UNT students in Costa Rica learn to offset tourism’s harm to planet

Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 20:53
UNT students like Laura Anne Hunt are studying sustainable travel in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Laura Anne Hunt.
UNT students like Laura Anne Hunt are studying sustainable travel in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Laura Anne Hunt.

DENTON, Texas (UNT) — Sixteen University of North Texas students are using their know-how to ease tourism’s strain on the environment. The students, enrolled in a joint, two-year Master of Science in International Sustainable Tourism degree program, are researching ways to meet the needs of tourists and travel markets without compromising future resources.

“A lot of times when people travel, they don’t think about the impact,” said Kristi Ingram, a first-year student in the program who finished her bachelor’s degree from UNT in 2015. “Half of the battle facing sustainable practices is education. People don’t like to change until they absolutely have to. The question is how we teach others to care.”

Students like Ingram spend a year at UNT building an academic foundation in statistical analysis, assessing environmental impact, marketing and policy. The second year they take additional courses in the science of sustainability while researching independently at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza in Costa Rica. The country emerged as a leader in sustainable tourism after decades of deforestation. Now, about 25 percent of the country’s land mass is devoted to natural preservation. Students learn from the success in Costa Rica.

“There is no one-size-fits-all textbook solution,” said Laura Anne Hunt, who is in her second year. “Seeing how practitioners feel is important to driving home the understanding that each puzzle, problem and assignment will be unique.”

Hunt is studying indicators of sustainable events with hopes to help create a low-cost evaluation tool. Existing tools and certifications in Costa Rica require memberships and costly investments and “many people are using terms such as ‘green,” ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly,’ but this is usually just a marketing strategy,” she said.

Ajak Kenyi, a second year student and a UNT alumnus, said sustainable tourism offers a path to economic success for many nations. 

“We see firsthand how Costa Ricans practice tourism – how some methods become successful and why others fail,” said Kenyi, who came to the U.S. nine years ago from the country now known as South Sudan.

Kenyi says that South Sudan, a relatively new country which gained independence in 2011, has an opportunity to build an environmentally sustainable tourism sector and “do everything right the first time.”

Ashley De León Torres feels similarly about her native home in Puerto Rico.

“A part of our economy depends on tourism, most of which is nature based, and if our resources are not managed sustainably, future generations will be hurt,” she said.

Travel is a boon for global trade and economic growth, with one out of every 11 jobs globally coming from the sector. However, the supporting infrastructure can be harmful to the environment and regional cultures – details noted by the United Nations, which named 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

De León Torres and Rachel Wilson, both first year students, are examining the largely untapped ecotourism market for college students. The research is especially relevant for Wilson, who is CEO of Las Olas Travel. The company designs trips in Costa Rica and Nicaragua combining the adventure of travel with the compassion of volunteer.

“A huge part of our market is college students, so understanding their travel motivations, expectations and understanding of different types of tourism is critical,” said Wilson. “Being able to incorporate things we learn about in class into Las Olas Travel is a really cool experience.”

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