This month we’re loving Costa Rica

Looking for sustainable travel ideas? Costa Rica is a beacon for sustainability and sustainable tourism. Here’s why.

A Spanish-speaking, vibrant and beautifully green Costa Rica in Latin America is home to nearly 5% of the world’s biodiversity, even though it makes up just 0.03 per cent of the planet. About a quarter of the country is part of a protected national park, wildlife sanctuary or private reserve, and while many countries drag their heels on urgent sustainability issues, Costa Rica has made clean-beach programmes and sustainable energy projects part of its DNA and plans to become carbon neutral by 2021.

Whether you choose to visit Costa Rica to watch sea turtles or surf on some of the world’s best beaches, explore the Monteverde cloud forest, see its vast array of sloths or 52 species of hummingbird, climb its huge volcanoes or go white water rafting at Turrialba, the money you spend as a green traveller is likely to be wisely used. There are an impressive range of Eco-friendly hotels in Costa Rica, and it’s the kind of place where enterprising entrepreneurs convert a crashed passenger jet into a luxury hotel suite in the rain-forest rather than allow the debris to go to landfill (we kid you not*).

Costa Rica

It also has more than its fair share of community-led sustainable tourism projects, such as Caminos de Osa, which won the Best Active Tourism award at FITUR 2017, the International Tourism Fair in Madrid, Spain. Delivered by Reinventing Business for All, Costa Rica’s leading sustainable tourism organisation and an EarthCheck partner, this offers travellers three new routes that pass through the beautiful Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve and gives them the chance to visit rural communities, support their tourism businesses, and give back to the locals.

You would also want to come, however, to catch some of the joy and vibrancy of its people, for according to a recent report in The National Geographic magazine***, Costa Rica is one of the world’s happiest places because their people feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy. Rather marvelously, the research found that more people report feeling positive emotions each day than most other countries surveyed. When it comes to living in the moment, it seems that these guys really do know how.

Why might this be? It is peace loving, having forbidden a standing army since 1949. The life expectancy is an impressive 79 years, higher than all of its Central American neighbors. Literacy is 97.8 per cent, placing it in the top 40 countries worldwide, and Costa Rican women don’t take their husband’s last name,retaining their maiden name and independence throughout their life.

Costa Rica’s landscape has also affected the national psyche. Its mountainous terrain meant it never developed large farms, as other countries in Central America did, so it has never been dominated by a powerful landholding class. Instead, locals have simple, straightforward lifestyles on small farms or cattle ranches, and have elected presidents who’ve made education a priority, ensured clean water, instituted social security, and established free clinics in most villages.

Isn’t it about time you paid them a visit?

Further reading

* In pictures: Passenger jet converted into luxury hotel in Costa Rica rainforest

** Caminos De Osa

*** World’s happiest places

The NOW guide to sustainable travel

The NOW guide to sustainable traveller

We as travellers made 1.2 billion international trips last year, and by 2030, it will be nearly 2 billion*. At the same time, the UN has warned that the latest projections on global warming point to an increase of 3.2C by 2100. We are clearly not going to stop travelling – for work, for rest or for play – but we also clearly need to act NOW to help sustain our planet. How might we embrace or indeed go beyond sustainable travel in 2018 so we effect real change for ourselves, others and our planet?

First up, decide where you stand on the thorny issue of flying. When it comes to sustainable tourism, travel using fossil fuels isn’t good for the environment and needs to be genuinely and urgently curbed. But benign human interaction in other places can be a force for good, and often the only way to achieve this is by short and long haul travel. Most eco travellers, benign business people, governments who seek to do good and green campaigners are not going to stop flying. The trick is to fly less, and when you do fly, make it count by giving back. Do your research when it comes to carbon offsetting – it’s seen by some as just another way for humans to avoid doing anything at all about climate change.

Next, where do you travel to? It’s a good idea to avoid travelling to countries that violate the human rights. There are more than 90 of these in the world, many of which are tempting holiday destinations which are not deemed dangerous for travellers. Many advise it’s probably a good idea instead to choose countries that care for our trips – those that are doing their best to help sustain people and our planet.

