Paradise, para quién?: How small communities (re)claim space in the Costa Rican tourism industry

Plan Author

  • Alicia Lowden, 2019

Fields of Concentration

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Patricia Gubitosi, University of Massachusetts Amherst


My Plan of Concentration has three main components. The first component details how power inequality has shaped the development of tourism in small communities in Costa Rica, and gives some context into Costa Rican history, national identity, and the shift from agriculture to tourism at national and local levels. The second component of my Plan, “All it Takes is a Grain of Sand,” focuses more closely on my internship with Bridge Tour Operator, and the true potential of tourism as a way to give back to small communities. I decided to make my independent component a translation of the entire Plan into Spanish. I wanted to translate the completed papers into Spanish to challenge English as a language of power—one that has for over a century devalued the contributions of Spanish authors and speakers. I also wanted to widen the potential audience that can access this paper.


Although local residents do actively influence the development of tourism, both on individual and communal scales, there is still an uneven power dynamic which privileges the consumer power of Western European and Euro-American tourists. Tourists’ power is amplified through consumerism because their demand heavily influences the market. Their economic leverage extends to them “the power to interpret and invent cultural identities– that is, the power to define the social meaning of self, other and empire.” For example, a tourist describing a restaurant as “authentic” defines its value in relation to their own subjective perceptions of the “authentic” food, culture or setting.

In my own experience, it took me a six month internship followed by nearly a year of theoretical reading, writing, and analysis to learn what the owners of Bridge Tour Operator had been telling me all along about the significance of their work in terms of sustainable development. Esther, Adan, Francinie, Yahaira, the tour guides, the fruit vendors, the farmers that participated in the seed exchange, the activists in Frente Amplio, and the residents of Penas Blancas, are all individuals with power. Although their small business was not as visible to tourists as the luxury five-star hotels, by starting their own company, competing with transnationals and empowering residents and small farmers, they made a significant impact in the development of local tourism. They used their platform as business owners to give back to their community.

En este texto analizo los orígenes del turismo en La Fortuna y partes de Guanacaste, y sostengo que en muchos casos el turismo crea y/o apoya las dinámicas desiguales de poder, la desigualdad económica, y la explotación de recursos naturales, pero los trabajadores y las empresas pequeñas locales han encontrado maneras de resistir esas dinámicas de poder con proyectos propios y comunales.


It wasn’t as hard as people told me it would be. As long as I set weekly goals for myself, I achieved way more than I expected. I think right now, the most memorable part was finishing the Plan and spending three whole days translating, with barely any sleep, and then revising it last minute. Mailing it felt unreal.

The most interesting part was the way it evolved. When I started writing, it was very vague and included topics that I later had to cut out of the other drafts. It was almost like I didn’t know where I was going, but found it along the way until one day, it just made sense. I really have to thank my Plan sponsors for guiding me through that process.

The inspiration for my Plan started when I was volunteer teaching at an English school and developed close friendships with some people that were starting a tourism company. When I spent time at their business and helped them with projects, I realized that tourism was a very complex issue, and started to question the power dynamics behind it. When I was planning where to go for my six-month internship, I thought, why not go back and study that?