Stanford study helps Costa Rica decide on building airport in ecotourism area

Case study by Stanford and Costa Rican researchers explores multiple options for siting a new airport near renowned ecotourism destinations.

Courtesy of INOGO The proposed airport site includes an expanse of waterways.

The proposed airport site lies within 3 miles of the Terraba Sierpe Wetlands.

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.

The proposed airport site lies within three miles of the Térraba Sierpe Wetlands – recognized as "internationally important" by the environmental Ramsar Convention – amidst serpentine waterways harboring 3 percent of the world's biodiversity.

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, with 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 William Durham, INOGO's co-director at Stanford. Durham is the Bing Professor of Human Biology at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute. "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.

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 grown in 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 INOGO 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 that profoundly changed tourism in that area. 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 an abstract translated into English. Learn more about the project on the INOGO website.

Rob Jordan is the communications writer for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Emily Arnold, Osa & Golfito Initiative, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (301) 717-8791,

Christine Harrison, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 725-8240,