Monday, August 16, 2010

"It feels like we put some roots down here"

As we neared the end of our journey, the mixed emotions were clear on many faces. Even though our bodies could certainly use the rest from bug bites, sunburns, and the humidity, Christina said it best: "It feels like we put some roots down here..."

Nineteen people sharing a home on what could best be described as a "vintage" white and teal bus for three weeks can certainly go either way, but I am impressed and proud to say that the Emerald Eagles on this trip represent some of the most tolerant, adaptable, and well mannered people not just at UNT, but whom I have ever met. I have observed them both as a UNT instructor and UNT-I staff member; from group lectures in the rainforest (emphasis on rain), to cheese supplier scavenger hunts, to overcoming ailments, hiking volcanoes, eating whatever is put in front of them, and learning basket weaving, these students have not only formed a unique bond, they have followed the number one rule for the trip: no crankiness. Having jam packed days from 7am to 9pm and little privacy, this says a lot about the character and high quality of these UNT students; something all of our community can be very proud of.

I think I speak for all of the UNT and CATIE leaders (Dr. Spears, Hope, Dr. Vargas, Ree) when I say helping guide this group has been a wonderful opportunity and experience, and taught us all sorts of things outside of the incredible perspectives we have heard on tourism and sustainability throughout the tropical country. Chats about life over dinner, having the opportunity to read student journals, receiving compliments on the group from hosts, fielding academic and philosophical questions...they have all been a wonderful gift from the students that continue to help broaden our own perspectives as teachers and mentors. I am thankful to UNT-International, the School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management, the Emerald Eagle program, Student Development, our partners at CATIE, and numerous other donors who provided the opportunity to spend time abroad with the individuals behind this blog, and I have shared below a few lessons to laugh over that I have learned alongside this superb group of people.

To Angele, Bekah, Chase, Christina, Cynthia, Elia, Elisa, Esther, Jaime, Krista, Kristel, Poulette, Tyler, and Violet: I know this is just the first of many big adventures to come for each of you.

Hasta pronto,

And Some lessons learned....
· When it rains, it pours.
· Just because it looks like a banana does not mean it will taste like one.
· If you tell a staff member you feel dizzy, nauseous, or overall icky, your recent..ahem…digestive processes will become an open discussion amongst staff until you are cured.
· Costa Rica has matrilineal indigenous groups (the Bribri), and communities live “borderless” with other countries – if you’re a Bribri on either side, you share resources, with or without a passport.
· Sloths, rainforests, and howler monkeys all have very appropriate names.
· Water will cure most ailments. For everything else, Powerade, a bottle of ibuprofen and some Pepto should always be on hand.
· Quick fixes for many situations can be fashioned using items only from one’s backpacks…study abroad, MacGyver style.
· If a cow starts to raise up its tail, RUN.
· Although mosquitoes do not like me, hungry ants, spiders, and a wide variety of bugs I may never know the names of, do. But they especially like Hope :)
· Almost all the products we think of as chocolate are really just chocolate flavored cocoa butter. The real stuff (literally crushed and made into chocolate in front of us) is nutty, dark, and wonderful.
· If boys are carrying their clothes around in a trash bag, do not open it. The smell will haunt you.
· I am really, really terrible at archery.
· Texas gals LOVE local tour guides.
· There *is* something worse than a cold shower: a shower with no working water at all. Count your blessings.
· I should follow my own advice on: sunscreen, wearing sneakers at plantations, sunscreen, sorting your photos daily before you become overwhelmed, sunscreen...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Final Thoughts...

Most Significant tourism issues in Costa Rica:
The water usage management is important because everybody needs clean water, and accessible water. We heard in Turrialba of places on the coastline that would use enough water to feed 10,000 families in a year, on their single golf course. I also think that CST should think about creating further stipulations for hotels and tour operators that are something along the lines of making sure that the local towns have enough clean water before a hotel’s extra benefits, like a golf course, are created.

Another issue was the fact that some places or establishments marketed sustainable products because of their appearance, but when we actually examined the product, we began to wonder how sustainable it really was. This misleading promotion tool is known as green washing. Sometimes companies say they are sustainable but are really not as sustainable as they claim.

