Skip to Content

Ecotourism: Who Benefits?

Linda Markowitz
Sociology Department
Southern Illinois University
Catherine Dana Santanello
Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


The main objective of this case is to have students critically examine the costs and the benefits associated with ecotourism, a form of  tourism usuallly involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. Although ecotourism has among its goals to provide funds for ecological conservation as well as economic benefit and impowerment to local communities, it can result in the exploitation of the natural resources (and communities) it seeks to protect.  In this case study, students assess ecotourism in Costa Rica by considering the viewpoints of a displaced landowner, banana plantation worker, environmentalist, state official, U.S. trade representative, and national park employee.  Working in small groups, students evaluate the case scenario and develop a strategy to provide balance between the various stakeholders and the delicate ecosystem.  The case was developed for a study abroad course in Costa Rica but could be applied to traditional courses in sociology, international business, political science, bioethics, or public administration and policy analysis.


  • Understand the complex issues that emerge when nations primarily rely on ecotourism or related industries as an economic growth strategy.
  • Illustrate to students how the economics of one country directly impacts other countries.
  • Develop solutions for how countries can grow economically while minimally harming the environment and inhabitants within the environment.


Ecotourism; land reform; biodiversity; scarlet macaw; Ara macao; poaching; Central American Free Trade Agreement; CAFTA; Carara Biological Reserve; Tarcoles; Costa Rica; Central America; developing world; Ticos; bioethics

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Role-Play



Subject Headings

Environmental Science Ecology Economics Business / Management Science

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

Case teaching notes are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.

Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.

Answer Key

Answer keys for the cases in our collection are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.


Patrick Alarcon
Science Department
Academy of Information Technology and Engineering
Stamford, CT 06905

It was my intention to give my students the opportunity to experience "real-time" issues in environmental science. This case study piqued their interest to the point that they actually wanted to "act out" each person’s position in the case, including the narrator’s part.

I plan to have my students present this case as a short "play" to be performed at our neighboring campus middle school. Prior to the performance, the narrators will explain the profiles for each member in the play. At the conclusion, other students will form stations within the classroom and ask the middle school audience the questions that are included in the case study. The purpose of this is to develop a discussion session rather than just an informal assessment. This is planned as a culminating activity after my students have completed their discussions on the case. They all need to be well versed on the issue so they can monitor and adjust at their individual middle school discussion stations.

Laurie Kauffman, PhD
Assistant Professor of Biology
Oklahoma City University
Oklahoma City, OK 73106

I used the case study "Ecotourism: Who Benefits?" in my non-majors biology course on the Natural History of Costa Rica. The first week I handed out the first part of the case and assigned students characters which they were told to research over the next week or two. I also told them that the week after Thanksgiving we were going to enact the round table discussion. The students were excited when I told them we would be role-playing and when I assigned them their roles.

The roundtable went great. I had hoped the students would extend the discussion to 30 minutes, but they went longer and I had to cut off discussion at around 45 minutes so we could more on to other topics. The students said they really enjoyed the format, and taking on a character made them understand that view point in a more visceral way. Even though they were just acting, several said that they still felt bad when they couldn't get the goals they wanted across to the other participants. And they also felt like they were giving up something when they compromised. I think it helped them to see why sometimes it is hard to get different stakeholders in a situation to come up with a compromise. I mostly stayed out of the discussion and let the students manage it. In the end, they decided to ask the government to return half the seized land to the original Tico owners in order to start a co-op which the Ticos could use to grow crops or do ecotourism, or to sell to a multinational corporation. The other half of the land was added to the reserve and would be tightly protected, including limits on numbers of visitors. Everyone except the banana company representative was happy with this solution.