In discussing the Costa Rican economy, two themes arise: the sustainability of ecotourism and the growing endangerment of leatherback sea turtles, dermochelys coriaceaa. A relationship that is either damaging or beneficial will initially be declared based on past and present data collections that highlight the origins, perceptions and importance of recognizing human influence on the environment. In turn, this relationship’s influence on our lives and generations to come will be evaluated. This information will help to identify potential goals and expectations.
For centuries, human activity has left imprints on the Earth. Anthropogenic impact has shown explosive results that display the accumulative negativity entailed. As resources and habitats are constantly under pressure to adapt, many living organisms are subject to exploitation and destruction. The environment is juxtaposed against the product of human. Leatherbacks and ecotourism will serve here as representatives of this juxtaposition.
Overview of Ecotourism
The World Tourism Organization defines tourism as, “A social, cultural and economic phenomenon which entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes.”[i] With a basis inscribed in human nature for curiosity, the desire to travel and explore is realized through tourism. An industry dependent on technology will continuously evolve and prosper. However, this expansion also entails a gamble that has drawbacks. As tourism is mediated by technology, the environment and other communities are vulnerable to degradation.
Ecotourism, one of the many branches of tourism, has advanced as a more suitable manner to travel. “Ecotourism” is defined by the World Conservation Union as, "Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people.”[ii] The International Ecotourism Society lists the principles of ecotourism as “uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.”[iii] Ecotourism places emphasis on conservation through the following characteristics:
- Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
- Sensitivity towards local cultures and biodiversity
- Support for local conservation effort and local participation in decision-making
- Sustainable benefits to local communities
- Educational components for both the traveler and local communities
While measured differently for each site of ecotourism, these characteristics above must be exercised to define tourism as ecologically friendly.
The exploration of unfamiliar places where individuals or groups complete environmentally friendly activities separates ecotourism from the other kinds of tourism, as the purpose of the visit is directed towards ecology. Ecology here is defined as “the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and their physical surroundings.”[iv] It becomes clear that ecotourism has emerged as a more ideal mode of exploration, in that it offers natural experiences paired with responsibility and education. Ecotourism thrives in supplementing conservation through the economy, government funding, local businesses, and cultural exchange.
In a study done by Jessica Blue, she notes how different countries noticed a supplemental economic boom and as ecotourism becomes more popular. The income these countries reap is then recycled into ecotourism to further it, which bolsters ecotourism’s success. Blue goes on to quote Alison Ormsby and Kathryn Mannie:
“In Costa Rica, ecotourism's popularity led to the creation of several national parks and reserves, which established a protected wildlife corridor. In turn, governments must have the funds to maintain their parks and keep hunters, poachers and loggers out of them. In Madagascar, poor infrastructure, government instability and the local communities' need for the food and lumber inside the Masoala National Park's borders have limited the park's success.”[v],[vi]
Overview of Costa Rica
Costa Rica, a relatively small southern Central American country about the size of West Virginia (51,100 km2), boasts a diverse landscape, rich with culture and different ecosystems. Costa has a population of roughly 4.872 million people, about the same as Los Angeles and San Diego. In the last three decades Costa Rica has emerged as a leader in Central America by paving the path for the growth of ecotourism. The ecotourism boom began in Costa Rica in 1987. In 2012 alone, about 2.34 million tourists generated over $2.4 billion USD in income for Costa Rica.[vii] The extensive biodiversity, manageable location, safety, stability, environmental support, international support, and overall higher standard of living are strong facets in the success of ecotourism in Costa Rica.[viii]
While accounting for barely 0.3% of the earth’s land mass, Costa Rica contains over 5% of the world’s biodiversity. The rainforests, beaches, flora, and fauna attract crowds of tourists monthly. The Caribbean and Pacific coastline both give range to travel while at the same time, its proximity to the United States lends to its tourism appeal. Americans make up about 20% of the world’s tourism market and make up about 49% of Costa Rica’s foreign visitors.[ix]
