Investing in tourism through wildlife and roads
With verdant jungles teeming with wildlife, Costa Rica has become a global tourism hotspot – and government leaders would like it to continue. They worked with researchers from the Stanford Natural Capital Project to understand how nature supports the nation’s most visited and treasured tourist destinations. The team found that tourists flock to areas where roads and hotels make it easy to access Costa Rica’s famous wildlife, including charismatic mammals like howler monkeys and reptiles like crocodiles. The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates the importance of protecting nature to maintain tourism revenues. Costa Rica plans to use the results of the study to create a nationwide accounting system to track the benefits that nature brings to its economy.
“These results show how important wildlife is, especially when paired with infrastructure, to a thriving tourism economy,” said Alejandra Echeverri, co-lead author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Natural Capital. Project. “If Costa Rica is to continue to attract tourists, it must invest in both nature conservation and infrastructure that allows people to enjoy majestic animals like the resplendent quetzal and other iconic wildlife. “
Satellites and social networks
The researchers combined data from NASA satellites and social media posts to measure wildlife and understand tourism patterns in the country. When a visitor posts a photo to social media of a scenic volcano or historic church, researchers can use the photo’s location information to map popular locations. Since Costa Rica is a well-known destination for birdwatching, they also used data from eBird, a social birding app where people upload checklists to share the birds they they spotted.
As social media collected data on the ground, NASA satellites provided the team with detailed information on how land is currently being used across the country, including where roads and hotels exist. already. By overlaying popular social media locations with NASA imagery and biodiversity data, researchers were able to identify where a recipe of roads, hotels, bodies of water and wildlife create hotspots. tourist.
“People often see wildlife and infrastructure as being at odds with each other, but our approach shows that’s not necessarily true,” said Jeffrey Smith, the paper’s co-lead author and PhD student at the University. Stanford Natural Capital Project at the time of research and now postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University. “This technology enables countries to understand how infrastructure and nature can be intertwined at a much finer scale to support both the economy and biodiversity. For example, instead of assuming that an area of land can only be used as a nature reserve or megaresort, planners can consider options like ecolodges, which are cost-effective and more wildlife-friendly.
Moving from science to decisions
Researchers worked with officials from Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía de Costa Rica) and the country’s Central Bank (Banco Central de Costa Rica) to ensure that their data answered the right questions and provided them with the information. they needed to guide new policies.
For example, discussions are ongoing within the government about the future of the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, a highly protected natural area. The new research suggests there are sustainable ways to make the park more accessible, with nearby trails or ecolodges, without compromising the habitat of critical species.
The researchers stress the importance of considering the trade-offs of different decisions. For Costa Rica, this means recognizing that while tourists bring money to communities, they can also threaten sensitive species. The researchers also note, however, that natural areas without regular tourists face their own challenges, such as wildlife poaching, hunting and other illegal activities. According to the team, the decision to develop new infrastructure, even small trails and ecolodges, should be made with long-term habitat protection in mind.
One of the team’s main goals was to create a process that would be handed over to the government, so that Costa Rica could continue to monitor and map its own biodiversity and tourism patterns. Countries’ leaders plan to create a nationwide accounting system that tracks the value of their abundant natural assets, including the benefits that nature provides to the tourism industry. Each year, the government will be able to view new satellite images that show the development and emerging tourism trends to adapt its national plans. They will also report their findings to the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting to measure their progress in achieving the country’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“We found a win-win in this research – that tourists are not just drawn to sun and beaches, but actually to places with more wildlife,” said Gretchen Daily, co-founder and faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project and lead author. On paper. “While the balance between expanding tourism and protecting the natural assets that attract visitors must be carefully managed, particularly given the ruinous effects of overdevelopment, this research demonstrates how tourism can be a major driver of green development in countries around the world”.
Gretchen Daily is also the Bing Professor of Environmental Science at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Other Stanford Natural Capital Project authors include Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, Christopher B. Anderson, and Spencer A. Wood. Chaplin-Kramer is also affiliated with SPRING. Anderson is also affiliated with Salo Sciences. Wood is also affiliated with the eScience Institute at the University of Washington. Other authors include former Stanford PhD student Dylan MacArthur-Waltz (now at the University of California, Davis), Katherine S. Lauck of the University of California, Davis; Rafael Monge Vargas from the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy; and Irene Alvarado Quesada from the Central Bank of Costa Rica.
This research was funded by NASA and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
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