*** Note: Updated July 2018. This post was originally published in March 2016 and has been completely revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Supporting local economies is one of the goals of sustainable travel. However, since 1980 -1990 Costa Rica has been adopting a model of development called rural tourism.
Sustainability is a trend—a good trend—that is increasing in different areas of our life.
People are looking to have a balanced lifestyle in different things: what we eat, the way we exercise, the way that we live in harmony with nature.
Travel is no exception. People are looking to have more meaningful experiences. In our case, we found that collecting pictures and stamps in a passport will be meaningless if you don’t learn or contribute anything in the process.
From working in tourism, we have seen that massive tourism is not good for a town and sometimes can bring more harm than good.
So, a few years ago, we decided to focus on a different way of travel and have been learning more from it each day.
Rural Tourism: What exactly is it?
When I did my university graduation project about a local community in San Ramón, Alajuela, I fell in love with the concept of rural tourism.
It’s hard to describe it in a few sentences but I will do my best.
Basically, rural tourism is tourism that takes place in a rural area where the main economic activity doesn’t come from tourism.
For example, the main income may come from dairy farming or growing coffee. Since some of these activities are seasonal, tourism can bring in more income in the off-season from the visitors who are interested in learning about the daily life of the villagers.
It’s a way that the dollars you spend in a place will get distributed better in the community as a whole rather than just to a big chain.
Our experience with Rural Tourism:
Rural tourism has let us see so much more than just a tourist destination. We got to experience local culture and see people’s daily lives.
The first time I went to Bajo La Paz, a rural village 40 minutes away from San Ramon downtown, it was part of my final graduation project at university back in 2009.
The trip allowed Rodrigo and I to immerse ourselves in our own culture on a deeper level.
After a few visits, I realized the impact that this place had on us. It was about much more than just visiting a place—it was about learning the conservation work that they do in the nature that surrounds them.
Here are the most valuable lessons from our time learning from the community:
- The owner of the waterfall, “Nacho,” who used to be a hunter, told us how he decided to preserve the forest after a deep talk with a university professor.
- Doña Flory, the owner of a little restaurant, taught us how perseverance and hard work bring results. The secret ingredient of her food is love because it was 5 years until the restaurant produced enough for her to hire people from the community.
- The Arias Family explained how they fight to preserve the art of the sugar cane process that our grandfathers did for a living.
- Another family taught us how they get their main income from the exportation of butterfly cacoons.
It was a very fulfilling experience to see how we could take a theory from a college project to become a real business plan that creates a rural tourism experiences where local families get involved and benefit.
So, that experience is where we first got encouraged to promote this style of tourism.
We did different initiatives like creating a travel agency called “Tikizia Travel” and attending a fair to promote the community of Bajo La Paz, San Ramón. We worked together with the community, and the lessons will be forever with us.
Mass Tourism VS Rural Tourism
According to an article titled “Rural Tourism – An Overview”:
Mass tourism is characterized by large numbers of people seeking culture holidays in popular resort destinations. Alternative tourism (rural tourism) is usually taken to mean alternative forms of tourism which give emphasis on the contact and understanding of inhabitants’ way of living and the local natural environment. (Humaira Irshad – Rural Development Division, Goverment of Alberta)
All-Inclusive Vacations and Resorts
- Everything is planned for you
- Luxury accommodations
- Easier to make decisions when you are part of a big group
- Your money is going to a specific brand of hotels, so it’s not really supporting local economies
- Long stays in the same place can turn into a boring vacation
- Little room for flexibility to change schedules and experience the unexpected
- The environmental impact that some hotel chains have done in our country, destroying nature to build
Rural tourism Vacations
- Seeking out rural areas while traveling or taking a trip can be incredibly rewarding
- It can be an awesome and inspiring learning experience
- The people are friendlier and you get a more personalized experience because you are not just a number
- It could be cheaper traveling in this way, and at the same time, the money benefits local families and projects
- It involves more planning
- You may not find it so easy to get to your destination, and there may be less information available online
- If you are not an open-minded person, you will feel there is less choice
- There is less beautiful architecture… so definitely not recommended to people itching to see the modern buildings in Tokyo or medieval architecture in Rome
Many travelers go to countries famed for their incredible natural beauty, and yet spend all their time in cities or all-inclusive resorts. People who travel this way miss out on experiencing the heartbeat of the country.
It’s not necessary to base your whole vacation on rural tourism, but making a little portion of it would give a better taste of the culture and lifestyle of Costa Rica or the country that you are visiting.
Further thoughts …
In my personal experience, I will be honest: I understand rural tourism is not for every traveler, but the government promotes a lot of these types of initiatives for Costa Rican entrepreneurs and farmers like every single tourist is going to pick one of these trips…. That makes me think… Realistically, entrepreneurs and farmers on the other side struggle in the lack of knowledge to do marketing, especially with the constantly changing social networks.
A big group of them are not familiar with this technology at all, and even if we pretend they are super cool bloggers or Facebook pros, my question is how can they compete with the big companies that invest tons of money in marketing and big tourist resorts?
Costa Rica has learned the lesson in a hard way with what happened in Guanacaste after the building of an airport there. Now, most tourists visit Guanacaste—around 400,000 tourists. More than the local population.
The income from touristic projects in Guanacaste ends up in just a few hands. You can learn more about the situation in our article. Watch the video. Recommend!!!
“When people go on vacation, they generally seek out destinations that offer them the sense of being someplace, not just anyplace.” ~ Richard Moe, President, National Historic Preservation Trust
We believe in a better way to do tourism, and we know there are many people like us out there. Rural tourism makes you feel that you are in a place with an identity, not just anyplace. On the other hand, big resorts feel basically the same everywhere in the world.
You have the power to support local communities when you pick a rural tourism project. If more tourists that visit Costa Rica will decide to change the way of travel, we will have a better distribution from tourism and keep protecting nature.
This model benefits everyone, even YOU, our dear traveler! We like music not because it gives us money in return but because it uplifts our souls. It is the same with rural tourism.