Biodiversity and infrastructure interact to drive tourism to and within Costa Rica


Tourism accounts for roughly 10% of global gross domestic product, with nature-based tourism its fastest-growing sector in the past 10 years. Nature-based tourism can theoretically contribute to local and sustainable development by creating attractive livelihoods that support biodiversity conservation, but whether tourists prefer to visit more biodiverse destinations is poorly understood. We examine this question in Costa Rica and find that more biodiverse places tend indeed to attract more tourists, especially where there is infrastructure that makes these places more accessible. Safeguarding terrestrial biodiversity is critical to preserving the substantial economic benefits that countries derive from tourism. Investments in both biodiversity conservation and infrastructure are needed to allow biodiverse countries to rely on tourism for their sustainable development. Nature-based tourism has potential to sustain biodiversity and economic development, yet the degree to which biodiversity drives tourism patterns, especially relative to infrastructure, is poorly understood. Here, we examine relationships between different types of biodiversity and different types of tourism in Costa Rica to address three questions. First, what is the contribution of species richness in explaining patterns of tourism in protected areas and country-wide in Costa Rica? Second, how similar are the patterns for birdwatching tourism compared to those of overall tourism? Third, where in the country is biodiversity contributing more than other factors to birdwatching tourism and to overall tourism? We integrated environmental data and species occurrence records to build species distribution models for 66 species of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, and for 699 bird species. We used built infrastructure variables (hotel density and distance to roads), protected area size, distance to protected areas, and distance to water as covariates to evaluate the relative importance of biodiversity in predicting birdwatching tourism (via eBird checklists) and overall tourism (via Flickr photographs) within Costa Rica. We found that while the role of infrastructure is larger than any other variable, it alone is not sufficient to explain birdwatching and tourism patterns. Including biodiversity adds predictive power and alters spatial patterns of predicted tourism. Our results suggest that investments in infrastructure must be paired with successful biodiversity conservation for tourism to generate the economic revenue that countries like Costa Rica derive from it, now and into the future.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences