If you are planning to vacation in Costa Rica, please read this.
More than any country on the planet, Costa Rica prides itself as eco-friendly. Large swaths of land are preserved as national parks with original-growth rainforests. Nearly all of Costa Rica’s electricity is made from renewable sources, and Ticos have been named time and again the happiest people on earth.
Most tourists come to Costa Rica thinking and expecting ‘green’. They themselves want to impact minimally and only positively on their Costa Rican destination. They properly dispose of their garbage, they use their air-conditioning minimally, they tip for good service, many try to speak the language and respect the culture, and generally set a nice open-minded example as visitors should.
But another hallmark of good eco-tourism practises is ensuring the money you spend remains in the destination and is circulated among the local population. The hotel pays its staff who in turn spend their money on locally grown food, locally made clothes (they can’t afford imports), improvements to the home, paying for their children’s education, etc. If the hotel has money left over, it spends it on improvements or even expansion plans.
When searching on Google for say, Costa Rica hotels, companies like Expedia (today becoming a monopoly), Orbitz, Despegar, etc. have huge marketing departments that ensure they are found on the first page of results. The little hotel doesn’t have a chance to be seen. For convenience, guests book their rooms through these mega-operators. What the guests probably don’t know is that the hotel is charged an incredible 25% commission, often the only way a hotel can fill its rooms because they can’t be found on the Internet. In most Costa Rican hotels a 25% commission can eat up more than half the profits. And what is worse, the commission is repatriated out of Costa Rica and sent to the home country of Expedia, etc.
Simply put, without this additional money, especially in this tight global economy, the authentic little Costa Rica hotel finds it hard to afford to do many of the constantly needed maintence, let alone improvements; remodeling guest rooms, adding new facilities, improving their kitchen and restaurant, fixing the roof or the pool, whatever, and as a result the hotel starts to spiral downward as it loses business and in the long run, the local economy suffers.
The same goes for big international hotel chains. They have huge marketing departments as well and are often found on the first page of search results. Big chain hotels offer little upward mobility for their local staff allocating the higher paying management jobs to foreigners, often not even in Costa Rica. The chains are forced to import their furniture, supplies, food and cleaning products, all part of their contract. They occupy prime land, the most scenic locations pushing the local people to the periphery, illegally draining swamps like the Barcelo Group, they contract improvements with big construction companies instead of local contractors, and generally they take from the local community while giving little back.
But of course your most important consideration is the quality of your vacation. Do you want to pay an inflated price to be in a huge mega hotel with 200 or 500 identical rooms, all the same as hotel rooms in the USA? Do you want to be served by disgruntled underpaid, uncaring, robotic staff with no upward mobility in their future? Do you want to line up with forty other guests each time you take a tour or go something to eat at the buffet? Do you want much of your hard earned travel money to end up in the hands of someone who did nothing to enhance your vacation? Do you want to support the takers rather than the givers?
Consider dealing directly with smaller hotels. Smaller hotels have a much higher staff to guest ratio, often one staff per rented room! Larger hotels are one staff for anywhere from two to five rented rooms. And without the need to pay a 25% commission, the owner has the financial incentive to allow you to negotiate a better deal, maybe a room upgrade, or a long term discount, try doing that going through Expedia! Get to really know the owners and their friendlier staff who genuinely care, get a true feeling about your destination, personal insights, where to shop for the best deals, restaurant recommendations, the best local beaches, whatever, you’ll never get this isolated at a big chain hotel. Traveling with your family, give the kids an authentic vacation, a true learning experience, let them enjoy fairly nice hotels accommodation but at the same time, see how 90% of the world’s population live. They’ll appreciate more what they have waiting for them at home. And feel good about yourself that you are traveling as a goodwill ambassador representing your country.
Before leaving home, pick up some little gifts; your country’s flag or pins or postcards of where you are from, lots of appreciated things can be bought in a ‘Dollar Store’, and give them to kind people you meet in your travels. Locals don’t have the worldly experiences that you do, watch their eyes light up in excitement. Your little gifts will be received with great pride. Tourism done properly helps bring the world together. Expedia, etc. and big chain hotels drive the world apart.
Finding small, authentic Costa Rican hotels is not difficult. Decide on your exact destination and search for it on TripAdvisor.com Here big hotels need to compete head to head with the smaller hotels for positive guest reviews, and it is quite amazing to see they often can’t. The smaller hotels generally come out ahead in guest satisfaction because of price, happier staff, unique accommodations and authenticity. Once you zero in on a couple of hotels, search for them on Google and deal direct. Take a chance, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll have far more interesting stories to share with friends back home.
Another place to find a great little Costa Rican hotel is through the association I founded in 2005, Adventure Hotels of Costa Rica (AHCR), www.adventurehotelsofcostarica.com. We have 86 small friendly owner-operated ‘green’ hotels strategically located throughout Costa Rica. You can find Costa Rica beach hotels, Costa Rica mountain lodges, rainforest retreats, Costa Rica yoga and surfing specialty hotels, treehouses, San Jose and airport hotels, each with its own personality blending in with the local culture. You’ll enjoy and remember your vacation at one of these truly friendly hotels far more than at a big chain hotel. And you may save enough money to take your next vacation sooner!
In conclusion, if you and your family want a true, authentic, learning-experience vacation in Costa Rica (or anywhere) that will be remembered while saving money, and at the same time you are genuinely concerned that your travel to Costa Rica benefits Costa Rica and is not hurting anyone, book direct with small independent hotels rather than through a third party and/or with a large chain hotel.