The hunting of iguanas used to be highly prevalent in Costa Rica as the nation slowly began to witness the population of their iguanas decline. This was largely because some locals would use this so called attraction to attract foreigners so that they could get money off of showing iguana breeding grounds in low trees, that made it easy for the foreigners to hunt these animals. The reason why hunting iguanas was so in demand was because iguanas were very lean and produced great meat in terms of how low their fat was.

The government should fund or reward organizations and companies that really are sustainable and beneficial to the eco-tourism industry. We think it is imperative for other countries to look at the model Costa Rica is setting for eco-tourism. This way, countries can see that striving to be first in technology and making as much money as you can in the corporate world isn’t the only way to make money. In fact it is arguable that making money off of educating tourist about the environment is one of the best moral ways to make money.

What does sustainability mean to me?
As a group the word sustainability means being able to provide enough of what is necessary for the group or the individual to survive while at the same time being aware of the environment and your surroundings. By this, we mean anybody can produce the same thing given the necessary materials, but the way they produce them may be different and based on their definition of sustainable they may be in favor of one product over another. For example, product A may save more money but take more time to produce than product B that uses more money and the time it needs to be produced is shorter. As a group or an individual, they have to decide which product they want based on their needs, product A or product B. In this particular case we as a group would be in favor of product A because it is more sustainable for our wallets. This could be put in terms with the environment too. Let’s say that product C is made purely out of new paper and product D is made from recycled banana paper that is more expensive than the regular paper. One needs to decide which is “better” according to their definition of better. One person may say product C is better because it is cheaper than product D. Another person may think oppositely because product D is recycled and beneficial for the environment knowing that it is a more expensive product. In this case because we are aware of the effects the products have on the environment, we would be in favor of product D.

Final thoughts on the Emerald Eagle Costa Rica Study Abroad:
We believe that it would be beneficial to future study abroad groups if they were able to speak and ask questions to previous study abroad students that studied the same length they will be. This would be helpful to them because they will have an idea of what to expect for the course and will give them an idea of how they should manage both their free time and their time after long exhausting days.

SocioCultural Group: Concluding Evaluation of our thoughts on sustainable tourism issues...

What stood out to us the most concerning some of the more important issues that truly affected the sustainable tourism of Costa Rica was the participation that the local community showed towards being aware of the projects, services and national parks thriving in their area that were striving to capture the energy-saving vision to make the environment a more green and healthy place to inhabit. Because people go to Costa Rica to see natural beauty, the people realized how important it was to preserve it. We visited a variety of national parks and there were only a few of the many more they had. Every hotel and business that we visited did an amazing job of conserving energy. There were signs in the bedrooms reminding people to turn off all the lights and air conditioning as they left the rooms. Some places had no air conditioning at all and no TVs to cut down on the amount of energy wasted. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but they are striving on a potentially promising route that could end up with fruitful outcomes.

The system of means of conserving water could possibly be improved to salvage the resources readily available on a persistent basis. The tropical climate of Costa Rica brings torrential rainfalls in the verano (summer) season, which commonly has more rainfall than the invierno (winter) season. If they continue to reap the benefits of saving water through drainage systems or through hydroelectric power, then they could use this for good means.

Since there are such abundant quantities of tourists, sustainability is a very motivating factor for businesses to flourish. Competition is not the issue, it is more that they as a whole wish to contribute and give back to the environment. It perhaps gives them a sense of accomplishment that they are impacting the environment by such positive means. Sustainability was taken to far lengths, to the point where we scrounged about in a restroom for instance to stumble upon the rather unwelcome surprise that there was not any soap or sometimes toilet paper within the vicinity. It is as if they are trying to conserve their resources to the utmost degree, to the point of being unsanitary. Some of the main issues that are essential to being developed.

In the United States a crucial lesson that needs to be learned is that we should consider how much energy is thrown away by careless people who are more concerned with comfort of excessive air conditioning and usage of electricity instead of using natural light. We should spent more time outdoors enjoying the glorious mother nature. We should cease in increasing the ever growing carbon footprint that we are contributing to through the pollution that our seemingly critical daily activities give off.

