Study Assesses Impact of Proposed International Airport in Southern Costa Rica

Publication Date: 
Monday, October 22, 2012
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

A proposed international airport in southern Costa Rica could significantly alter the region’s ecotourism and palm oil-dependent economy, according to a new study released by a collaborative group of Stanford University and Costa Rican researchers.

The case study, produced by the Osa & Golfito Initiative (INOGO), a research program organized by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, explores the planned airport’s potential environmental and economic impact in an area where an estimated 35 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the country’s comptroller general.

The proposed airport site lies within three miles of the Térraba Sierpe Wetlands – recognized as “Internationally Important” by the Ramsar Convention – amidst serpentine waterways harboring 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity and forests of greatest value in terms of ecosystem services. The region’s Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park support a flourishing ecotourism industry, which some fear will be adversely affected by the airport proposal. Others worry the project will displace local families and draw foreign workers, while driving up the cost of living.

The INOGO analysis considers multiple scenarios involving the construction of different types of airports, and improving local regional airports as an alternative. Intended to inform area residents about the project’s costs and benefits, the analysis is based on technical documents as well as interviews with regional leaders in agriculture, conservation, tourism, government and other fields.

"We've looked at various ways this project could be carried out factoring in a multitude of impacts to local residents, the economy and the environment," said Roldolfo Dirzo, INOGO co-director at Stanford. "We've also looked at the potential results of not moving forward. Our goal was to produce an unbiased, rigorous study of the various options to provide local stakeholders with the information they need to make thoughtful decisions about where they stand on this project." 

Since the early 2000s, Costa Rica’s government has expressed its intention to build an international airport in the country’s Southern Zone, a renowned ecotourism destination. Laura Chinchilla, the current president, has committed to construction of the airport’s landing strip before the conclusion of her term in May 2014. 

To date, there has been a great deal of debate over the project, but a lack of comprehensive and verifiable information. If built, how would the airport affect the small-scale ecotourism businesses in the region? Would the airport boost exports such as the palm oil that is a growing product of the region? If tourism becomes denser in the region, would the high-end ecotourists continue to pay top dollar to visit the area? Would local communities have the skills, such as English proficiency, to benefit from these changes?

To answer these questions, the Osa & Golfito Initiative case study analyzes the region’s ecotourism market – dominated by small businesses – and how that model might change with the airport’s operation.  It draws attention to the impact of an earlier, and larger, international airport in the country’s northwestern region, which profoundly changed tourism in that region. The study considers the possible economic impact of increased tourism if the southern airport is built and the potential change in the profiles and preferences of tourists arriving in the region. 

The INOGO case study was produced in Spanish, and includes a 1-page abstract translation in English. Download the report (Spanish) and the executive summary at the INOGO website.

By Rob Jordan

The Osa & Golfito Initiative or Iniciativa Osa y Golfito (INOGO) is facilitating the development of a strategy for sustainable human development and environmental stewardship in Costa Rica’s Osa and Golfito region. INOGO works hand in hand with Costa Ricans in local communities, government, the private sector and NGOs. The goal is to generate a living process for sustainable development led by Costa Ricans, especially the people of Osa and Golfito.