Distinct from other Latin American countries, Costa Rica has been historically stable and politically and socially safe. Environmentalists have had their eyes on the promotion of Costa Rica’s environmentally-friendly appearance just as international relations have poured in with political and financial support. While not a truly post-industrial country, Costa Rica advertises a higher standard of living compared to its neighboring countries. The CIA World Fact book applauds the stable economic development, with a 4% annual growth rate. Martha Honey, the co-founder of the Center for Responsible Travel, said, “Costa Rica is not all eco, but the ecotourism revolution in Costa Rica has been profound. It still remains the best example in the world of successful ecotourism.”[x]
The Sustainability and Benefits of Ecotourism
Distinct from Western familiarities, Costa Rica may entice tourists with ‘exotic’ adventures. Costa Rica has taken advantage of a tourism angle countries such as France, Spain, and Italy cannot provide. As a result, Costa Rica has profited from the economic development mediated by ecotourism. For example, according to Weaver’s study on Ecotourism in the Less Developed World, “Since 1984, international tourism receipts have grown from $117 million to $136 million in 1987 and $577 million in 1993.”[xi] As a demonstrative cycle of giving and receiving, the country benefits from employment, improved infrastructure, and increased business for local communities.[xii]
Ecotourism also supports protected areas. Costa Rica’s national parks have entrance fees that maintain the parks. Protection is essential, as forests and communities are disappearing with the advance of modernization. As this branch of tourism strives to conserve, tourists are often educated about the necessity of preservation. Having the chance to witness the objects of conversation, tourists are encouraged to lead ecologically friendly lifestyles to minimize the environmental destruction often caused by traditional tourism.
An example includes the Lapa Rios Lodge which was constructed in 2003. This renowned eco-lodge is in the Costa Rican rainforest that overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Puntarenas. In attempts to uphold their eco-friendliness, locals use recycled or renewable materials like bamboo straws to create furniture and other structures throughout. A personal account from a Yale University graduate, Alice Henly, reflected on her visit, saying, “During the four days I stayed at Lapa Rios, I began to appreciate first-hand the rich, diverse beauty of our surroundings. I swam underneath a waterfall. I surfed at a volcanic black sand beach. I hiked through the rainforest, watched howler monkeys swing through the trees, and held a baby green iguana.”[xiii]
The Negative Aspects of Ecotourism
As ecotourism promises a quintessential substitute for tourism, there are in fact drawbacks. For one, as the popularity continues to grow and attract more eco-aware tourists, principle of managing low-impact visitation is violated. “Nearly a third of travelers (30%) would choose a destination for a trip because it is considered eco-friendly. Costa Rica is the most popular destination in the world for travelers interested in an eco-friendly trip, according to a 2012 TripAdvisor survey.”[xiv] However, this increased interest also attracts negative impacts including, “solid waste generation, habitat disturbance, and forest degradation resulting from trail erosion.”[xv] While enjoyment is an expected part of the package, visitors tend to neglect their individual presence. Paradoxically, human presence and its increase in protected areas undermines the principles of ecotourism.
In a past study of How ‘Eco’ is Ecotourism? A Comparative Case Study of Ecotourism in Costa Rica completed at Cornell University, students concluded that:
“Study results imply ecotourism falls short of having a significant influence on conservation knowledge or perspectives. Ecotourism is not likely to be an effective conservation strategy if it operates only through occupying community members’ time or creating economic incentives to make standing forests more valuable. Without attention to creating awareness and/or reinforcing respect for nature, questions will remain about people’s commitment to conservation. Although financial concerns play a role in resource management, higher levels of awareness or appreciation could ensure greater potential for favorable conservation practices over the long term”[xvi]
The idea of whether awareness is being raised appropriately and efficiently for conservation remains a concern. Additionally, locals are often exploited as little or no revenue is given to them. The disturbance from development can also affect the social and cultural structure of these communities, disrupting long-held local customs.
The construction of the hydroelectric Boruca Dam unearthed such issues. Though it generates hydroelectric energy for more than one million Costa Rican consumers, its benefits have not held because of the long-term impacts of its construction. Some state that the building of this hydroelectric dam will destroy habitats, species, and the surrounding communities due to the prospect of ecotourism. As a result, this project has been underway for over 30 years while simultaneously being paired with numerous indigenous protests. The hydroelectric dam is one example of how modernization within an environment displaces a community’s culture and tradition. Modernization sometimes necessitates the removal of natural habitats. Ecotourism, in turn, tries to diminish this disturbance, providing the chance for tourists to become aware of the importance of conservation.