It’s sad how our children will be deprived of the chance to see the wildlife that we were able to experience because of extinction and not being sustainable. The national parks and the ecosystem need to be cultivated and paid attention to that they are being taken care of and are thriving so that we can pass down the legacy. We believe sustainable tourism is beneficial because of the positive impact it bestows on our future generation.

Sustainability revolves around caring enough about your resources and not taking what you have readily avaliable for granted, using it in a means that is beneficial for the present and future community, and always trying to find ways to improve upon saving energy, giving back to the environment, and managing current resources.

Economic Team: Last Blog!

The Economic Team is back in Texas and rushing to finish our papers, presentations, and this blog! During our trip several issues of sustainable tourism came up. First, solar pannels and sustainable irrigation systems are expensive, and many hotel owners don't realize that they end up paying for themselves. Second, Squaters setting up a business on another establishment's land, copying their business, and gaining property rights. The final issue is that the sustainable tourism boom has caused many foreign owned hotels and businesses to come in and expand the west coast rapidly. These hotels, attractions, etc. have no requirement of sustainability and they are creating a bad name for Costa Rica. Some of these mega resorts say they are sustainable but we have our doubts.

The most crucial issue among these is the rapid expansion of the west coast. Since these hotels have no requirement to become CST or Bandera Azul certified they cause many environmental issues. Many have massive golf courses which can use up enough water in a year to provide for 10,000 families! The real problem with these hotels is that their unsustainable practices are creating a bad name for Costa Rica and as a result, bad press. The result is a loss in tourists who are interested in sustainability. Costa Rica must take some form of action to stop the unregulated growth.

Costa Rica could impliment many practices to minimize these issues. To improve the problem with expensive solar panels and irrigation the Costa Rican government could start an advertisment campaign informing hotel owners that the systems pay for themselves after a few years. They need to void the law that allows squaters to gain property rights by simply starting a business. The government should also require hotels on the coast line to be CST and Bandera Azul certified. This would cause these hotels to start off sustainable rather than come in the opposite and work toward it. It would put Costa Rica higher on the list of destinations to visit, and increase the economy's profit.

Other countries around the world can learn a lot from Costa Rica's tourism industry. For example the U.S. is generally only focused on one aspect of the Triple Bottom Line, Economics. If it realizes that the Social/Cultural and Environmental legs help hold up the business in a joint effort as it has in Costa Rica, U.S. businessmen will be more willing to explore these aspects. They can use certain Costa Rican businesses (Such as Si Como No, a five leaf hotel) as models for their explorations into sustainability. Hotel owners in the U.S. can speak with owners in Costa Rica about which practices have saved the most energy and money.

Sustainable tourism is sustainable in certain areas, but not in others. It really depends on the ownership of the hotel. Si Como No had five leaves and really seemed to have earned them. It is owned by an American, but he has really immersed himself into the Costa Rican culture. He even named his hotel a common Costa Rican term. In contrast the Marriot we visited seemed to be an extremely unsustainable corporately owned resort, yet it had four leaves of sustainability. It also had a golf course which uses mass amounts of water and fountains everywhere we looked.

The Economic group believes that sustainability is using your money to maintain social/cultural, and environmental values. If a businessman invests money and effort into his employees, the surrounding community, and the earth, he will save money on utility costs, have better customer service from his employees, and earn respect and business. He will have an increse in customers and will make more money.

This trip was a great experience and opportunity. Everyone who went on it grew in some way and learned much about culture, nature and tourism! It was so interesting to see how people in different countries live, and how different everything from traffic laws to shopping was. The Ticos are a great people with a calm, relaxed outlook on life. One of the best benefits of going on this trip was having the ability to escape from the hustle and bustle of the American lifestyle. Many of us still have the Tico mindset and need to be a little less tranqui.

We would like to thank everyone who was involved with this program especially Dr. Spears, Andrea, Eliecer, Hope, Jenn, Miguel, and Marcelo for all their planning and the opportunity for such an amazing adventure. We will remember this for the rest of our lives and are extremely grateful. Thank you!