Trouble is, with the exception of Canada, this means taking our trips to countries in Europe and avoiding the more exotic, further-flung places that some of us might associate with ‘real travel’. Not only might this become tiresome, but when it comes to sustainability, we’re no longer just talking about saving trees, oceans and animals, but saving people and whole communities too – most especially all the hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world (and those exotic countries) who live in poverty and/or who rely on tourism and the travel industry for their main source of income.

The NOW guide to sustainable travel
Credit: Moritz Krebs/Soneva Fushi

So we do need to keep travelling to these more exotic places – but to make our trips count when we do. This means making our flight count, choosing ethical tour operators, buying local when we’re on the ground, and having the courage to stand up and speak out when we do see unethical practices. We also need to stay in genuinely sustainable hotels (asking them oodles of questions before we book), and even move beyond the concept of green hotels by continually pointing out to them what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and making suggestions of what they could be doing better, all in the name of sustainability and sustainable travel.

Responsible Traveller/Cambodia Cycling
Credit: Responsible Traveller/Cambodia Cycling

We also need to remember that some of the most beautiful, unusual places on earth are hugely affected by conditions created by climate change. From the Great Barrier Reef to Madagascar, from the Arctic to the Maldives, many destinations are disappearing, and we need to put pressure on the travel industry and governments to step up and protect these environments for the good of all.

Over-tourism, and travelling at peak times has also damaged many a destination. We need to be mindful of where we go, consider off season travel as an alternative, and support and salute those countries that have stepped up and taken control of the situation. These include The Galápagos Islands, who now regulate their tourist industry, and Bhutan, whose ‘low volume, high-value’ tourism policy has helped the country to thrive.

In many ways, we’re already heading towards a more sustainable travelling future simply by making sensible choices that save money, avoid huge crowds and offer us more exciting travel experiences. Australian-based travel trend experts and tour operators Intrepid Travel have noted that for 2018 many of us are planning to travel off-season to save the money incurred by the insane cost of flights and hotels during peak holiday times, and to travel to less predictable destinations to avoid the crowds. So we’re happy to head to a ski resort in the summer to enjoy flowers and sunshine instead of snow; and to Moldova instead of Tuscany, or to Portland instead of New York, to see something different.

The Alpina Gstaad
Credit: Reto Guntli/The Alpina Gstaad

They also add we are all feeling the pull toward more adventure – to destinations where we can immerse ourselves in a local culture and an experience rather than staying put in a hotel that looks just like all the other hotels we have stayed in before. In all these ways, one sustainable choice fuels another. Let’s keep making those sustainable choices – and make more of them – in 2018.
* Quote from United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

Can TripAdvisor really be trusted?

Can TripAdvisor really be trusted?
If we want ethical hotels and sustainable tourism, it’s time the online travel industry was made accountable for its tricking and trapping, says journalist Juliet Kinsman, founder of Bouteco, an arbiter of boutique eco hotels.

When TripAdvisor first started in 2000, it represented everything we loved about the democratising powers of the world wide web. It gave everyone a voice and it proposed a meritocracy which would expose under-par properties and let the best stand out. And even now, years on, most of us still think of it as a useful, user-generated review site that’s on the side of the consumer. But can it really be trusted?

You probably think I’m having a dig at those glowing reviews in fact written by a hotel owner about his own establishment? Or the damning one-starrers from a bogus account of someone who’s never even visited a property? No. What I’m talking about is TripAdvisor’s whole modus operandi, which is much more manipulative.

There are probably review-farm factories full of people paid to hammer away on keyboards to write fake five-star endorsements. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the very deliberate hoodwinking of hotel bookers — and that it’s time that the online travel industry was made more accountable for their tricking and trapping.

TripAdvisor not only feeds this culture of monopolisation, but actively dupes customers by stealing business that would naturally be heading to small independent hotels. It then siphons some of the profits away from local economies to a bank account abroad. The Competition and Markets Authority recently launched an investigation into hotel booking websites as allegations emerged that they mislead customers and actively prevent them from getting the best deals — surely breaking the law.