Overview of Leatherback Sea Turtles
The leatherback sea turtles, or known as las tortugas baulas in Costa Rica, are the largest of the seven sea turtle species (leatherback, loggerhead, green turtle, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, and flatback). As a grown adult averagely weighs 2,000 pounds and is 6.5 feet in length, the Leatherbacks’ eponymous name comes from their top shell, made of “leathery, oil-saturated connective tissue overlaying loosely interlocking dermal bones”[xvii]. It is the fourth largest reptile behind three types of crocodiles as well as the fastest swimming reptile. Leatherbacks generate heat through constant swimming with studies stating that they only spend 0.1% of their days resting. The exact lifespan of these reptiles is unknown, but fossils can be traced all the way back to 110 million years ago. These modern-day dinosaurs have been listed as endangered since 1970 and more recently categorized as critically endangered.
Leatherback sea turtles are pelagic, meaning that they are open ocean animals. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Yet they are not constrained to these areas as they generally travel to follow their prey, jellyfish. In terms of mating and nesting, they tend to return to familiar areas that can properly support their clutches that average 100 eggs. Leatherbacks can be found at Corcovado National Park, Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, Marino Las Baulas National Park, Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, and Tortuguero Park in Costa Rica. Their nesting sites seem to remain enclosed at the beaches of Playa Grande, Tortuguero, Parismina, and Gandoca. Though subjective to other factors, the nesting season for Leatherbacks at Playa Grande range from October to January with December and January as the peaked months. On the Caribbean coast with Tortuguero, Parismina, and Gandoca, the nesting season is presumably consistent from March to June with April and May as the peaked months for most births.
The Pacific leatherback population has declined by a staggering 90% since 1980.[xviii] Because Costa Rica has the appropriate tropical beaches for the nesting of leatherbacks, hundreds of conservation sites have been constructed. Due to their role in maintaining ecosystem balance, it is imperative that more attention is given to leatherbacks’ staggering decrease. Additionally, because “the spread of human development around the globe [has caused] sea turtle numbers [to drop] to 0.1 percent of their historical abundance,”[xix] we should prioritize prevention of their decline.
The Threats to The Leatherbacks
The main threats accounting for leatherback endangerment, both on nesting beaches and in the marine environment, include surrounding human-driven development, fishing, nest disturbance, pollution, and climate change.
Human development disturbs populations because terrains must be cleared. Seeing that Leatherbacks migrate to certain beaches with suitable temperatures for nesting, and these beaches also often appeal as ideal destinations for private and public companies. Any development within proximity invites further disturbance. The Leatherback Trust, an international non-profit conservation organization that protects leatherback turtles and other sea turtle species from extinction, adds that even without direct development on their nesting sites:
“Costal construction and dredging can reshape beaches, making them too steep for nesting leatherbacks to haul themselves out of the water. Construction noise can also drive turtles away. Cutting down shoreline trees and shrubs may improve ocean views but also permits light from beachfront buildings and streets to shine on the beach, disorienting hatchlings and deterring turtles from nesting. Human use and development of nesting beaches can also threaten turtles with pollution from septic systems, trash, and pet feces”[xx]
In building new areas on or near their nesting sites, human activity disturbs their ability to repopulate.