Economic Group
Tyler Eaton
Kristel Montano
Bekah Nicks
Angele Hall
Krista VandenHeuvel

Monday, August 9, 2010

Socio Cultural Group Blog

Seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a matter of a few days was an experience! They were both beautiful and filled with vibrant, yet different people. After visiting both oceans, we noticed that the Caribbean side was less developed with dirt roads and smaller hotels. While the Pacific side, had paved roads and large resorts. On the Caribbean coast, we stayed in a town called Cahuita. Many of the locals in Cahuita were Rastafarians who were very friendly and laid back.

On the Pacific coast we stayed in a larger town called Quepos. Quepos was filled with so many businesses which catered toward tourism and so much to do, it was hard to walk down the street without feeling like you would be run over by a taxi or a Tico (Costa Rican)!

Both towns were really fun, and while they were both economically centered around beach tourism, they had extremely different vibes.

Environmental Group: A Rainy Goodbye

We finally made it to Manuel Antonio! The Pacific coast is one of the most visited areas of Costa Rica by tourists of all ages, especially Europeans and Americans. We spent four nights at hotel Divisamar and we went down to Quepos every night for dinner. Quepos is like the downtown of Manuel Antonio, the locals are very friendly and everyone seems to know one another. It’s really interesting how the locals are aware of the tourists that come to stay the night or even several nights, and they are always expecting those groups to come by and visit. The whole idea of tourism in Manuel Antonio continues to grow but when we visited the hotel Si Como No the speaker, Mateo Villalobos, explained that it is becoming a problem. He says that the hotel infrastructure continues to grow while the biodiversity and environment shrinks. Si Como No is doing an exceptional job in regards to sustainable tourism and strategizing to find new and better practices to conserve the environment. They have earned five leaves from CST and they are a leader in sustainable tourism (something we haven’t seen in any other hotel). Yesterday we ventured Manuel Antonio National Park and the beaches were like nothing any of us have ever seen….the whole make up of the beach was relaxing with smooth waves, warm water, and a beautiful view! The white faced monkeys were very anxious, sneaky, and kind of creepy because they would snatch anything they would see especially food. Then it poured on us, yes it had not rained on us throughout the entire trip, what a bummer! Sunday, “the day before” our flight back home, consisted of attempting to see the animals at the zoo until it started raining once again. Later, we went out and explored the market and went “souvenir shopping”. Many of us waited so that we could make the best purchases but sometimes we had to spend a few extra “hundreds” (500 colones equal 1 dollar). Overall the past four days fulfilled all of our expectations and more….We will miss this country but it’s time for us to go home! :(

While all of us are anxious to get back home to see our family and friends, it is a clear consensus that everyone will miss this beautiful place where the air is clean, weather is perfect, and the locals are friendly towards us as if they have known us for years. The professor and staff members on this trip have stressed that we have learned more than what a student taking this course at UNT would have learned over the course of a whole semester. We have taken in a lot of information and knowledge from this trip from the lectures we attended and talking to some of the local people here. Being here is really an eye-opener because sometimes people tend to take in information but don’t apply the knowledge because we don’t see how much our actions impact our surroundings, but here in Costa Rica we were surrounded by a completely different world and were able to experience some of the activities many Costa Ricans do on a daily basis. After being here and witnessing this experience, it is only natural for us to come back with a new perspective on the environment and how we as people shape it. We cannot create an instant transformation on the way people around us choose to live, but if we change our ways, then people will start to catch on.

Economic Group...Enjoying the last few days

The last few days of our journey throughout Costa Rica have been both educational and memorable. We had the privilege of visiting a palm oil plantation at El Silencio, a small co-op farming community. It was amazing to see all the work that went into getting the fruit out of the trees that contains the palm oil. It definitely brought about a greater appreciation to something we all take for granted. The next day we visited Si Como No, a hotel that has earned the highest level of sustainable certification by CST standards. This hotel was very advanced in their practices including solar panels, water conservation, employee transportation, and even a wildlife refuge. The part that we were most impressed with, however, was the employee benefits. Besides giving free transportation, once a month, the hotel brings in a masseuse for the staff, free of charge!

