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The tourist imaginary in Costa Rica: from a “way of seeing” to “making a territory”

Linda Boukhris
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’imaginaire touristique à l’épreuve du Costa Rica : entre « voir » et « faire » le territoire [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
El imaginario turístico a prueba de Costa Rica: entre « ver » y « hacer » el territorio [es]


The representation of a peaceful state, without an army as well as the representation of wild nature are the two main constituents of Costa Rican tourist identity. The tourist imaginary is so powerful that it has led Costa Rica to become the top eco-tourism destination in the Central American ithmus. If this tourist imaginary is repsonsible for the creation of tourist sites, it is also involved in the construction of the territorial identity of Costa Rica by creating territorial symbols from which the national collective identification has taken shape. The tourist imaginary is not only a way of “seeing” the world but is “world-making”.

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  • 1 DOLLFUS Olivier.

1During the second half of the 20th century, “the kindling of global tourism” allowed the southern peripheral zones to be integrated into the flux of global tourists, who were led by a search for the last undiscovered areas of the world. Nevertheless, this touristic globalization did not immediately benefit the Central American isthmus, which, for the last several decades, had very little media exposure due to its political unrest. While this was considered “a blind spot” of the “global system”1 Costa Rica was made the subject of a positive individualization process with the origins of its destiny in ecotourism.

2Indeed, the peaceful representation of a small state without armed forces as well as the mythologized representations of nature are at the base of the tourism identity of Costa Rica (RAYMOND, 2007). However, we notice a paradox because whilst these images are largely diffused by the “tourism system,” Costa Rica is also experiencing elevated rates of deforestation as well as a serious economic and social crisis, which brings into question its model of stability. Still today, the progression of a seaside tourism model, consumer of resources, as well as the growing role of Costa Rica within the region’s drug traffic trade, do not present themselves as obstacles to the promotion of these representations. The power of these images is such that it denies all reality that would contradict the tourist imaginary, which claims to be a touristic desire. Even though there is a desire, the tourist imaginary goes beyond an intellectual representation; it’s comprised of all sorts of images, symbols, and myths, thus creating a poetic representation. Tourist imaginary takes on the characteristics of the Costa Rican national ideology, constructed by the political and intellectual elites of the country from the 19th century and based on the Costa Rican “difference” in regards to its stability and exemplary political nature. If the tourist imaginary helps to promote the uptake of the Costa Rican national ideology in the realm of global tourism, it also creates a new characteristic, to know the green “difference.” It is indeed the power of the tourist imaginary that contributed to making Costa Rica the premier tourist destination of the Central American isthmus, producing and diffusing the image of a country that is entirely dedicated to the green cause. If this tourist imaginary is at the origin of the production of these tourist areas, we are making the hypothesis here that it participates equally in constructing the Costa Rican territorial identity, by producing regional symbols from which the collective national identity forms.

3The purpose of this article is to identify, through the Costa Rican case, the principal components of the tourist imaginary and to analyze the impact of this imagination in the material and symbolic production of the area, the region and the top tourist sites. It also aims to show how the tourist imaginary is an institutionalized imagination, a producer of territoriality.

4There are many aspects of the imaginary at the root of the ecotourism practices in Costa Rica: search for an atemporal, ahistoric nomadic space, search for a natural space symbolizing wildness as absolute geographical otherness, search for a “decontextualized” conscience of social issues, and so forth. The analysis of the components of the tourist imaginary will be based on the notions of representations and rhetoric. Considering the diversity of agents involved (public institutions, professional sector, media, tourists), the study will carried out through the stages of production, of the spreading of the idea of this imaginary – furthermore considering that they can be simultaneous (in the cases of tourists who, in the realm of photographic practices, at the same time consume and produce this imaginary).

5Beyond the emergence of tourist sites, the changes within Costa Rican society, in search of a green identity (qualification of region, new governance of heritage, green diplomacy, etc.), are profound and show the full strength of this imaginary put into action. Therefore, it will be necessary to examine the notion of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (KING MERTON, 1953; STASZAK, 2000), making the imagined territoriality occur. In which way do the representation and discourses, articulated around the notion of the tourist imaginary, have the power to shape these spatial practices and to produce the territoriality? If the work on the geographical representations and the theory of the landscape has been well developed since the 1970s, the impact of these representations on the particular geographic use (such as space, environment, landscape, and region) has instead been much more modest. Concerning the field of tourism, it is necessary to understand to what extent the tourist imaginary no longer appears only as a way to “see” the world but also as a way to “experience” the world.

