Greenwatch Latin America: How ecotourism is changing Costa Rica’s hospitality sector

Nicolette Mueller
December 6, 2016

2016 was the strongest year on record for LEED-certified hotels in Latin America, with 60 percent more projects compared with 2015, and nearly double those of 2014. Today, there are 38 LEED-certified spaces in the region, and over three times as many pursuing LEED. Costa Rica is leading this trend in Latin America, with 20 percent of all certified LEED projects, and nearly four times as many projects in the pipeline. It’s the second largest market for LEED-certified hotels in Latin America—which is noteworthy compared with larger markets like Brazil and Mexico, which are the traditional leaders in certification in the region. 

What are the factors and forces behind Costa Rica’s growing number of LEED-certified hotels? The answer may be linked to the growing popularity of ecotourism.

Ecotourism and the green building industry

Last year, a record-breaking 2.66 million tourists came to marvel at Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity. From volcanos to cloud forests to beaches, Costa Rica offers diverse natural areas and is a top destination for ecotourism.

In 2014, Costa Rica’s Central Bank estimated that tourism accounted for 5 percent of GDP. The Costa Rican Tourism Board recently estimated that $2.8 billion in revenue was generated from tourism, with over 600,000 people directly or indirectly employed to support this growing sector.

Although tourism may be one of the main economic drivers, accounting for one in 11 jobs, this growth is also linked to the depletion of natural resources, the increased consumption of potable water, and increased waste and pollution. 

According to the UN World Tourism Organization, tourism contributes to 5 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions and could increase energy consumption by 154 percent by 2050. Adopting sustainable policies will be critical to making sure tourism has a positive economic impact in countries such as Costa Rica and that it protects their natural capital.  

Like green building, ecotourism is a rapidly growing segment of the larger market. The global market for ecotourism is $77 billion in revenue and represents 5–7 percent of the overall travel and tourism market. Ecotourism is an important job creator, and researchers from the U.S. have linked growing tourism to a 16 percent reduction in poverty in communities near ecotourism locations.  

Hotels, restaurants and venues share many of the same economic drivers for green building and LEED certification: reduced costs for energy, reduced costs for waste management improved indoor air quality for human health and comfort and market differentiation for investors and consumers. 

But the hospitality sector (particularly the ecotourism segment of the market), also shares drivers such as consumer demand, reviews and reputation, and may have more in common with retail as a sector than commercial office space. The guest experience drives many of the business decisions, and the demand is growing for greener and more sustainable options.

According to a recent TripAdvisor survey, nearly two-thirds of travelers reported plans to make more environmentally minded choices over the next year. An average GreenLeader hotel has a 20 percent higher TripAdvisor rating.

Making waves in Costa Rica

The owners and investors behind Costa Rica’s first LEED Platinum hotel, Olas Verdes, are capitalizing on the momentum of ecotourism. This beautiful, LEED-certified hotel proves the business case for operational savings in efficiency, as well as financial gains in guest experience and satisfaction. 

The team behind Olas Verdes anticipates that the property will act as a catalyst for sustainable development in this coastal community. It will set a high bar for future developers, but will also provide a means of educating and engaging the local community, schools and other businesses about the financial benefits of sustainability. Their commitment at the LEED Platinum level will create a lasting legacy in Guanacaste, and an impact across the market.

Interested in learning more about the Olas Verdes project? Check out their profile on or their TripAdvisor Greenleaders Platinum level profile and reviews on TripAdvisor.

For more on green hotels, see USGBC’s 2016 LEED in Motion: Hospitality report.