Wasted Visits? Ecotourism in Theory vs. Practice, at Tortuguero, Costa Rica
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In this thesis, I contemplate the ecotourism in theory and in practice. I use the case study of a solid waste crisis (2002-2004) in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, a turtle tourism destination, to explore: the consumptive nature of ecotourism, tourist perceptions of the environment, ecotourism aesthetics, local resistance to ecotourism development, local perceptions of ecotourism's environmental impacts, and the future of ecotourism. I used mixed methods including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and on-site surveys to collect data. I conducted mainly qualitative analysis (thematic coding; adapted grounded theory) influenced by political ecology, environmental justice, resistance studies, tourism studies, and the geography of tourism. My use of environmental justice concepts to frame the solid waste crisis in Tortuguero, and the application of key concepts from Scott's (1981) Weapons of the Weak to local behavior and narratives both represent fairly novel applications in an ecotourism context. I attempted to move beyond a restricted case study by emphasizing characteristics shared between Tortuguero and other sites, in the hopes of contributing towards efforts to inject new theoretical applications into tourism studies. This case study reveals the consumptive side of ecotourism, and the analysis of tourist survey responses highlights the central role of aesthetics in ecotourism. This project challenges simplistic portrayals of ecotourism as 'benevolent and benign' (e.g. by highlighting its consumptive impacts and related injustices), and of ecotourists as more aware and altruistic than mass tourists (e.g. by presenting a heterogeneous group of respondents who none the less, stress aesthetics). It updates existing literature on Tortuguero by presenting data on tourist and local perceptions of Tortuguero, and by suggesting explanations for divergent perceptions of the park's role in ecotourism, for example. The evidence that I present of local resistance and waste-related injustices suggest that despite its high profile reputation, multimillion dollar annual revenues, improved local standards of living, and green turtle conservation successes, critical details and key voices have largely been 'left out of the story of ecotourism in Tortuguero'. I hope that his study contributes to encouraging the culture of 'greater ecotourism realism' that is needed in order to move forward.
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