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Losing paradise

Tuesday January 30, 2007

Clare Staunton

It is early evening and the tide is coming in at Playa Sámara, Costa Rica. The waves are at their best at this time of day, and the water is thick with people surfing. It is an idyllic, picture-postcard scene, with the sun setting over the Pacific and the darkness gathering among the palm trees. In the local bar the town?s many expatriates mix with surfers, in their boardies and flip-flops, and with the tourists and students from the Spanish school. Bob Marley is on the stereo and surfing videos are on the TV. Everyone greets each other with pura vida, (pure life), the much-used Costa Rican national motto.

Surfing is big business in Costa Rica. Each year, 1.5 million people visit this small Central American country, drawn by the beaches, the national parks and its reputation for safety. And 20% of these visitors come for the waves; a figure that has doubled in three years.

Adventurous Californians have been visiting and settling in Costa Rica since the late 1960s, when the classic surf and travel movie Endless Summer kick-started the sport?s rapid global expansion. But as the established Costa Rican surf centres, such as Tamarindo and Jaco, become crowded and overdeveloped, surfers start looking for smaller, more unspoilt towns.

?Every inch of this coastline has been discovered,? says Mike Parise, author of the The Surfer?s Guide to Costa Rica. And once surfers have found a quiet, deserted beach, other tourists will follow in their wake, bringing with them the familiar problems of overdevelopment.

And now everyone wants a piece of Playa Sámara. It?s a small town with big potential. Ten years ago it was a remote village without power or running water. It still feels like a relaxed backwater, reached after a long drive on terrible unpaved roads, with only a handful of restaurants and hotels and thick forest coming down to the water?s edge.

But things are changing at dizzying speed. While there is only one small general store in the town, six real estate companies have offices in Sámara. The forest is studded with se vende (for sale) signs, indicating plots of farmland or jungle destined to become condos or apartments for tourists or expatriates. Huge billboards excitedly announce developments to come: luxury hotels, golf courses, retirees? villas ? and the hum of diggers, working overtime in preparation for the high season, drowns out the sound of the sea.

?We?re right on the brink of becoming a major tourist destination,? says Ryan Tuttle, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the new Sámara. Tuttle works at Century 21, the huge US realty firm whose black and yellow signs pepper the Costa Rican countryside. ?What?s driving this town now is money,? he adds, ?not surfing?.

Locals and long-term expatriates are watching this development bonanza with mixed feelings. On the one hand, of course, tourism brings money. While Costa Rica is prosperous by Central American standards, tourist dollars are still very welcome, especially if they are spent in locally-owned businesses. In 2004, foreign surfers spent $273m (£139m) in Costa Rica. And, says Tierza Davies, founder of the surf tour company Pura Vida Adventures, ?because many of the travelling surfers are on a shoestring budget, they tend to frequent the cheaper local restaurants and bars generally owned by local Ticos [Costa Ricans]?.

But the developers who have followed the surfers to the country?s Pacific coast are mostly backed by North American and European investment. Now, 80% of the country?s costal property is foreign-owned, much to the resentment of many Costa Ricans.

About 80km up the coast, Tamarindo, the original Costa Rican surf town, offers a warning of the dangers of unchecked development. While the undeniably lovely beach and the town?s party reputation bring a steady stream of visitors, Tamarindo is a charmless sprawl of gated luxury developments, casinos, fast-food restaurants, tacky surf shops and condos. Signs are in English and prices are in dollars. After dark, locals sell an impressive selection of illegal drugs on street corners while middle-aged white men drink in dim sports bars, accompanied by young Costa Rican prostitutes. ?The people here have lost their culture,? a local surfer gloomily told me.

?Ten years ago there was nothing there, just a beach and a few surfers,? explains Sunrise Dicker, owner of the Sámara Surf School, talking about Tamarindo. ?But now the whole town is owned by foreigners. The locals have all been forced out. They live in a ghetto nearby. No one here wants Sámara to become like Tamarindo.? She, however, seems to think that it is inevitable. ?Give it five years,? she says.

The challenges facing Sámara are the same across the country: how to reap the rewards of mass tourism without sacrificing the peaceful atmosphere and natural beauty that attracted the visitors in the first place. It is ironic that it was the traditionally laid-back and environmentally considerate surfing community who were the unwitting vanguard of the current development frenzy.

A gung ho American developer told me scornfully that ?the only ones who resent the changes going on here are the surf bums who don?t want to do any work anyway?. He then added, half-joking, ?but for Christ?s sake don?t print my name. They?d burn my office down.? Not quite the spirit of Pura Vida.


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