‘TripAdvisor’s corporate financial report shows most of their revenue comes from click-through ads with booking site partners’, says Louise Oldfield, owner of an award-winning three-bedroom boutique bed and breakfast in Kent, England called The Reading Rooms.

Hotel owners like Louise are under massive pressure to pay huge fees to TripAdvisor, and pay more for marketing and prominence on sites — often with phoney, paid-for ranking classifications which have nothing to do with how many honest, positive reviews hotels have received from the public. If they don’t pay, it’s a full-time job as an independent hotel to try to keep your occupancy up when the Online Travel Agency (OTA) bullies are so deceptive.

Start your search for a room at The Reading Rooms with Google, for example, and chances are a TripAdvisor result appears near the top with the insinuation they can help you check availability for dates at this stylish stay in Margate. The third-party’s calendar results then imply the B&B is fully booked — but it’s not that the B&B that doesn’t have vacancies, it’s that they don’t share their inventory with anyone. ‘As a hotelier, if you don’t allocate rooms to the booking sites, you are effectively promoting spare commission-based rooms in your area on that day,’ says Louise. OTA’s algorithms don’t work for quality hotels or popular places that book up. They want to sell rooms — any rooms — that day. This has forced down room rates, and meant there are increasingly limited resources for wage increases and investment in the businesses themselves.

Different travel brands, hotel-booking platforms and price-comparison sites suggest there is lots of choice, as though that’s all good news for the consumer — but it’s a monopoly with Expedia (which owns, Travelocity, Trivago) and Priceline (the company behind, Agoda, Kayak), who between them are in control of a whopping 80% of the market share.

‘Little businesses don’t have the search-engine optimisation capability of the likes of and so they’re fighting a losing battle to get direct sales. I’ve spent two years cleaning up our Google results,’ says Louise. ‘And it’s only possible because we don’t allow ANY rooms on ANY booking site, because booking sites sell your listing to other sites such as Trivago, Travel Republic and so on.’

Often it comes down to who’s most aggressive at making the consumer think they offer the best deal, and most Google results lead back to the booking sites. As consumers, we need to remember that you get what you pay for. Can the hotel you’re staying in afford to pay their staff properly and invest in their business, or are they being squeezed and squeezed so they can sell their rooms through the OTAs at bargain-basement prices and not be as ethical a business as they’d like to be?

A cup of clean water with Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt

NOW talks to Jonathon Porritt, an author, campaigner for the environment and social justice, and the founder director of Forum for the Future.

One word that describes you?


In your own words, what do you do?

Wherever I can, whenever I can, I seek to persuade others, personally and professionally, to commit to working for a sustainable future for all of us – and to get on with it NOW!

Which is your favourite part of your job?

Finding ways of inspiring people (particularly young people) about a sustainable world, rather than depressing the hell out of them with endless tales of doom and gloom.

Which is the part that you enjoy the least?

Having to fundraise, endlessly, to carry on doing this work.

Best advice you’ve been given?

Back in 1974, my mother told me that I should give up trying to be a lawyer (which I found I was hating at that time!), qualify as a teacher (which is what I’d always wanted to be), and get stuck in on some of the environmental things that were then beginning to interest me. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Your personal indulgence?

My favourite (there are a few) is good malt whisky – difficult to imagine a sustainable world without it.

How do you like to travel?

I love my bike (seriously!), and I love going by train – which is handy, as I don’t have a car.

Favourite sustainable hotel or other place to stay?

Every summer, we organise a family holiday on the north coast of Cornwall, which is probably my favourite get-away place – but I do love the occasional stay in really nice hotels.

What must happen NOW to help make our planet more sustainable?

We already know everything we need to know to ensure a sustainable world for nine billion people by 2050, but it must be now that we have to get on and implement it just as fast as possible.

If you could have one hour with a world leader, who would it be and what would you say?

I would choose to have one hour with President Xi Jinping, in a bid to persuade him to start turning his rhetoric about ‘our ecological civilisation’ into reality.

Any regrets so far?

Not really – other than the usual nagging doubt that I could always have been doing more.