An Imaginary Creator of Tourist Locations

The dual components of tourist identity in Costa Rica: from political paradise to ecological paradise

6Costa Rica is characterized by a very attractive political image, constructed around the idea of the “Costa Rican exception” (MUSSET, 1998). As recent work by historians show, through a modernist perspective, the Costa Rican image is a creation of the political and intellectual elites throughout the 20th century. “Costa Rica is a ‘different’ country in the Central American context: this is the image which serves at the basis of its national identity” (ACUNA ORTEGA, 2002). Costa Rica’s image, in its first fifty years as a newly independent country, in effect, developed according to the Central American model, and in parallel with the formation of the state. Beginning in 1810, Costa Rica started to show more clearly an aspiration for independence vis-à-vis Nicaragua by whom it was oppressed. Therefore, since that era, this desire for autonomy, guaranteed in part by the economic viability of Costa Rica thanks to the development of exploitation in the coffee trade, fed the research of Costa Rica’s own characteristics and the classic opposition in the construction of the image of the Costa Rican nation and can be seen in the following way: as Costa Rica unified, Nicaragua equally crumbled. As a result, the foundations of the ideology that define Costa Rica as “exceptional” and “exemplary” in relation to its Central and Latin American neighbors emerged in 1821?1823 at the time of Costa Rica’s independence. The declaration of the Republic in 1848 helped to reinforce the position of Costa Rica as a viable nation, accepted and recognized in the international community. Starting in the 1850s, the image of Costa Rica as an idyllic location was spread by the writings and literature of travelers as well as the pieces of propaganda of Felipe Molina published in 1851. This Costa Rican diplomat’s work helped to popularize the national attributes created after 1821, by comparing the virtues of the Costa Rican people with the difficulties of the inhabitants of Nicaragua. In 1856, in response to the Annual Report of the President of the Republic, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, the Congress wrote: “A hardworking and honest people, mindful of the law and respectful of the authorities, alike in their race and by their unity, and with luck, should be happy, as indeed they are because Costa Rica possesses the essential elements of social happiness” (GRILLO ROSANIA, 2004). One finds similar discourse today with the selection of Costa Rica as “the happiest country” following a survey by the British non-governmental organization New Economics Foundation.

7One can equally refer to the role played by the North American mentor during the 20th century, fundamental in the process led to Costa Rica being considered as “Switzerland of Central America.” In reality, amidst the Cold War, Costa Rica stood out as an ally of the United States for its commitment to a liberal democracy, for its renunciation of a national army, but also for its involvement in the fight against communism as was seen during the large anti-communist Congress held in San José in 1958. The history of the country between 1950 and 1970 is marked by the context of the Cold War and the reign of anti-communism. The deterioration of the Central American situation and the return to the Cold War atmosphere would be the pretext to the diffusion of the democratic image of Costa Rica. As a result of the security that it offered, it welcomed foreign journalists who were covering the Central American conflicts and were in a position to make known the contrast in situations. The country was equally recognized by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 to Oscar Arias Sánchez, for his role in the promotion of peace in the region as president of Costa Rica (1986?1990). Costa Rica thus became the showcase of capitalist democracy in Central America and demonstrated that capitalist democracy was the best system in Central America. Therefore, the image of a small, peaceful, democratic, educated state without an army, which was created and reinforced since its independence in the 19th century, is at the base of the tourist identity of Costa Rica (RAYMOND, 2007).

8Not only does the tourist imaginary recapture the classic characteristics of the “Costa Rican difference” and therefore contributes, in the context of global tourism, to amplify the spread of this national ideology, but it also shapes and adds a new characteristic based on the idea of a nation entirely dedicated to the “green” cause.