Fishing also contributes to depopulation because leatherbacks are constantly getting trapped in fishing gear and especially gillnets. With seafood constantly in strong demand, fishermen unintentionally catch turtles within them. Many problems arise when turtles become trapped within nets, such as being “Unable to surface to breathe, many turtles drown after becoming entangled in fishing lines or ensnared by nets [or that] [o]ther turtles, lured by fishing bait, become hooked and sustain injuries that can still kill them even if they are released.”[xxi] With awareness of this effect could reduce unintentional capturing of Leatherbacks. However, because many are unaware, unintentional capturing still stands as a threat. Additionally, The Leatherback Trust shares that:
“Female turtles lay their eggs in the sand, covering each clutch well to protect it after she returns to sea. The sun’s warmth incubates the eggs and shifting tides deliver fresh oxygen to the developing embryos. Disturbance of nests by poachers, predators, and uniformed beachgoers can imperil eggs and nestling turtles. Unfortunately, poachers use this market as cover for sale of illegally collected sea turtle eggs, including critically endangered leatherback eggs. Beachgoers are often unaware that walking above the high tide line or driving on the beach can crush nests and kill nestlings. Visitors pitching beach umbrellas in the sand to create shade on a sunny day may unknowingly penetrate turtle nests. Pet owners are usually unable to react fast enough to stop unleashed dogs from digging up turtle eggs. Turtle eggs and nestlings are easy targets for predators with a strong sense of smell. But introduced species like domesticated dogs and cats are creating new threats to sea turtle nest along with the natural predators, like coatimundis in Costa Rica”[xxii]
Premeditated and accidental disturbances greatly affect the nests and populations. And with their listing as critically endangered, it is imperative that the population grow and reproduce. In a 2010 study, Matthew Spanier from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest sought to research the relationship between beach erosion and nesting sites of leatherback sea turtles (by the implications of management practices precisely in Playa Gandoca, Costa Rica).[xxiii] He suggests that relocation practices should be reevaluated because leatherbacks seem to actively select the nest sites that are not undergoing erosive processes. To ensure proper conservation of these turtles, relocation of nesting sites is strongly discouraged. Whether it is from predators intentionally disturbing the nests or from conservations relocating the nest with good intentions or even unknowing guests that wander onto the areas, disturbances to the eggs contribute to the fact that Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered.
Human waste and light and noise pollution comprise some major threats to leatherback sea turtle populations. While looking for food, leatherbacks often confuse plastic debris with jellyfish. If swallowed, plastic blocks leatherback’ digestive tracts, causing the turtle to starve to death. Pertaining to more pollution threats, agricultural runoff, chemical containments, and oil spills in the coastal waters make the turtles more prone to diseases and other problems such as respiratory inflammation, cancer, organ damage, and reproductive failure.[xxiv] Also, light and noise from pollution can distinctly drive them away from their preferred nesting sites. And even after eggs have been nested, low-frequency noises can disturb the turtles and even damage their hearing, drastically shortening their life expectancy.
Moreover, rising temperatures, shifting ocean currents, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidification—all linked to climatic change—negatively impact the turtles. Studies have shown that overheating can kill nestling turtles while also skewing the sex ratio to produce more females.[xxv] Shifting ocean currents also disrupt the leatherbacks’ nesting habits, as they struggle to navigate back to their nesting sites. The vice-president of Conservation International, Roderic Mast, said, “Sea turtles act as our warning mechanism for the health of the ocean, and what they're telling us is quite alarming. Their plummeting numbers are symptomatic of the ocean as a whole."[xxvi]
Even though these threats can be separated into development, fishing, nest disturbance, pollution, and climate change, it seems that most, if not all, can be branched with the root of human actions. Out of awareness or ignorance, these actions negatively impact leatherback sea turtles. Their drastic diminishment within the past three decades is alarming.
The Relationship Between Ecotourism and Leatherbacks
The expansion of ecotourism in Costa Rica has increased awareness about the current state of leatherback sea turtles. Conservation sites that promote protection, research, education, and advocacy along with volunteering opportunities have paved ways for protecting these critically endangered reptiles. Ecotourism ultimately appears to be the ideal approach for environmentally concerned tourists who strive to be environmentally responsible while receiving the opportunity to experience nature. Though, with ecotourism’s negatives in mind, it is useful to evaluate if the turtles benefit. Seemingly, the ultimately damaging impacts on Leatherback Sea Turtles seem to outweigh the beneficial results.
As education leads to awareness, it is assumed that measures will be taken to protect, research, and advocate more conscientiousness. Many tourists become aware but often return to their countries without second thoughts towards what they’ve learned. Tourists mainly end up leaving imprints that cause disturbances, which override the efforts of protection. It seems that ecotourism is only another threat to the survival of these reptiles as the damaging effects clearly surpass the positive efforts.
