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Costa Rica and the rise of eco-tourism

Karen MacRae visits a scarlet macaw sanctuary in Punta Arenas to find out more about the country’s fastest growing industry – eco-tourism


Costa Rica is cleverly using its bountiful natural assets to bring in tourists and educate them, while safeguarding the country’s future (and rising economy) for generations to come.

At just over 51,000 sq km, Costa Rica has 0.3% of Earth’s land surface, while containing 5% of the world’s biodiversity. It has some of the most varied topography in the world, including rain and cloud forests, moors, riverbeds, mountains and mangrove swamps. This is the key to its huge success as the world’s premier eco-tourism destination.

With more than 870 species of birds, birdwatching tours in rainforests or visiting sanctuaries looking after them are extremely popular visitor attractions. One example is the Macaw Sanctuary Natuwa in Punta Arenas.

Upon entering the rescue centre, guests are given a polite but firm briefing, before being allowed to enter the birds’ domain. There are many beautiful tropical species here, such as the cockatoo, parakeet and toucan. You hear the star of the show before you see it — the scarlet macaw, the most endangered, and loudest, of all parrots. These striking creatures are the reason this ornithological oasis exists: to breed them and return them to the wild. The scarlet macaw has been on the brink of extinction due to human actions, with pet smuggling and deforestation obliterating their natural habitat.

There are large enclosures here for all the feathered residents, lined with various types of palm trees to keep a constant supply of nuts for them. Many are unable to survive on their own due to injury. New generations of parrots are bred for release back into the wild — human/bird interaction is prohibited to maximise the birds’ ability to return — to assist in teaching other parrots valuable social behaviors, or simply to charm humans into wanting to help save them.

There are also some other interesting inhabitants, such as tapirs, jaguars, ocelots and spider monkeys. The sanctuary, along with so many of the country’s other eco-tourism adventures — visiting waterfalls, volcanoes, horseback riding, zip-lining, turtle whale and monkey watching tours — bring visitors closer to the natural world.

The benefits of eco-tourism to Costa Rica are far-reaching. It has brought economic opportunities to rural areas, encouraged sustainable development, and pristine landscapes have been protected from agricultural practices that destroy it. The government has even set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2021. The simple philosophy of ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ has caught on here in a big way.

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