivery of information can be
directly targeted to the audience, identified primarily as North American and European adults,
with strong interests in wildlife and less interest in local culture or history. The latter lack of
interest is contrary to Boo's (1989) speculation that ecotourists would naturally be interested in
and concerned about resident cultures.
The surveys of tourists also provided additional data about their information needs and
interests that will help guide the future development of park interpretation and education
materials in Tortuguero. Of note, during the first part of the decade, half the visitors to TNP, as
to other Costa Rican parks, were Costa Rican nationals. In the past several years, however,
foreign tourism has dominated TNP. Thus, the environmental education programs are of benefit
mainly to foreigners. It is of concern that the development of materials and activities for these
tourists does not overshadow the need to develop materials for domestic tourists and local
Provision of a sustainable income for local residents
Place (1988) reported that primarily four families in Tortuguero benefitted economically from
tourism in 1986. However, many others also were affected. Brown (in prep.) found that about
half of the Tortuguero residents were employed in tourist related jobs through hotels, the TNP,
or the CCC turtle research station. Although, as frequently reported for Third World tourist
developments (e.g. Mathieson and Wall 1982), a number of the administrative or other high
paying positions were held by people living in the capital city, San Jose, or by expatriots. For
many of the community tour guides, few alternative sources of income were available in
Tortuguero, where tourism is the main industry.
A guide cooperative was established with the eight men successfully completing the pilot
training program. This allowed each one to work two or three nights per week and share in all
profits, regardless of the number of tourists on their particular nights. This was instituted
because of the skewed numbers of tourists on the week-ends. During the first month, each guide
made U.S. $131 for working approximately nine hours a week at night (K. Broadlieb, pers.
comm.). This salary for part-time work is very good pay. A full-time cleaner or assistant cook
makes only about $170/month in Tortuguero, and full-time boat drivers and cooks only make
$200-$300+. All of the community guides were extremely pleased with their earnings.
A key element in the economic success of the tour guide program was the endorsement by the
TNP staff. All tourists were required to be with a tour guide upon entering the park at night.
Checks at a guard station near the entrance ensured that tourists had payed their park fees and
errant tourists were denied access. It is unlikely that many tourists would voluntarily choose to
go with a community tour guide, rather than on their own, without the cooperation of the TNP.
In a similar situation, the success of a tour guide program for visitors to La Selva, a private
biological station in Costa Rica, likewise was dependent on the enforcement by the La Selva
administration of a new regulation requiring all tourists to be accompanied by guides (P. Paaby,
Tourists to Tortuguero spent an average of $18 on local activities. This was only 11% of the
total expenses of their trip to Tortuguero (not including the costs of reaching Costa Rica) and in
many cases included their bar bill. The cost of a guided tour of $2.00 is minimal for foreign
tourists, and high quality tours could certainly command a higher price in the future. Tourists
numbers are fairly stable for most of the year (with the exception of a low season in May and
June) (Fig. 5). However, the green turtle nesting season lasts only from July to October. Other
types of guide services need to be created if guiding is going to become a stable source of
employment. Currently, over a half dozen individuals rent boats to tourists who wish to explore
the waterways of the TNP. This enterprise could be greatly expanded. Other tours, such as a
night-time canal trip or a hike in TNP to spotlight animals, or interpretive hikes on Tortuguero
Mountain could be developed and promoted. An extended training program to develop these
guiding skills is now being developed by the CCC.
Data from the hotel owners indicated that the current seasonality of tourism in Tortuguero is
stable enough to support a year-round tour guide program. The background data collected from
the resource managers, prospective and existing guides and sample tourists will form the basis for
planning the training course. The socio-demographic background of the guides makes hands-on,
participatory training approaches, such as simulations, role-playing, and most importantly, actual
experiefices in-the field, of more value than typical'didactic approaches. The logistics of course
meetings and the emphasis of the materials presented also are dictated by the input from the
groups involved. It is expected that the information conveyed in the course will not only provide
a greater understanding of Tortuguero's natural resources, but also greater participation by the
tour guides in the development of their community and the potentially sustainable economy
generated through ecotourism.
We thank .......... for helpful review of various drafts of this manuscript. We are very
grateful to the many CCC volunteers, Tortuguero National Park personnel, hotel operators, and
tourists contributed their time and assistance to this effort. This research was funded by a grant
from the University of Florida's Tropical Conservation and Development Program and the
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Table 1. Needs Assessment for a Tour Guide Program
Table 2. Expenses of Visit to Tortuguero ($ U.S.)
N RANGE MEAN S.D.
Lodging 45 $3-$250 $40 45.9
Travel 40 $10-$500 $75 95.6
Food 39 $2-$171 $33 42.4
Activities 67 $2-$100 $18 19.5
Gifts, Misc. 36 $2-$100 $16 20.4
COSTS 159 $29-$650 $154 87.5
Figure 1. Model of Audiences and Goals Involved in an Ecotourism and Guide Program
Importance of Subjects for Inclusion in a Guide Training Program, Ranked by
Hotel Owners, Guides, and Resource Managers
EE Guide 1 Hotel Owner 1 Resource Mgr
ani plant turt conslang rule aid eco corn hist boat geo man sea $$$
(Subject Wild Animals, Plants, Sea Turtles Natural History, Rainforest Conservation, Foreign
Language Training, Park Regulations, First-aid and Safety, Tropical Ecology, Communication
Techniques, Local Cultural History, Boat and Motor Maintenance, Geology, Human Use of Plants
and Animals, Marine Life, Financial Management.)
Figure 16. Tourist Information Needs
turt bird mappersmam day rep self act eve book nh film life slide
(Type of Information = Evening Turtle Viewing Guided Walks, Regional Bird List, Park Map,
Information Personnel and Guide Service, Regional Mammal List, Daytime Natural History
Guided Walks, Regional Reptile List, Self-Guided Tours, Park Activity Guide, Evening Natural
History Guided Walks, Regional Guidebook, Natural History Exhibits, Natural History Film or
Slideshow, Cultural Lifestyle Exhibits, Cultural Film or Slideshow.)
Figure 14. Subject Matter Rankings by Hotel Managers, Guides, and Tourists
EI Guide I Tourist Hotel Owner
I ,I I -I -i- I I
turt anim cons plant eco hist geo man sea
(Subject = Sea Turtles Natural History, Wild Animals, Rainforest Conservation, Plants, Tropical
Ecology, Local Cultural History, Geology, Human Use of Plants and Animals, Marine Life.)
I 1 '
Figuref2. Number of Tourists by Month at Tortuguero's Hotels
J F M A M J J A S ON D J F M A M J J
I89 I 90 I
Hotel 1 (1/89-7/90) M Hotel 2 (8/89-7/90))' Hotel 3 (10/89-7/90)
E Hotel 4 (6/90-7/90)E~ Hotel 5 (4/89-7/90)1 Hotel 6 (8/89-7/90)
Data available for varying time periods.
Figure 22. Nesting Activity on Two Areas of Tortuguero Beach with
Differing Amounts of Human Activity
m Mile 3-4 iM Mile 4-5
Data from A. Figuero.