Sustainability was Costa Rica’s tourism philosophy long before becoming a travel buzzword. The country is considered a global leader in conservation and sustainable tourism, with nearly one-third of its land protected as national parks and reserves. Meanwhile, eco-lodges throughout the country serve the national ecological mission with ambitious reforestation programs and commitments to sustainable energy.

For a country so dependent on tourism—almost 9% of the population are directly employed in tourism-related activities—the collapse of the travel industry from COVID-19 was a crushing blow. Without the essential income from travelers, conservation suffered too, particularly the countless projects across the country that rely on the labor of international volunteers.

Voluntourism in Costa Rica

Before the pandemic, millions of visitors from the United States and beyond would flock to Costa Rica to “give back” by incorporating volunteer work into their vacation plans. Typical volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism,” projects include building tree nurseries and planting biogardens to nursing wildlife at a rescue center.

While participants’ motivations may come from genuine altruism, the voluntourism industry, at an estimated global value of around $3 billion, is mired in controversy. Critics argue that voluntourism reinforces tired colonial narratives about the helplessness of the Global South and the superiority of the Global North. Others question the value that voluntourists can really offer to their host communities through projects where often the only necessary qualification is enthusiasm.

However, the pandemic highlighted that a regular stream of volunteers is crucial for some conservation programs in Costa Rica. The Toucan Rescue Ranch (TRR) is one of Costa Rica’s most respected wildlife rehabilitation centers. Still, it was brought to its knees when the country closed its borders to visitors. 

In regular times, volunteers would arrive on short to medium-term placements and perform essential work around the center, such as preparing and distributing food to the animals and general maintenance of their enclosures. Internships that offer a more hands-on experience with the wildlife are awarded to volunteers who can commit longer lengths of time and have prior experience working with animals. 

After Costa Rica’s borders slammed shut and most internationals returned home, volunteers were drafted in from the community to help. However, the TRR, like many nonprofits, didn’t have the reserve capital to pay a local wage. The limited number of staff that remained throughout the dark days of the pandemic divided the duties between themselves as best they could, but the episode made clear the importance of international voluntourism to nonprofit NGOs like the TRR. 

image courtesy: Toucan Rescue Ranch

As well as providing free labor, volunteers also pay a fee to the organization for hosting them. At the TRR and other nonprofit conservation organizations, this money goes directly toward covering the costs of housing and meals for the volunteers and financing necessary projects. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for all the volunteering programs operating out of Costa Rica. 

There are still for-profit companies, usually with their headquarters in the US, who charge up to $2,000 for two-week placements. Only an embarrassingly small percentage of this fee actually trickles down to support the communities hosting the project. Some companies still advertise volunteering programs at “orphanages,” despite the overwhelming evidence that a high turnover of short-term caregivers causes children severe psychological harm.

These companies commodify the volunteer experience and swallow up profits in the name of charity. They undermine the efforts of well-meaning nonprofit organizations doing important conservation work in Costa Rica.

image courtesy: Toucan Rescue Ranch

Moving Toward a Sustainable Model of Tourism

Costa Rica fully deserves its crown as a world leader in conservation. Its government has been responsible for many environmental initiatives to protect its rich biodiversity. But Costa Rica is a middle-income country, and many of its conservation projects are small, locally-run operations scrambling for vital funds to support their work. 

The best environmental projects are born out of the needs and knowledge of the community, with critical decisions and directions ideally taken by local stakeholders. Organizations like TRR rely on international volunteers’ labor and funds. However, that’s not to say, as the academic Kate Simpson so eloquently put, that countries like Costa Rica are “crumbling but for want of a few (foreign) teenagers.” The role of volunteers should simply be to fill the void where organizations lack the staff and financial resources to achieve their conservation aims. 

When the pandemic shut down international travel and forced many of us indoors, it prompted a rethink in global attitudes towards tourism. People felt a new desire to connect more deeply with nature and a longing for more meaningful travel experiences. Meanwhile, the specter of climate change continues to cast a dark shadow over the practice of tourism, which is said to contribute to 8% of the world’s total carbon emissions. 

The world should look to Costa Rica, the original pioneer of sustainable tourism, for guidance on how to deliver on this vision at the governmental and local levels. With international volunteers now returning to the jewel of Central America to support grassroots environmental and conservation projects, the country’s future is looking green.

Did you know that Costa Rica has the longest humpback whale season in the world? It’s part of what earned it a spot on our Best Whale Watching Destinations Around the World.