9The tourism identity of Costa Rica effectively rests on its image as an ecological paradise, characterized by the extreme richness of its biodiversity. This richness, constantly praised by visitors to this region, is proven. Extending over a land area of 51,100 km2 – which is 0.03% of the Earth’s land area – and an ocean area of 589,000 km2, Costa Rica is considered one of the twenty countries in the world having the greatest number of diverse species as well as the highest density of species. The role played by the number of foreign scientists and supporters of deep ecology is significant in the census of this biodiversity. This became a source of interest from the country’s independence at the beginning of the 19th century. The opening of the country, commercially, to Europe, through the exportation of coffee, allowed the exchange of travelers to multiply and the first scientific studies appeared. Throughout the 1880s, corresponding with the beginnings of banana exploitation and the construction of the Atlantic railway, exchanges with the United States increased; this also resulted in the scientific interests in this tropical environment. This attention gave rise to a certain number of publications in scientific reviews, thus helping to spread the image of Costa Rica as an ecological paradise. It is interesting to note that these first inventories were accompanied by “conservationist” demands. Essentially, from the middle of the 19th century, one finds discourses and mandates that demonstrate a certain premature ecological conscience and the leaders’ desire to protect the environment. Even if these legislative texts were rarely applied, a certain “conservationist” feeling developed nevertheless and, significantly, care was taken to draw attention to this ecological attitude. Therefore, more than the tropical environment, it is the image of a country protective of its natural resources which finds itself to be the base of the tourism identity of Costa Rica.

10It is now necessary to analyze the expression of these representations by the agents implicated in the production, the diffusion, and the consumption of the tourist imaginary, in order to better determine their elements. This analysis will take place by studying the vehicles of the tourist imaginary, which are rhetoric and imagery.

Rhetoric and Imagery: Vehicles of the Tourist Imaginary

11In view of Berdoulay and Entrikin’s thoughts, rhetoric can be defined as a transversal discourse among different types of understandings: “If the demand of rhetoric is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution. Rather than striving to supplant it, or worse, to pretend as if it did not exist, it is preferable to bring it to a conscious level, to clarify its function and its range and even to use it knowingly as an inter-language among the different types of discourses” (BERDOULAY, ENTRIKIN, 1994).

12The analysis of the rhetoric coming from the different agents involved in the production, the diffusion and the consumption of the tourist imaginary makes it possible to learn more about the nature of this tourist imaginary. This analysis is expressed through the following typology: institutional rhetoric, rhetoric of industry professionals, rhetoric of tourists, rhetoric of the media, and rhetoric of the local population. We chose, in the scope of this article, to address only the first three types of agents.

  • 2 « Costa Rica, sans ingrédient artificiel ».

13Institutional rhetoric, that being rhetoric coming from the state and the institutions emanating from its authority such as the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (CRIT), is characterized by the revival of the classic components of the country’s image: nature in a peaceful and democratic country without an army. In 1996, the CRIT launched a very effective publicity campaign, playing off of the authenticity, entitled “Costa Rica, sin ingredientes artificiales,”2 and was recognized as one of the best in the world. It was continued in 2001 with a dozen posters praising the wonders of this prolific natural environment, the unique character of the experiences to be had, and the legendary amiability of the “Tico” (inhabitants of Costa Rica), guaranteeing the best possible welcome.

  • 3 MIT: « Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes », Université Paris 7 – Diderot.
  • 4 ACTUAR, The Costa Rican Community based Rural Tourism Association.

14The rhetoric of industry professionals, national as well as foreign, distinguishes itself, by the recurrence of key words signifying the double authenticity – of the landscape and of the relationship with the local population – as well as the reinforcement of the dichotomy between the tourist and the traveler. The following conclusions were established by the release of a qualitative analysis of 35 tourism brochures, collected in the field between January and March 2008 and December 2009, promoting tourist activities throughout the country. The goal of this methodology was to identify the new paradigm drawn by the tourism practices in Costa Rica. The qualitative analysis was also accompanied by a quantitative study that looked to identify the reoccurrence of key terminology. In fact, this rhetoric process, which is a part of a didactic step, makes it possible to permanently establish the mythical representations of Costa Rica in the tourist mind. Therefore, the rhetoric from this tourist material revives the negative sentiment conveyed by the word tourist and widespread in public opinion. In other words, the tourist is, according to the well-known expression of sociologist Jean-Didier Urbain, “the idiot of travel” (URBAIN, 1991). This “touristophobia”3 forms a major axis in the marketing communication of ecotourism: it is relayed by tourism brochures which invite future clients to “discover the real Costa Rica, that which few tourists have seen” and to “explore the least visited places”4. Tour guides participate in the same commercial strategy which consists of distinguishing the aristocratic traveler from the plebian tourist, inviting the former to discover untouched landscapes and an undiscovered countryside. This could appear paradoxical insofar as the only purpose of these publications is to be sold in millions of copies. While fueling the figure of the solitary traveler, these publications contribute to a democratization of this type of travel and target the famous plebian tourist whom it derides so much.

15The rhetoric of tourists is characterized by the strong presence of the imaginary of the pioneer traveler on the one hand and adventurer on the other. This analysis is based on a series of semi-structured interviews, carried out among 52 tourists, selected using a random approach, on the tourist sites of Tortuguero (Tortuguero National Park), Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park), La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano National Park) as well as San José, the capital of Costa Rica, between January 2008 and March 2008 and December 2009. The choice of methodology to conduct qualitative interviews displayed the double goal of identifying the conscious and/or unconscious motivations of the tourist visit on the one hand, and analyzing the references as well as the lexical field solicited in the description of the tourist holiday on the other, making it possible to understand this imaginary. Therefore, the ecotourism holiday is, firstly, that of a pioneer. The concept of playing the explorer, of reliving the lives of the pioneers of the American West is what frequently came up during the interviews with the tourists: it is in this way that a tourist compared his journey on a small boat along the canals of Tortuguero, a national park situated in the North of the Caribbean Coast, to “the journey up the Amazon River by the first colonists,” demonstrating thus the desire to discover authentic untouched lands, sheltered from the contamination of tourists. Interviewing a couple about the motives of their destination, they affirmed that they had come “to visit the country before it was invaded by tourists, to discover immaculate places,” predicting “tourism of the masses here in several years.” This shows a classic, well-founded process of praising the purity of a pre-tourist region. In addition, their discourse stressed the difficult conditions of their holiday, facing the extreme humidity of the canals of Tortuguero: this appears to be evidence of their adventurous and worthy journey. For the second characteristic, identified within the rhetoric of tourists, is that of an imaginary of an adventure traveler, in a quest for sensation and risk-taking. As such, during an interview with a tourist who came to discover “a lush country,” it was quite remarkable to see at what point her remarks emphasized the adventurous side of her trip, evoking the conditions that made it difficult for her to cross the jungle, “hills at 45° angles,” “small inns in the middle of the jungle, without hot water and electricity,” or even “candlelight.” One grasped in her discourse the desire to show the difficulties she endured in the course of her journey, and by result, all the merit they should be awarded; one again finds this idea of natural spaces seen and perceived as places of merit. This is how her itinerary described the third day of her guided adventure, “Four hundred meters vertical climb to rejoin a little corner of paradise where we will be warmly welcomed by Santiago and his family,” showing here that even paradise has to be earned. In addition, the rhetoric of the adventurer systematically drives the rejection of the tourist status, the trekker prefers to present himself under the qualifications of a traveler, her “way of traveling for thirty-five years: discover the country, get to know the population, become familiar with the environment,” in which the qualifying and desired conditions themselves are “rudimentary.” It’s “the interpersonal that counts to not make oneself feel like tourist,” she concluded. Obviously the rejection of the figure of the tourist is the common point of numerous trekkers. For the rest, this imaginary of the worthy adventurer is well exploited by the tourism industry, as we have already seen. The multiplication of jungle canopy tours shows to prove this search of excitement and communion with nature. Numerous protected sites are fitted with equipment – tyrolean traverse, platforms – and it is now rare to run across natural parks without hearing the courageous melodies of “Tarzans” in training.

16The analysis of this discourse thus allows the understanding of places by privileging the representations, the feeling, and the manner in which the space is structured (GILBERT, 1986).

17Imagery constitutes another tool to analyze the components of the tourist imaginary. We are not going to carry out a study of iconography created in the sphere of tourism of Costa Rica. We chose, within this article, to tackle the question of photographic practice, understood here as the production of a techno-imaginary. The camera presents itself as an indispensible tool for travel and the growing role that it plays within travel justifies the focus that it is given here. If literature on tourism and photography is very important, it is field experience that will allow us to begin this reflection. Indeed, the reactions of a group of trekkers, who suffered camera theft following an ambush, revealed the place occupied by this tool, insofar as the theft was played out as an absolute tragedy, going so far as to wonder about the usefulness of the whole journey. In fact, it’s not just a simple tool but a true collector’s item, showing even by this that it’s the business of experts, giving place to long conversations – in a obscure language for neophytes – on the models and types of lenses. Certain tourists take photography courses: the professionalism thus isn’t only in the choice of camera but in how one uses it. This all shows that there is a technique just like there is an art of travel – understood here in the sense of the artisan’s know-how. And it should be used during the course of travel. As such, all is “photographical.” The camera becomes a true intermediate of reality and it is interesting to wonder about the reasons that drive the tourist to prefer the instantaneous image to the actual vision. We can here omit the hypothesis that it is precisely because it is possible to work on this reality, to transform and to conform to one’s expectations, that the camera has become indispensible. Considering the growing sophistication of cameras, it is now possible to work on the lighting, and the angles, etc. It is possible to construct a hyper-reality and to realize the subjectivity ? inherent in every new look at the landscape – through the camera. The “performativity” of the imaginary therefore appears through the mediation of the technique. This analysis is all the more significant because the tourist researches images of the journey above all. Therefore, it is common to see, a sort of mise en abyme, where tourists take pictures of posters of a crater at a volcanic site, instead of the physical object in front of them because it is judged too cloudy. The dissatisfaction doesn’t come from the fact of not having seen the crater, but more so in not being able to take a photo similar to the image circulated in tourist brochures.

18Above the emergence of tourist locations, the changes within the Costa Rican society, in search of a green identity are profound and show the full strength of this imaginary put into action.

Tourist Imaginary: Developing and forging the regional identity of Costa Rica

An imaginary developing through the intervention of politics: the triptych of Costa Rican society

19The changes seen at the heart of Costa Rican society are based on three structural elements which are the establishment of an environmental democracy – designing the principles of a green Costa Rican citizenship – the installation of environmental security principles as well as the promotion of an “environmental” diplomacy (VELUT, 2005). The evaluation of these changes rests ultimately in institutional hierarchy. The rapid development of ecotourism in Costa Rica has been the generator of a new way to govern the regions. The implementation of ecotourism politics is shown by the creation of protected site, beginning a new method of land management in which the citizen is the pivot point. Indeed, in order to guarantee the success of these policies aiming to protect a growing portion of national land, the participative nature of the management was privileged. It is maybe this precursory choice that has led to the lifting of protection on Costa Rican sanctuaries. In effect, taking into account the aspirations of the local populations in the conservation strategies, and involving them in the very choice of these strategies contributes to the erasing of inherent faults to the perception of the ideal, angelic nature, which was at the root of the first natural parks. Thus in 1995, the National System of Conservation Areas (NSCA) ? created to administer the protected areas under the authority of the Minister of the Environment and of Energy ? changed its organizational system. The process of decentralization initially gave more power to the districts – the smaller administrative levels of the country – but also the local population, in order to involve them more in the process of decision making of measures relating to the management of protected areas. The idea is to make these natural spaces theirs thereby guaranteeing the conservation and avoiding the pitfalls of protection policies decided far from their everyday concerns – the state only acting in the interest of tourism. To finish, it is a population totally involved in land conservation that should emerge, in order that the environmental policies – the base of tourism policies – should not be seen as uniquely state-owned. Thus, one observes a form of participatory democracy in the management of protected land which becomes heritage management of environmental resources. In addition, the desire of the Costa Rican state to create a green environmental conscience is expressed through the creation of entrance fees to the national parks that are specific to the local population and that are less than the fees for tourists.

20It is necessary, at present, to look at how the measures of protection of the natural spaces has profoundly modified the nature of the role of the state, which presents itself as the guarantor of the security of the citizens, a security henceforth perceived as environmental. This concept was constructed with the foresight to justify a growing portion of nationally protected land. Indeed, the establishment of 32% of protected natural space has led to a redefinition of the notion of ownership of which one now recognizes the ecological and social function. It is thus advisable to come back to that which appears as a consequence of the touristic strategy: a reconsideration of the role of natural resources within society. Thus, it is suitable to return to what seems like a consequence of the tourism strategy: a reconsideration of the role of natural resources at the heart of society. Since 1994, Article 50 of the Costa Rican Constitution guarantees to everyone the right “to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.” An organic law concerning the environment was adopted on 4 October 1995, declaring conservation and sustainability of the environment to be of “public purpose” and “social interest.” Furthermore, the Forestry Law of 1996 established “the conservation, protection, and administration of natural forests as an essential and extremely important function of the State.” All these measures testify to a progressive transformation of the role of the State towards the guarantee of environmental security for its citizens. Essentially, these reversals came about thanks to certain policies protecting national land that were created in line with the country’s tourism policy. In that capacity, the Forestry Law of 1996 was revolutionary in recognizing the intrinsic ecological value of natural forests. This law marks an evolution in the observed aims of forestry laws: if until today, it was to try to fight against deforestation by guaranteeing the protection and common-sense exploitation of forest resources, the 1996 law signifies the “protection and conservation of the integrity of natural environmental surroundings.” The natural forests were thus recognized as ecosystems to be conserved. Even the definition of ownership was re-evaluated. It is the social function of ownership that is invoked because it is the public interest that prevails over the personal interest of ownership. The right of ownership is no longer only the right of owners, but rather there are general interests that coexist with that right. We can therefore talk about “ownership function”, which is composed of rights and obligations. In addition to the social function of ownership, we can henceforth make reference to an ecological function because it is the protection of the environment that prompted the triumph of the general interest over the private interests of property ownership. Additionally, Article 8 of the 1998 Biodiversity Law is entitled “Environmental function of property real-estate” and affirms that “real-estate properties must accomplish an environmental function which plays an integral part in their economic and social functions.” Simultaneously, the State is pursuing a policy of intense reforestation. The forest isn’t shrinking: more than five million trees were planted in 2007 alone – 1.25 trees per capita. This is a strategy funded since 1996 by a tax on fossil fuels that allocates 3.5% of that revenue to the “National Funds of Forest Finance” which reimburses landowners so they conserve their forested land. Thus, in wanting to guarantee the quality of the country’s assets – the natural resources – which are the pillars of ecotourism, the notion of private property and its functions was redefined. It is equally a redefinition of the role of the State in matters of national security. Essentially, this is a recentralization of the environment: its protection is no longer just an option, but finds itself at the heart of the issues of Costa Rican society. The State no longer only ensures the internal security of its citizens, but has henceforth redefined that function through an environmental lens because it is its duty to guarantee ecological, economic, and social survival of the nation and its people.

21Furthermore, the Costa Rican state is making ecotourism the spearhead of its diplomacy, one that wants to be truly green, advancing to the rhythm of ecological challenges posed to its neighbors – the latest is becoming a carbon-neutral state by 2020. With regards to regional diplomacy, the Meso-American Biological Corridor project makes a particularly interesting case study. Biodiversity, which is the main allure of ecotourism, is present throughout the Central American isthmus as well as in certain meridian states of Mexico: Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and the Yucatan. This area, which covers 768,500 km2 and contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity, is progressively shrinking and each hour, 44 hectares of forests are disappearing. This geographical area also represents 25 million people living on the poverty line and it is estimated that their level of poverty is at risk of doubling by 2025. Also, this idea of a vast international zone for the protection of nature is quite an ambitious project. It was realized in Panama on July 12, 1997 by the seven presidents of the isthmus. Priority zones for the conservation of biodiversity were defined as follows:

  • Maya and Calakmul Reserve (Guatemala, Mexico)

  • Fraternidad Reserve (Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador)

  • Cayos Miskitos Reserve (Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua)

  • Mesoamerican Coral Reef (Gulf of Honduras)

  • Amistad Park (Costa Rica, Panama)

Will these zones of protection, associating multiple states around the same project, translate to a new way of addressing the reunification of the “provinces” of Central America after the failure of political union and the partial failure of economic consolidation? This is an interesting question with regards to the role played by the environment in the diplomacy of regional reconciliation. The Biological Corridor establishes common objectives for the conservation of biodiversity and aims similarly at favoring tourism. Amistad Park (471,000 hectares), situated between Panama and Costa Rica, offers developmental prospects at the heart of one border of the isthmus that was long considered to be strained, the name of the park not having been chosen in a neutral fashion. It is one of the first models of cross-border administration of a national park in the region, codified in the planning documents of the Costa Rican and Panamanian Institutes of Tourism. The same type of international cooperation is about to take place between Nicaragua and Costa Rica: “the common approach in the domains of tourism and the environment is where the two States are most engaged today” (MEDINA, 2006). In that capacity, a cross border project of touristic development between southwest Nicaragua and northwest Costa Rica (Guanacaste Cordillera) was established, the objective being the coordination of touristic offerings in that peaceful area. Nicaragua, handicapped for a long time by its political context, wishes to benefit from the experience of its neighbor by also offering ecotourism. This bi-national cooperation around ecotourism allows the integration of a border area on the margins of the national and international economy and also reinforces the diplomatic relationship between the two States.

  • 5 Équipe MIT, 2002, Tourismes 1. Lieux communs, Paris, Belin.

22The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor demonstrates a genuine multilateral environmental cooperation. At the heart of this new form of green diplomacy, Costa Rica is once again the innovator. Furthermore, Jean-Marie Breton, having analyzed the ecotourism phenomenon with a regional approach, affirms that sustainable tourism is a deciding factor in the stability of the Caribbean region. This idea agrees with that of the group of researchers led by Rémy Knafou, in which they view tourism as a “peace movement”5. Ecotourism can thus be viewed as a form of peaceful globalization.
The triptych of Costa Rican society can thus lead us to consider the Tourist Imaginary as a “total social fact” according to the well known expression of sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss, contributing to the creation of a community of destiny for the Costa Rican nation.

Tourist Imaginary and process of territorialisation

“The geographic study of signs, representation, and images isn’t comprehensible unless it examines the mechanism of territoriality and livable space” (SENECAL, 1992).

23The Tourist Imaginary is the product of touristic places that become territorial symbols from which national collective identification crystallize. Indeed, conservation policy, affecting 32% of Costa Rica that is protected under various statutes, must be considered a result of ecotourism strategy, characterized by the production and diffusion of representations of a rhetoric that is articulated around the idea of a Tourist Imaginary. The national public good of Costa Rica – which makes up its national patrimony – participates in the process of the construction of a Costa Rican national identity. We must examine the impacts of the process of the qualification of land, seen as a symbolic production of touristic activity, on the process of territorial identification.

24The symbolic qualification of land – by means of a legal qualification – as well as that of traditional agricultural products (for example, the cheese routes from Turrialba (BLANCO M., RIVEROS 2004)) explain, according to Bernard Debarbieux, citing André Micoud, “the problem of lumping together individuals in the imaginary time of one memory of land” (DEBARBIEUX, 2006). He continues by citing that “ecological territorialities and heritage territorialities combine to express concern over the imaginary registration of individuals and collectives in the long-term – that of nature and of rural history.” Therefore the “controlled denominations” supporting agricultural production. These are certain forms of tourism relying upon the growth of the “symbolic consumption” of particular places, as alternatives to the deterritorialisation of the contemporary economy.” He further outlines the bio-regional movement born in the USA in the 1970s to promote the natural areas as new frameworks of identification and of collective practices. The bio-region is often considered as a “geographical sphere” and “a sphere of conscience”. (DEBARBIEUX, 2006)

25Furthermore, the tourist imaginary and its practical implementation leads to the sustainable process of securing land. The sustainable temporal anchoring of land but equally spatial anchoring in the regional and the reflexive. As we have seen earlier, the accession of environmental heritage, initiated and promoted by tourism, has encouraged debate on environmental and participatory democracy. In this context, the process of territorialisation can be compared to new forms of securing populations and politics in the region. During the process of examining the territory, we can see the emergence of the reflexive dimension of heritage and environment in a self-assessing society. This idea of “reflexivity of heritage” involving a new regime of territoriality is outlined by Patrice Melé as “displaying the framework of the action using values of heritage or of the environment which imply the demand for a reflexive link to space. […] ‘Heritage status’ can then be analyzed as the reconstruction of an anchored identity. However, if anything can be considered as heritage, then the ‘heritage status’ no longer only declares the reflexive capacity of society.” (MELE. 2009). He then affirms that “the heritage and the environment, when considered as domains of public action, undoubtedly express a transformation of the link with space and ways of considering the spatial dimension of societies.” (MELE, 2009).

26The tourist imaginary, the spearhead of the process of examining territory, guarantees the inclusion of Costa Rica as a valued place and contributes to spatialising and creating identity. The tourist imaginary is therefore at the heart of the process of land appropriation and in the marking of territory. We have seen the way elite politicians and intellectuals of Costa Rica contributed to inventing “the Costa Rican distinctness” based on its exceptional and exemplary political character. If the tourist imaginary recaptures the characteristics of the national imagination bestowing it with a significant international dimension in the context of global tourism, it can create a new “distinctness” which will allow the Costa Rican nation to fulfill its green, eco-friendly future. This does not mean that this national imagination will conform to a supposed reality but will guarantee a climate of subjective belief and adherence to this imagined and imaginary community, just as the analysis of the Costa Rican process will allow us to achieve.


27As a result, in favoring the emergence of tourist sites, the tourist imaginary has invested geographical space and has participated in its material and symbolic production. The process of identity construction operates in a number of places, (symbolic and of heritage) arranged in networks that create territories. And it is precisely “the spatialised elements of heritage which constitute the symbolic mediators of any territoriality.” (DI MEO, 2009).

28Following the example of the so-called modernist theorists, the idea being put forward is that even a nation that exists only in representation, which does not prevent it from being real since the imagined community is present in the conscience of each individual. (ANDERSON, 1996). This is precisely the process described in the case of Costa Rica. The impact of the tourist imaginary and in particular its eco-friendliness is such that it helps to forge a new character for the nation of Costa Rica, a new “distinctness” embodied in policy choices and new spatial practices. “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” such is the Thomas theorem, outlined by Robert King Merton in the self-fulfilling prophecy. This “self-fulfilling prophecy” (KING MERTON, 1953; STASZAK, 2000) says that certain situations do not always reflect reality. The two terms at play here are, as defined by Cornelius Castoriadis, “the representation” and “the experience”. “The representation” would therefore be an integration to the possible order of the represented element, and consequentially, the first act of “the experience”, preparing the conditions of possibility and putting it into effect.

29The examination of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the tourist imaginary which goes beyond the scope of this article invites us to consider the interdependencies between the domains of representations, of spatial practices and of the material and symbolic creation of space.

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1 DOLLFUS Olivier.

2 « Costa Rica, sans ingrédient artificiel ».

3 MIT: « Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes », Université Paris 7 – Diderot.

4 ACTUAR, The Costa Rican Community based Rural Tourism Association.

5 Équipe MIT, 2002, Tourismes 1. Lieux communs, Paris, Belin.

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Linda Boukhris, « The tourist imaginary in Costa Rica: from a “way of seeing” to “making a territory” », Via [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 16 mars 2012, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Linda Boukhris

Linda Bouhkris is doing a PHD in Geography at the EIREST laboratory at the University of Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne and is working on the study of tourist imaginaries in Central America under the direction of Maria Gravari-Barbas. She compiled a thesis in the second year of her Masters at the University of Paris IV Sorbonne entitled “Eco-tourism in Costa Rica: mythologised representations of nature to the realities of a globalised tourism”. She also worked in research at the University of Berkeley, in collaboration with the Tourism Studies Working Group of Berkeley and the EIREST, so as to gain insight into the tourist imaginaries in an anglophone and multidisciplinary setting.

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