Although my research has led me to believe that ecotourism’s detriments outweigh its benefits, further research was required. To remedy this, I carried out a variety of interviews from which I gathered first-hand accounts of what has been done, what is being done, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked. I interviewed professors, advocates, and volunteers to understand these turtles more and to also gain better knowledge of the inputs and outputs of humanitarian actions. With experts on the environment somewhat standing as the mediator between ecotourism and Leatherbacks, I wanted to comprehend their take on this situation and what they thought was the best or the most appropriate approach for the future. Observing tourist interactions also added to my research and results. Additionally, I handed out surveys around the tourist landmarks and national parks to gain a broader view on general opinions and thoughts towards ecotourism. The questionnaire focused on uses of interests versus actions and general awareness and education about leatherbacks and environmental protection.
Eco-Lodge: For our first week in Costa Rica, my group and I dedicated our time towards seeing and experiencing the beauty of the country. On one of our stays in Paraíso was at a lodge hosted by Carolina Velazquez. This lodge was different in that it followed eco-tourist guidelines. Within the farm we had visited, our group became more educated upon the approach of ecologically-friendly production. Their main focuses seemed to target the protection of ecosystems and the production of their own substances or support of local businesses. They insisted people should buy locally because doing so strengthens their local economy.
In staying at Rinconcito Verde, we could see that relatively similar goals were withheld in this eco-lodge. This eco-lodge is self-sufficient, while depending on locally-run businesses to provide home-cooked meals. The water itself naturally originates from nearby systems. Overall, this eco-lodge strives to protect the environment and to educate others about the manner in which they are doing this. Through little actions such as purchasing and using local products, the economy and environment can be protected.
Playa Tamarindo Pura Vida Hostel: The Pura Vida Hostel in Playa Tamarindo is amidst an extremely touristy area. Because of that, I completed several interviews and surveys while gaining a different perspective. The owner at the hostel elaborated on how local businesses (the hostels, hotels, restaurants, and stores) promoted each other to the tourists to prosper financially. With that, this hostel along with many others, provided and promoted series of appealing adventurous activities. In turn, many tourists are indeed attracted to the environmentally-friendly experience that they can participate in. Yet, while I was there, I also discovered through several discussions with backpackers that many did not know what “ecotourism” meant. To them, ecotourism has the word eco and tourism in it and therefore referred to completing environmental activities in another country. Accordingly, I realized that while Costa Rica strives to educate the importance of ecotourism, fiscal objectives are ultimately prioritized.
Manuel Antonio National Park Eco-Tourism Guide: Manuel Antonio National Park has been praised and even listed by Forbes as one of the world’s 12 most beautiful national parks. It is Costa Rica’s smallest national park and one of the most diversely populated in wildlife. The beaches are surrounded by an immense rainforest which draws in surfers, swimmers, bird-watchers, and tourists. In following ecotourism, this national park caps their visitation number each day so the carbon footprint does not surpass an unmanageable or amount.
Before entering the park, we were approached by a tour guide claiming to show us all the hidden animals we would normally pass. Throughout the tour, I questioned him about ecotourism and its success, to which he replied that this tour itself was a representation of ecotourism because he was teaching us about the environment. He then stressed how he loved his job because he enjoyed informing others about the need for perseveration, awareness, and protection. Costa Ricans ardently strive to protect and properly care for what is theirs. They put efforts into producing a system that simultaneously has clear benefits towards the economy.
Leatherback Sea Turtles:
Sea Turtle Protection: I had the opportunity to travel to a turtle reserve with my host sister. This reserve makes every effort to rescue turtles that were abandoned by previous owners. With over 150 turtles, they take care of these turtles and put effort into increasing their longevity. The owner proceeded to inform me that a lot of people who own turtles do not know how to truly take care of them.
