TORTUGUERO, Limón – Every year, 100,000 tourists visit Tortuguero National Park and its surrounding hotels and restaurants on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast. The park – known for its nesting sea turtles, tranquil canals and lush tropical rain forest – is the country’s fourth most-visited protected area.
But Tortuguero also has its challenges, and to address its sustainability, security and popularity as a tourism destination, a group of 23 local business owners this month formed the Tortuguero Regional Tourism Chamber (CATUTOR), officially launched at an inauguration ceremony last Saturday.
The new chamber is composed of owners of hotels, restaurants, tour operators, local souvenir shops and other businesses, the Association of Tortuguero Tour Guides and local nonprofit organizations. It is supported by the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR).
CATUTOR President Roxana Silman said a primary goal of the new chamber is improving the relationship between the tourism sector and the Tortuguero Conservation Area – part of the Environment Ministry’s National System of Conservation Areas – and reducing bureaucratic barriers for future projects.
CANATUR President Pablo Abarca Heriberto, who attended last Saturday’s ceremony, said, “We support the formation of this group and their focus on working toward common goals. … It is essential to have an active effort that defends the tourism industry in the region in coordination with us.”
In addition to improving relations with administrators of the Tortuguero Conservation Area, CATUTOR board members hope to address several other issues, including sewage treatment, sustainability certification (such as the Blue Flag program), better community relations and sea turtle protection.
“The poaching of turtles and eggs still exists in the area, but it has decreased significantly in the past year,” Silman, who is a member of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, said. The conservancy is among a number of scientific groups that monitor sea turtle nests in Tortuguero.
Silman said turtle poaching has decreased because of stepped up surveillance at all hours of the day, thanks to joint efforts by the National Police, park rangers, volunteers and environmental groups.
“The police presence in the area has increased following recent violence in Limón,” chamber secretary Eugenia Jurado told The Tico Times, referring to last year’s murder of Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora. “This has helped reduce the number of poachers and criminals [who operate] inside the park.”
Hotel owners, park rangers and environmental groups have agreed to schedules and group size limits for tourists visiting nesting sea turtles. Turtle watching tours are monitored by National Police officers, park rangers, and NGO staff and volunteers. The Coast Guard helps by patrolling the coast.
“Our efforts have helped improve the protection of natural resources, which is needed to help develop the region, Jurado said. “While our work focuses on protecting nature, we also need help protecting tourists and local residents, because the criminal element is coming from outside [the region].”
Last December, three armed men wearing black ski masks attacked a tourist riverboat, robbing all 14 people on board. The bandits made off with cash, cellphones, watches and cameras belonging to tourists from the United States, Spain and Switzerland.
The new chamber also is promoting a joint effort by the municipality and the Tortuguero Conservation Area to improve access to the region. Currently, access is only possible by boat and plane.
Board members also say they will organize a turtle festival and other events to attract more domestic tourists.