Costa Rica Hosts Meeting of UN’s International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development

Beginning this week, Costa Rica, the leader in sustainable tourism for Latin America, will be hosting the Fourth Meeting of the International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development. Members of the Marrakech Process, world leaders and business executives will be gathering from June 8 – 12, 2008 in San Jose and Arenal, Costa Rica to discuss the growing shift towards sustainable tourism practices.

Led by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Initiative for Social and Economic Development, the meeting will address issues such as protection of natural resources, promotion of sustainable production and consumption patterns in the tourism industry while discussing best regional practices on sustainable tourism development. Additionally, there will be parallel workshops that focus on labels, standards and certification processes for sustainable tourism; case studies from NGOs and the private sector and a guide on tourism and integrated coastal zone management.

Since the creation of the Marrakech Process in 2003, the annual Meetings of the International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development have taken place in France, the home country of the Task Force. It is the first time that the gathering will take place outside of France, bringing the participants and its members to Costa Rica. Participants joining the event will arrive from countries such as France, Germany, United States, Norway, Bahamas, Brazil, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Croatia, Madagascar and Mali, as well as UNEP, the United Nations Foundation, the World Tourism Organization (WTO), The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Rainforest Alliance, Tourism Concern, the Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Territorial Development of France (MEDAD), Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and representatives of professional and non-governmental organizations.

“It is an honor to host such an important international gathering in our country,” said Carlos Ricardo Benavides, Minister of Tourism of Costa Rica. “We believe that sustainable tourism is the only option for tourism development, and we look forward to sharing our experiences, challenges, goals and our best practices and solidify our commitment to a sustainable model,” added Benavides.

Participants in the forums will include government leaders from all over the world including Mr. Carlos Ricardo Benavides, Minister of Tourism, Costa Rica; Mr. Luigi Cabrini, from the UNWTO representatives from the French government; UNEP representatives; with additional participation from the World Bank.

The hotels and tour-operators that will host this International meeting were selected for their sustainability efforts; specifically for having the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). The CST program, created in 1999 by the Costa Rica Tourist Board (ICT), was designed to differentiate businesses in the tourism sector based on the degree to which they approach a model of sustainability and it focuses on the management and impact of the natural, cultural and social resources of the country. The certificate reflects the level in which a company complies with the sustainability parameters established: the employment of local people, respect for local culture, contribution to the economic and social well-being of the community, and preservation of natural resources.

The CST program gives a zero through five “leaf” rating to those that meet these parameters—the higher the score, the higher the achieved percentage. A five-leaf rating indicates 95 percent approval. The hotels and tour operators that have received the CST stamp of approval and will be showcased during the International meeting are: Hotel Costa Rica, Hotel Arenal Kioro, Hotel Villablanca, Hotel Mountain Paradise, Hotel Arenal Springs, Hotel Ramada Herradura and Horizontes Nature Tours.

To conclude the four-day meeting, the United Nations and international NGOs will dedicate the entire day to addressing issues and topics such as the many ways in which these initiatives can benefit Costa Rican companies; how tour operators who participate in sustainability programs can connect to these international initiatives; and the challenges that might arise from such trends. Additionally, they will discuss best practices and recommendations based on their global projects.

From Pioneer to Leader

Costa Rica has been at the forefront of sustainable tourism practices and it has been ahead of its time in environmental protection policies and norms. These set of norms and initiatives were first implemented in the 1970s through the establishment of a National Parks and Conservations system, and are now a key pillar of its strategy towards achieving sustainable development.

Carlos Ricardo Benavides, Costa Rica’s Minister of Tourism mentioned that the tourism policies should be aimed towards achieving a fair distribution of the resources among the population and that the agreement that substitutes the Kyoto Protocol, regarding the reduction of emissions causing the greenhouse effect, should include a mechanism of compensation for countries that protect wooded areas. Hence, Costa Rica is also working to become the first carbon neutral country in the world by the year 2021, just in time to celebrate 200 years of independence.

The Costa Rica Tourist Board (ICT) has put in place a series of strict environmental and sustainable tourism programs, such as the Ecological Blue Flag (BAE) and the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) for hotels and tour operators. Under the BAE program, beaches and coastal communities are evaluated for the quality of the ocean water, quality of drinking water, waste disposal and availability of sanitary facilities. Communities are given the BAE distinction for working to safeguard the environment and maintain necessary sanitary conditions of the water and the areas around it.

The CST program has become one of the most widely respected sustainable certificate programs and it has been adopted by the United Nations and the World Tourism Organization as a model, and many countries around the world are employing similar standards.

Costa Rica is also rich in renewable energy. It generates almost 99% of all its electrical energy from clean sources such as geothermal energy, wind and solar energy, burning of sugarcane waste and biomass and hydroelectric energy. The country is largely embracing the use of wind power. Since 2002, in the area of Tilarán, Guanacaste, a wind farm with over 30 turbines has been able to provide electricity to approximately 8,000 homes and similar projects are sprouting around the country.

The country was also ranked among the top 5 in the Environmental Scorecard at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the 2008 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by a team of environmental experts at Yale University and Columbia University. This demonstrates that the policy choices and the norms that Costa Rica has put in place have positioned Costa Rica as a leader in environmental protection and sustainable tourism practices.

About the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT)
The Costa Rica Tourist Board (ICT), created in 1955, is an autonomous institution of the State, responsible for regulating the tourism activity in Costa Rica and promoting Costa Rica’s tourism attractions and destinations both at a national and international level. The Costa Rica Tourist Board creates tourism norms, regulations, incentives and grants the tourist declaratory for Costa Rica’s hotels, travel agencies, rental cars and other tourism organization and service provider.