Pura Vida Hostel: While staying at the Pura Vida Hostel, I sought out an excursion to see Leatherback Sea Turtles hatching at night in a nearby reserve. I had made plans through the host to travel with a biologist, and was disappoinrted when another manager approached me telling me I should not go. He informed me that this reputed biologist was not a biologist, but a poacher who took tourists out to see the turtles only to later steal the turtles’ eggs. This illegal activity is unfortunately considered to be common. On a larger note, this draws attention to the tourists who are also lured into such activities. Tourists who want the experience of seeing turtle eggs hatching are willing to pay the price. But walking into some independent tour companies, the best interest of the turtles and tourists are not always kept in mind.
La Fortuna Waterfall: Costa Rica sells the beauty their country offers. The Fortuna Waterfall lures in tourists who want to see an extraordinarily site. With a fee of $11, tourists can walk down several flights of stairs to approach the area. The fee is used to maintain the area and to support those who take time and effort to care for the area.
TEC Professor: In talking to a professor and several students at TEC, it was made clear that a lot of Costa Ricans care about the environment. Reiterating a commonality, they are proud of what their country offers and they want others to enjoy it as well.
University of Costa Rica (UCR) Professor: After an interview with a UCR Professor, it became apparent that as much as some want progress, more want to do whatever it takes to protect the environment.
In the end, I gathered a total of 60 surveys. While not indicative of an entire population, the gathered results still display interesting points. From the 60 surveys I collected, the average age ranged from 18-35. Most of these adventure-seeking tourists were Americans, Canadians, or Europeans who were not familiar Latin American countries. The perception of Costa Rica popularly came down to: “beaches, jungles, and food.” Few tourists knew what ecotourism was. As for the question of turtles, people filled in generic responses including “shells, cute, and floppy.” Walking into this, I had hoped to see that a majority would know that ecotourism has to do with tourism that is environmentally friendly and that these sea turtles are endangered. Yet, few knew.
Researcher’s Notes and Moving Forward
With much to offer culturally, aesthetically, and environmentally, Costa Rica attracts millions of tourists each year. When asking why travelers go to Costa Rica, the initial answer ranged but it mostly entailed the desire for adventure or for an “escape.” Similarly, Costa Rica also projects this image that it is the perfect country for an escape from the mundane.
Through my research, I still had questions, such as how are specific environments supposed to be kept undisturbed if human vicinity disturbs it? People can become more educated, but how many of them act upon this knowledge? And what portions of the income fund the preservation of these areas? Leatherbacks are quite obviously in danger, with the relationship between ecotourism and this specific species creating tension.
ICT’s mission according to their National Development Plan has proposed that they want to “Promote a wholesome tourism development, with the purpose of improving Costa Ricans’ quality of life, by maintaining a balance between the economic and social boundaries, environmental protection, culture, and facilities.” Keeping this in mind, it is rather hard to keep a complete balance between all factors when facility improvements are necessary and the environment is considered secondary. As ecotourism’s goal is to preserve the nation’s natural resources while profiting from them, the primary objective comes into question. Ecotourism is damaging when weighing the pros and cons against each other. However, with the need for progress and advancement, it seems inevitable. Therefore, it seems that while my hypothesis is supported, the next steps need to be taken. Ecotourism is ecologically damaging when tourists are allowed into protected areas, and the construction of high-rise hotels and resorts occludes ecotourism’s benefits.
Education may be the key in resolving this. Tourists and civilians need to know the importance of what they must protect and what they must do to take care of the ecosystems. The fact that leatherbacks are endangered shows us where our future is headed. People are not aware of the reality and therefore do not care. However, they need to care because this is our world and this is our future. Therefore, the only means to making more people care is to inform and educate them, and to raise their awareness.
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 Anthropogenic describes the impact of pollution and human activity on biophysical environments and other resources. 25
 Biodiversity is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the “biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.”
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[v] Ormsby, A. and Mannie, K. “Ecotourism benefits and the role of local guides at Masoala National Park, Madagascar”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 14(3): 271-287. 2006.
[vi] Blue, Jessica. "What Are the Benefits of Ecotourism for Local Communities?" Home Guides. Demand Media, n.d. Web. <http://homeguides.sfgate.com/benefits-ecotourism-local-communities-78820....
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[viii] Ornsby and Mannie “Ecotourism.”
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