“Country of Contradictions, Costa Rica: Early Ecotourism”
Author: Rexford Govorchin
Amazon, Kindle eBook Edition & Paperback, August 2016, ISBN: 978-1520715193
An engaging, first-person narrative of Costa Rica’s budding Tourism sector during 1979-1984, a particularly turbulent time for Central America, a mix of business history and historical novel. It reveals the close connection between the emergence of Costa Rican Ecotourism and the boom and bust fortunes of Lineas Aereas Costariccenses (LACSA), the flag carrier at the time. We follow the author's exertions at an incredibly detailed, almost daily, level - most probably based on well-organised diary notes. Rex Govorchin, the narrator, was a Marketing Manager for LACSA from 1979 until he was dismissed in 1984 as the airline was about to go bust, hit by competition in the context of the new US Open Skies policies as well as higher oil prices after the Second Oil Shock.
Before LACSA Rex Govorchin reported from war zones as a foreign correspondent and this is evident in his writing style - he is able to dramatise otherwise mundane facts. After LACSA, he was involved a few more years with tourism marketing in various Latin American countries, but subsequently became a leading Realtor in his native Florida. At LACSA he had wide responsibilities, ranging from marketing research and negotiating with local providers and US tour operators to organising fam trips and media orientation trips and the reader gets the inside story and analysis of how these things work (especially how they used to work before the Internet era) along with the interconnections of business, politics and geopolitics.
In the late 1970s, pacifist Costa Rica’s government was trying to develop tourism infrastructure and attract discerning tourists without sacrificing its conservation principles, and at the same time dispel tourist fears caused by the Cold-war era, civil war in neighbouring Nicaragua as well as deal with its side-effects: a peculiar, illicit drug & arms conundrum, later known to the world as the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair. Possibly the book title, “Country of Contradictions,” alludes to this as the author does not directly explain what these 'Contradictions' may be. He talks about 'contrasts', such as the climate contrasts between cool rainforests and the 'very dry deciduous forest' but this is a different issue.
The book's key hypothesis on the origins of Ecotourism development in Costa Rica appears on pages 14 and 18: “While the wars and the rampant drug trade turned international investment bankers away, a small number of us believed in seeking a different solution – one that wouldn’t require a resort-style destination, large investments or even an upgraded infrastructure. Costa Rica could never be admonished for garish symbols of opulence, standing as an architectural vanguard on an isthmus riddled with tin-roof towns, or of hiding luxurious resorts which secretly cater to the world's wealthy...Costa Rica lacked a competitive tourism infrastructure including an inventory of first-class accommodations, restaurants, and entertainment pitched to US tourist expectations. It failed to meet the basic criteria found in the smallest Caribbean Islands: White sand beaches, a rich history of European influences, the luxury resorts, playgrounds and mechanised toys that were critically important factors in decisions made by the most successful tour operators in the US.” Costa Rican Ecotourism is presented as both a rational choice and a choice of necessity which is a reasonable argument, although some may dispute the magnitude of the role of people like the author in this decision, compared to stakeholders as diverse as the Costa Rican government, the US government, private tourism investors, local communities and expat communities ranging from the Quakers of Monteverde to Vietnam War draft dodgers. Other purists may note the irony and ‘horror’ of an airline spearheading ecotourism! To the extent that this account is accurate, it offers a version of the development of Ecotourism in Costa Rica where there was little democratic participation and input from the local community.
This e-book is a recommended backgrounder for those planning to visit or do tourism business in Costa Rica, tourism consultants, developers, and, destination marketers and, of course, economic history academics who should appreciate it as a reliable, primary source. The general public, however, would probably find the level of detail, including the hundreds of people and organisations named, tiresome.
A number of nostalgic photos from that period are included but unfortunately, they are not accompanied with explanatory legends. There are no graphs or statistics tables, no footnotes or bibliography. More importantly, the author does not seem to provide a clear self-evaluation, of whether he thinks his own actions, and the actions of other stakeholders were always appropriate, with the benefit of hindsight and references to subsequent developments following his departure as well as current conditions in Costa Rica. Some hints exist, but they are lost amid the details.
The writing style is idiosyncratic, but always engaging, dense and illustrative, even as it sometimes conveys an element of anxiety: some passages resemble a written apology/testimony under oath before an invisible board of draconian directors. That said, the narrative is frequently but pleasantly interrupted so that the author may incorporate his experiences from other tourism zones and war zones in the form of exciting anecdotes. There are many references to political developments, usefully reminding us of the underlying constraints and of the significance of political developments and geopolitical interests on economic decisions without diving into heavy political science.
In conjunction with studying and comparing other works on Costa Rican Tourism and Ecotourism of that era, and noting what has been included and what has been possibly omitted, this e-book is certainly educational, as it indicates the rather chaotic and haphazard way in which destinations developed in the late 70s early 80s, be it in the rush to fill airline seats, to support politician’s pet projects, to serve legal and illicit expat interests and all this complicated by Cold War geopolitics. Like all self-publications, “Country of Contradictions, Costa Rica” has its advantages and disadvantages, a key advantage, besides the very low price, being that a publishing house editor could have shortened this fascinating account removing names and details that are very useful to the more careful and informed readers.