Sustainable tourism means traveling in a way that 1) has minimal environmental impact, 2) promotes conservation, and 3) improves local livelihoods, both economically and socially. Our Directed Research project on gender and sustainable tourism took us to an excellent example of all three at Hotel Punta Islita on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. On the environmental front, the Hotel is situated on land that was once tree-barren cattle ranches. Hotel Punta Islita has increased forest cover on its property from 2% in 1975 to 76% in 2008.  They also promote conservation principles by providing land and funding to a macaw reintroduction program and organizing beach patrols on a local sea turtle marine reserve.

Our research focused on the social and economic impact of the Hotel on local communities. Students examined job segregation and wage disparity by gender. They also learned how the Hotel actively hires from surrounding communities, provides job training, and promotes local start-up businesses. The project that has had perhaps the largest impact on the community of Islita, and us as visitors, is the six local art groups.  The Hotel initiated the program 10 years ago as an attraction for tourists and to improve the quality of life for women in the local community, creating a win/win situation for all involved.

As we interviewed the people of the Islita community we were surrounded by imaginative and colorful mosaics and paintings on every building. In addition to this open-air gallery there is a museum, a workshop for the local artisans, and a shop for tourists to purchase the arts and crafts made by members of the different art collectives. As we took a jewelry-making class from one of the groups, we saw just how art binds the local women together. In addition to economic empowerment, participants mentioned how being part of this program has changed the way they see themselves. They have a role outside of the home, they interact with other community members, and they have been trained in their craft by visiting artists. In the process these women have become artists themselves and are now passing their skills on to their own children, as well as to guests of the Hotel.

Art decorates the façade of the preschool building

A mural of a Guanacaste, the national tree of Costa Rica

A guided tour of the town’s open-air gallery

Students examine Hotel Punta Islita’s recycling system

Students participating in a jewelry-making class taught by local women