Costa Rica just got more sustainable. The country's government was able to announce last week that it generates all its electricity needs from renewable sources. This is another feather in the cap for a country that has become almost a byword for sustainability and for the tourism that has latched onto it. Ecotourism - enjoying the nature of the country and its rural communities - is said to be pursued by just under half of the 2.7 million tourists who go there each year.
This is a country that is held up as a benchmark for others to aspire to, but doing so gets others only so far; Mallorca and the Balearics, for instance. Attempting to draw any meaningful comparison is more or less pointless.
The differences are vast. For starters, Costa Rica has a far greater land mass than the Balearic Islands put together. The density of population is roughly one-third of Mallorca's. Tourism accounts for 12.5% of GDP and not the 45% direct contribution in the Balearics. Costa Rica has certain natural advantages that the Balearics do not. Most importantly, where tourism is concerned, it was a late starter. Just as importantly for its eco-credentials, these were driven not by tourism per se but by a desperate need to counteract the negative effects of deforestation.
Here is a country with an estimated five per cent of global biodiversity of flora and fauna. This five per cent contributes to the 70% that is confined to just twelve countries on the planet, of which Costa Rica is one. Spain is not one of them. Nowhere in Europe is. Costa Rica therefore has a natural advantage for those ecotourists interested in flora and fauna. For all that it is spoken about in Mallorca, the island's biodiversity cannot get anywhere near the richness of this tropical country.
Costa Rica is an example of joined-up sustainability. It isn't without its issues, such as those to do with beachfront construction, but overall the sustainability policies have worked, and no more so than with energy. Wind and solar are key elements, and so is geothermic. There are volcanoes, a source that would be denied to the Balearics were there to ever be a serious attempt at using renewables.
Energy is just one part of the sustainability equation. In general terms, ambitions for a more sustainable economy in the Balearics are thwarted by the negligible use of renewable sources. A reason for this underuse is said to be because of geographical isolation and insularity. The Canary Islands likewise have a very high dependence on conventional energy sources. It may be a reason, but it is one that hasn't been explained.
More specifically, sustainable tourism demands less pressure on the environment. One of these pressures comes from conventional energy. For all the talk of sustainable tourism, when there is such an absence of a basic ingredient of sustainable development, much of this talk becomes, so to speak, so much hot air.
A further pressure, the use of land, is determined by the past. Costa Rica's late arrival on the global tourism scene enabled it to learn from others. Mallorca never had anyone to learn from. Things were made up on the hoof, and resorts were consequently made. Deforestation, which can be reversed, is not a Mallorcan issue. The destruction of dunes and coastal ecosystems is and was. For the most part, this cannot be reversed.
The contemporary tourist, we are told, is more demanding of environmental control. This demand leads to environmental marketing on behalf of tour operators, hotels, islands, regions and countries. Eco-credentials are something to be shouted out loud. They are shouted in Mallorca; you can see them on plaques, for example. But how genuinely righteous and virtuous is the tourist?
In Costa Rica, how true is to say around a half of the tourists go solely for the ecotourism? Apart from the remaining half who apparently do not and who are attracted principally by sun and beach, does the eco-half not also take in the beach? The point being that if a country has well-managed and conserved natural areas, then tourists will be attracted. Do they consider themselves ecotourists or simply tourists?
John Swarbrooke of Sheffield Hallam University several years ago coined the term "egotourism". It was applied to those tourists who do wish to display their credentials and they do so by visiting the more exotic, the more unusual, the more "eco" destinations. Costa Rica may no longer be that unusual but it will doubtless still bring in the "ego" variety. By contrast, this ego would not be satisfied by Mallorca's associations with a very different type of tourism.
Which isn't to say that sustainable attempts shouldn't be made in seeking ecotourism. But there has to be a recognition of the mix that a destination has to offer. In Mallorca's case, this will always fundamentally be its beaches and its sun.