An Abridged History of Costa Rica’s Vibrant Tourism

A Costa Rican beach with blue boats and lush forest

Have you ever wondered how the relatively small country of Costa Rica became the most visited nation in Central America? We at Casa Teresa are going to take a dip into Costa Rica’s history to answer that question while exploring the origins of its tourism industry and the story of how it became the fantastic travel destination it is today.

Why Is Costa Rica Special?

Costa Rica was uniquely suited for tourism from the get-go. Before we get into the backstory, let’s detail the factors that set Costa Rica tourism apart from other Central American nations:

  • Incredible Biodiversity: Costa Rica is tiny, but it accounts for around 5% of the world’s biodiversity due to its unique geographical position and climate.
  • Natural Beauty: Lush rainforests, sandy beaches, idyllic waterfalls, and much more.
  • Convenient Location: Central even for Central America, Costa Rica is a hub for international tourists.
  • Safety First: Costa Rica is widely known as the safest country in Central America for tourists and residents alike.
  • Mild Climate. Not too hot, not too cold. The steady year-round temperatures make the climate suitable for visitors year-round.

All these factors make up the perfect recipe for a tourist wonderland. Now, let’s discover the Costa Rican history that brought all these factors together to create such a critical national industry.

National Parks and SINAC

The thriving ecotourism industry can be traced back to a singular point in Costa Rica’s history: the foundation of the national park system.

A rapidly increasing population in the 1960s meant that forests were being cut down for farmland at a phenomenal rate. To give you a sense of scale for how extreme the deforestation was, here’s a statistic: while forests originally covered 99.8 percent of the country, by 1981, they only covered 31 percent. The government realized early on that their land use methods were not sustainable.

In an effort to slow this rapid deforestation, and as a response to huge public demand, a National Park Service was established in 1970, with the mission to conserve the natural areas of Costa Rica. The establishment of national parks is arguably the single most important moment for Costa Rican tourism, as the vast and well-protected parks became its primary competitive advantage over nearby nations.

Another major moment in Costa Rica history was the establishment of SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación, or the National System of Conservation Areas) in 1998. Their mission is to manage the conservation of sensitive wildlife, resources, water and land use, and protected areas like national parks. Today, SINAC protects and oversees a vast amount of land—over a quarter of Costa Rica’s spectacular landscape.

A Progressive Leader In Environmental Policies

Toucan Branch In Casa Teresa

Throughout Costa Rican history, the government has placed significant emphasis on strong environmental policies. According to their Embassy in Washington D.C., they’ve signed forty-five international environmental treaties and a number of regulatory bodies, all of which protect the delicate environment closely.

In the 1980s, as a result of the surging international interest in the beaches and national parks, Costa Rican tourism boomed—and it hasn’t stopped since. The rapid increase in international popularity brought about a whole host of new programs, policies, and governing bodies established to help protect the delicate ecosystem under an influx of visitors.

In 1996, the Bandera Azul (Blue Flag) ecological program was designed to allow for development while curbing the issues caused by mass tourism. They work with local communities to help protect the environment in popular areas, and evaluate beachfront locations for water quality and pollution standards. They offer the highly publicized and prestigious Blue Flag award each year following their evaluations, providing incentive for coastal areas to stay pristine. (Santa Teresa beach, home of Casa Teresa, received a Blue Flag award in 2018 and was additionally awarded “Best for Surfing”!)

Now, Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of land protection in the world, with 28% of its land under protection in the form of national parks, wildlife refuges, and nature reserves. It boasts 28 national parks, 3 of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. Costa Rica has consistently appeared on lists of ethical travel destinations for its progressive policies and environmental protection standards.

In 2018, Costa Rica was ranked 30th in the world for their policies by the Environmental Protection Institute. As another monumental moment in Costa Rica’s history, in 2018 it set an ambitious goal to be the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021. Regardless of whether or not that will happen, it showcases Costa Rica tourism’s forward-facing mentality when it comes to sustainability. It’s a pretty remarkable target, but suited for a remarkable place!

A Haven For Ecotourism

Costa Rican monkeys sitting on a jungle branch eating

Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (FINE, 2015). If you know a thing or two about the spectacular environment and wildlife to be found in Costa Rica, it’s not hard to guess why ecotourism took off. In the late 90s, Costa Rica was known as the “poster child” for ecotourism—and it holds that reputation to this day.

What better way to support sustainable policies as a foreign visitor than by being a responsible ecotourist? Costa Rica tourism boosts a huge portion of the economy, so by visiting and enjoying the national parks and private nature reserves, you’ll be supporting a nation that cares about their environment and wants to see it thrive.

The Rise Of Adventure Tourism

Another major draw in recent Costa Rica history is adventure tourism. Its definition is subjective. It can either be extreme, like skydiving, bungee jumping, or mountain climbing, but it can also be more low-key, like a hike through a jungle or a paddleboard down a river.

Here’s some of the Costa Rica adventure tourism draws that have exploded in popularity in recent history:

With its abundance of wild natural landscapes and an industry centered around the thrill of the outdoors, Costa Rica tourism is perfectly geared towards the adventurous traveler.

Casa Teresa: The Finest Retreat For Your Next Adventure

We’re only scratching the surface of Costa Rica’s history. There’s so much more to discover—keep reading our blog and website to learn why you should come embrace the pura vida!

Whether you’re considering Costa Rica tourism for its ecology, for an adventure, or just for pure tropical relaxation, there is no finer luxury accommodation for your Costa Rican adventure than Casa Teresa. Contact us today to book your stay.