By John McPhaul
TAMARINDO, COSTA RICA - Pungent brown sewage spews into the Pacific ocean. In the background, cranes put up hotels and beachfront apartments.
Once home to monkeys, turtles and other rare wildlife, this stretch of coast in northwest Costa Rica is developing so fast that it is tarnishing the country's reputation as a destination for eco-tourists.
Some 1.4 million people visit Central America's richest country every year, but they no longer come just for the national parks that cover more than a quarter of its area and are home to almost 5 percent of the world's plant and animal species.
They also want sand, surf and even real estate.
The biggest stimulus came when the airport at nearby Liberia began handling international flights five years ago, putting the previously little-known Guanacaste province within, for example, three hours of Miami.
With tropical sunshine, sandy beaches and surf, developers saw a chance to attract everyone from surfers and honeymooners to U.S. retirees seeking a second home, transforming sleepy towns with names like Tamarindo, Quepos, Playas del Coco and Jaco.
The result is rampant construction that environmentalists fear could balloon into noisy, sprawling resorts with cruise ship ports and golf courses like those of Cancun, Mexico, which guzzle water and pollute the environment.
"These cases of poorly planned tourist developments in Costa Rica could affect the well-deserved reputation as a pioneer in eco-tourism," said Ronald Sanabria, a Costa Rican who works for the Rainforest Alliance, an international advocate for sustainability.
Already, Costa Rica has lost up to half of its monkey population in the last 12 years as developers expand into their jungle habitat, according to scientists at the University of Costa Rica.
Light pollution from Tamarindo is making life harder for leatherback turtles. The town's lights disorient the tiny hatchlings, sending them toward the luminescence instead of out to sea, where they are safer from predators.
"These large-scale tourism projects have big consequences for the environment," said Fabian Pacheco, of the Costa Rican Federation for the Conservation of Nature.
The issue is a familiar one in developing countries as they weigh the benefits of tourist dollars that come with high-rise hotels against the loss of greenery when virgin land is paved over.
Tourism is Costa Rica's top foreign exchange earner. Property developers point to the big contribution the construction sector makes to the economy, accounting for 5 percent of gross domestic product and growing by 16 percent last year.
The tourist boom has also created jobs in a poor region. "It's been good for the locals. Most of them are happy to have good, decent jobs," said Denise Shante, 51, a Canadian property broker who sells apartments priced up to $2.5 million.
As Costa Rica attracts more mainstream tourism, neighbouring Panama is aggressively promoting its own eco-tourism credentials.
The breakneck development has the government and even the tourism industry worried.
When rains overflowed septic tanks in Tamarindo, tons (tonnes) of raw sewage flowed into the ocean and the resort lost its "blue flag" issued by Costa Rica's water utility to indicate healthy ocean water conditions.
"Costa Rica can no longer project the pure image of an eco-tourism paradise since reality shows investors are free to develop more and more projects without clear rules," the Costa Rican Hotel and Resorts Association warned in a report in May.
President Oscar Arias, whose government wants to cut the country's net carbon emissions to zero by 2021, has begun a crackdown at newer Pacific resorts, closing some businesses and ordering height restrictions on buildings near the beach.
"Tamarindo and Jaco got out of our hands, but our scientists are working on ways of assuring development that is compatible with nature," Arias told Reuters.
The Costa Rican Chamber of Construction says unregulated building is still going on, and in Tamarindo the most prominent feature is its building sites swarming with labourers.
The town, world-famous for its surf, bustles with surfers and tanned shoppers who fill its shops, bars and restaurants.
Some, like Shawn O'Neil, 28, a surfer from San Diego, California, say it is unfair to rope off pretty beaches for an elite who can afford expensive eco-resorts while shutting out those who prefer cheaper all-inclusive hotels.
"People say how built up Tamarindo is, but it doesn't seem like much after San Diego and Los Angeles." --REUTERS