For years, like many other Central American countries, Costa Rica’s primary exports were agriculturally based. But even then, Costa Rica had something special. With a government built on traditions of democracy and peaceful development, the tiny country had the special opportunity to use its resources to preserve, rather than exploit, the riches it was endowed with. As more and more travelers are looking for natural areas to visit, one might say that Costa Rica is reaping the fruits of that far-sightedness. Over a million people now visit the country annually, and part of what they’re coming to experience is the very way that Costa Rica defines ecotourism. They’re coming to see the 850 species of birds, they’re coming to see the 200 mammal species, they’re coming to see the reptiles, the trees, the plants, the volcanoes—in short, they’re coming to see the living laboratory of nature that still exists in Costa Rica. They’re coming to enjoy what we have, to help us protect it, and to learn from it.

The task of development within a country blessed with such riches, without destroying them in the process, demands a great deal of imagination and hard work, and the government of Costa Rica has taken up the reins of the project admirably. They’ve set up programs that play a large part in making sure that what visitors come to Costa Rica for today, will still be there for the visitors of tomorrow. The first, and perhaps most far reaching, of these programs developed by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), along with other governmental and educational groups, is the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST). The CST program categorizes and certifies tourism companies according to the level that their operations approach a model of sustainability—in terms of their degree of impact on the natural, cultural and social resources of the country. The certification committee focuses on four operational components: the physical-biological; the infrastructure and services; the external clients; and the socio-economic environment. These categories cover a range of issues as specific as the type of products and consumer goods purchased and used by a company, to those more broad based, such as a company’s efforts to educate their clients toward conservation and respect for local culture. In summary, the ICT would define sustainable tourism “as the balanced interaction of three basic factors within the tourism industry: 1- Proper stewardship of our natural and cultural resources; 2 – Improvement of the quality of life of the local communities; and 3- Economic success, that can contribute to other programs of national development.”

Although Costa Rica and many of its wilderness-oriented tourism businesses are famous for pioneering the concept of ecotourism, the CST addresses a broader concept—sustainable tourism—which addresses both wilderness and urban tourism activities and encourages practices that spread benefits more widely into the local communities and ensures long-lasting success. CST isn’t an ecotourism seal. It is a set of performance-based standards that create guidelines that any country would want their development to follow, whether based on an ecotourism model or not. The certification addresses a series of basic principals of sustainability that are in need of adoption the world over. In fact, the CST guidelines have been approved by the ministries of tourism of every country in Central America, as well as Mexico and Belize, and several countries in South America have expressed interest in developing similar programs.

It has been said before that CST is a program “worthy of exportation.” The truth is that Costa Rica has been exporting the concept of ecotourism and sustainable development for some time now. The numbers of people that visit the country annually attest to the country’s leadership position in this timely market, illustrating that Costa Rica doesn’t just export bananas anymore!


CST’s objective is to turn the concept of sustainability into a concrete goal for Costa Rica’s tourism industry. The first phase includes only the lodging industry, but future programs will include tour operators and other related industry companies as well. The national parameters will be improved biannually, allowing the program to develop alongside appropriate new technologies.


In the first phase of the CST program, only lodging companies are being certified (other tourism service providers are soon to follow). Hotels, inns, bed & breakfasts and cabins can all voluntarily participate in the program. The hotels are categorized by Province location, size and type, i.e. city hotel, beach hotel, country inn…


After filling out an application and questionnaire, the National Accreditation Commission evaluates the establishment in a site visit, ultimately assigning a “sustainability level” on a scale of 0-5, in a system similar to the well-known star system used by commercial hotels internationally. Level “one” would indicated a first step in the process toward sustainable practice, and with each percentage of improvement the level can increase, peaking at level “five”, indicating that the company is considered a “model of sustainable tourism”.


Costa Rica has become a world leader in addressing the issues of sustainable tourism development. It is a concept whose time has come, not just within the borders of this small country, but internationally as well.

More information about CST can be found on line at