The last two days were spent relaxing at the beach and then driving back to San Jose. No one objected to spending time splashing in the waves or laying out on the sand with monkeys in the trees overhead. We went to the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park, which has earned Blue Flag Certification for its eco-friendly practices. With our last day of driving, we are prepared to head back to the United States. This is a bittersweet moment for us all as we are excited to see our family and friends back home, yet we are sad to be leaving such a beautiful country. This trip has far exceeded all expectations and has given us a chance to learn and grow not only as people but as conscious consumers and travellers.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Socio Cultural Group's Adventures...

These recent couple of days have been a whirlwind of cultural awareness, biodiversity, and great fascinating wonders. The indigenous BriBri tribe were very hospitable to us and a quite pleasant friendly lot. We were exposed to lots of bugs during our stay there, consisting of a bat, an unwelcome visit of ants, grasshoppers and all sorts of other critters. Prior to making acquaintance with the BriBri tribe we were told not to show them the soles of our feet, not to speak to them unless spoken to, and to not do anything disorderly. We did so, however the natives were different than we expected for they were civilized and quaint. We played soccer with them, archery and enjoyed their delicious cooking. They have been doing events like this for about 18 years and they are getting a boom in tourists now. Seeing the world from their perspective and resources was an enlightening keyhole into understanding symbiosis and harmony of diverse communities.

Just before departure, we hiked to a waterfall nearby. On Sunday, our free day we dispersed to relax, or immerse ourselves in writing our journals, head to the pool or lovely beach and Cahuita National Park. Shopping that night in the evening was a majestic adventure of many artisan stands and a plethora of aesthetically appealing accesories, jewlery, and artistic works. Then come Monday and Tuesday we observed many animals such as iguanas, turkeys, Spider monkeys, ocelots, and Capuchin monkeys. We learned that some of the iguanas are used for meal consumption and also as a medicine through frying its fat to make oil. Then it can clear sinuses and relieve colds. On Tuesday we went to see a crater and to La Paz waterfall garden. It was just stunning to be in the presence of so much wildlife and to be around so many waterfalls, three of them. One of the highest being the Magia Blanca Waterfall at 37 meters (120 feet) in height.

More from the Economic Group...

On Friday, some members of our group were suffering from general illnesses and stayed behind in a hotel with a pool and the beach to recover while the rest of us went on to see the Bribri indigenous people. The border between Panama and Costa Rica is split by the Yorkin River so we got to see two countries at once. Of course Panama looked just like Costa Rica, but the experience was still cool.

We were not sure what to expect from the indigenous people but we were excited when they greeted us warmly and welcomed us into their homes. They showed us where the local kids all go to school together and the building where they meet for general community meetings. Our rooms were cozy with bunk beds surrounded by netting to keep the bugs out. They served us lunch when we got there, and afterwards everyone had a great game of soccer against the local kids. That night after dinner they told us about how they started their co-op and what they did to make it successful. It was definitely an inspiring story and we loved getting to hear the history of how they started.

On Saturday we were supposed to hike to the Panama waterfall, but because of weather issues, we were not able to go. Bummer. We did play another game of soccer instead and splashed around in the Yorkin River. We were sad to leave the Bribri people, but excited to get back to those we had to leave behind because of illness. After that, we stayed at the Atlantica hotel and enjoyed a day of swimming and being at the beach. At night we got a chance to eat out at some of the local restaurants and look for souvenirs from the many shops that are along the beach.

On Monday, we drove back to San Jose, but along the way we stopped at an Iguana farm. We got to see how they raise the iguanas and later release them back into the wild. On Tuesday, we went to see the Poas volcano. It was quite an amazing site. We hiked up to the large crater and got to look down on a lot of smoke and surrounding burnt scenery. It was cooler than it sounds. Afterwards we hiked up the Botos lagoon and got to take a lot of pretty pictures. For lunch we went to La Paz, and then we got to see all of the different exhibits they have. They keep jungle cats, monkeys, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other animals in really neat exhibits. After we saw the animals, we hiked to several of the different waterfalls there and got to see some really pretty scenery and of course, take more photos. We are all getting to know each other really well and establishing some great friendships on this trip. We are looking forward to our last week of Costa Rica together.

