Costa Rica’s Minister of Tourism Says Sustainability Provides a ‘Better Quality of Life’ for Tourists and Residents

María Amalia Revelo spoke with Adweek at the Skift Global Forum

"Kids that came 30 years ago … are coming back because they connect with the country," said the tourism minister. Visit Costa Rica
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

Within the last decade, Costa Rica has become one of the gold standards for international tourism in terms of sustainability and the environment. The country runs almost entirely on renewable energy and its president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, has set a goal to achieve zero net emissions by 2050.

In 2018, the country welcomed over 3 million visitors, and, in the first six months of 2019, it saw a 4% increase in arrivals.

Adweek spoke with Costa Rica’s minister of tourism, María Amalia Revelo Raventós, at the Skift Global Forum in New York, about what sustainability means to Costa Ricans, what it took to get there and their new campaign “Only the Essentials.”

Adweek: What does sustainability mean to Costa Rica?
María Amalia Revelo Raventós: Sustainability means to be able to take care of our nature, our people and really be able to build a better world for all of us as well as the tourists who are visiting.

When we talk about sustainability, we talk about avoiding or diminishing the effects of climate change; we talk about decarbonization, having a better quality of life for the communities.

How long did it take for Costa Rica to be where it is today?
We have a long history of being sustainable, even if that word wasn’t really used then. When Costa Rica decided to abolish the army in 1948, that money was spent on health and education. It created a better quality of life.

We are really protecting our diverse nature, and at the same time continuing with those efforts. We depend on clean energy. Between 90%-95% of Costa Rica’s energy is produced by hydroelectric, solar or geothermic means. Our energy production is almost all clean energy.

Now we have a new challenge in transportation. Our president [Carlos Alvarado Quesada] has adopted a plan to decarbonize by 2050.

When you meet with other countries and their tourism ministers, what do they ask?
Why are you so successful? They say they have the same opportunities, but they don’t have the same results. God gave us a very beautiful country with very friendly, educated people.

What have we done apart from that?

Work with the private sector. We have a common vision, created about 25-30 years ago, and it wasn’t easy. Then the model [for tourism] was very enclaved to the beaches, like Cancun or the Dominican Republic. There was a group of private entrepreneurs that thought that was the way we should develop.

There was another group, at the time I was very young, that thought the way to develop was based on medium and small hotels all around the country that would bring the tourist dollar, not only to one place but also to hotels owned by Costa Ricans or foreigners who live in the country. That way the tourist’s dollar stays in the country. It creates a better quality of life.

Public and private businesses have to sit down together until there’s white smoke.

I’m not going to tell you it is perfect, but, in general terms, we have been consistent in what kind of tourism we want and where we are going to promote Costa Rica. We want to be sure that tourism is creating a better quality of life.

How does Costa Rica emphasize sustainability and the environment with a global rise in tourism?
We want to avoid overtourism in certain areas. We are really putting an emphasis on developing new destinations in the country that can absorb more tourism. We have three very well-visited volcanoes: the Poás volcano, the Arenal and the Irazú. Now, we are building new trails to other volcanoes so people can see the other areas.

We are developing local airports, more domestic airports, and so tourists can take smaller planes to visit destinations.

How is that sustainable?
The point is to give people the opportunity to visit more areas and not have so many visitors in one place.

Your new campaign was released this month. Tell me about it.
We believe that we need to go back to basics, back to the essentials.

That’s why we launched this campaign called “Only the Essentials,” because we believe that Costa Rica can help you connect with yourself, your loved ones, your family.

The experience of being in Costa Rica, to enjoy nature, to enjoy the warmth of Costa Ricans, it’s all going back to the essentials.

We believe they are more than tourists; they are visitors coming home. Thirty percent of tourists that come to Costa Rica repeat their vacation. Some of them finally buy a house here. We have lifetime customers. Kids that came 30 years ago who saved $9 to rent a hammock are now doctors and lawyers, and they are coming back because they connect with the country.

Some people tell us, “Oh, we don’t want backpackers.” But we love backpackers! They won’t be backpackers forever! They will study, they will grow and they have already fallen in love with Costa Rica.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.