That’s all for now,
Bekah, Christel, Krista, Tyler and Angele

Iguanas and Monkeys and Jaguars, oh my...

Hey everybody! These past few days we did something that not many people can say they have done: spend a night with indigenous Costa Ricans in the middle of the forest! This past weekend we discovered that the farther you are from civilization the better the food is :)

After we left CATIE, we drove past Cahuita (the Atlantic Ocean), canoed down the river that divides Panama and Costa Rica, and hiked to a small native town called Talamanca, which belongs to a group of Bribri people. Upon arrival, we had to win a soccer game against the highly competitive Bribri children in order to get dinner. Thanks to Tyler's amazing coaching skills we tied and called a game over :)

We learned how to make 100% chocolate out of cocoa beans and were serenated that night by Dr. Vargas and his guitar-playing Bribri friend. Some of us also learned how to weave out of leave strands and got to swim under a Panama waterfall. Sunday was a free day at the beach!! We all did different things: some swam, others body-surfed, and Kristel and Chase walked on the beach during sunrise. Some of us also walked into the city of Cahuita and spoke with the locals. On Monday we went to an iguana breeding farm and drove back to San Jose. On Tuesday we visited Volcano Poas and saw the third largest crater in the world. After walking down the volcano, we went to the La Paz Waterfall Garden, which was beautiful. There, we were able to see monkeys, jaguars, frogs, snakes, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Oh and 4 giant waterfalls! Can't wait to see what's next.

Pura vida,
Economic Team

Talamancan territory!

We have experienced a wide range of tourism on this trip, but the most interesting was our stay at an indigenous Talamanca Bribri community. We took boats up the Yorkin river and then stayed at their village. The Bribri people are unique, there are less than 75,000 people that even speak Bribri. During our stay at the village we learned how to make chocolate, straight from the cocoa bean! It was delicious. We also learned archery from one of the village boys. Friday afternoon we played the village kids in a game of soccer for dinner! It was a lot of fun, soccer is the same in every language so there was no barrier at all! The tourism to the village is limited, there are only about a thousand visitors a year. It is really neat how tourism has helped the village. It has created jobs inside the community so that the village men do not have to travel far from home to work in the banana plantations.

While most of the group made the journey into the Talamancan territory, a few of the group members had to stay behind due to a minor illness. The first night at the hotel, the group made their way to the Atlantic Ocean which was only about a three minute walk across the street. It was unique in a sense because no matter what time of day it was, the ocean water was set at the same warm temperature. The water was crystal clear. Later that night, our bus driver Miguel, drove the three of us, Agustin, Chase, and Krista, out to town a couple minutes away. During our time on the little strip filled with restaurants and souvenir shops, we explored a variety of different places.

Due to the unfamiliar surroundings, it was Agustin and Chase's duty to protect Krista. We finally found a place to eat at a pizzeria where the movie Cop Out was playing while we ate our dinner. The next day, Agustin was able to talk to a local man about the negative stereotypes that are given to the area and the people. There were many locals of African descent but there was one that seemed to attract the most people. Roberto, or Agustin's new friend, explained to him how he didn't appreciate all the criticism given to him because he was a Rastafarian individual who was always happy. Roberto was very peaceful and all smiles when you approached him; he told Agustin that many tourists look at him and think he spends his free time smoking marijuana. He also told Agustin that he felt it was unfair that the locals, from airports to hotel receptionists, do not recommend visiting that location. Agustin became such good friends with the man that he decided to donate his green shirt that Roberto liked. After the visit with the local, Jennifer, Agustin, Violet and Hope continued their journey to the beach where they took some pretty amazing photos. One of which seems to be out of a movie scene, (Agustin with his ninja kick).

Overall, although many people seem to stare at the locals, the locals seem to stare back, but it's only because of the curiosity to learn more from each other and when the ice is broken, it becomes a learning experience that can only be done by traveling the world.