For most leisure travelers to Central America, trip highlights include white sand beaches, ancient Mayan temples and dance-filled nights on the town. But for a rising number of socially and environmentally conscious visitors, the big draw is the opportunity to promote sustainable products they enjoy every day at home, such as coffee and cocoa—and learn about the communities that grow them.
Agri-tourism, which gives tourists access to fragile, pristine and often protected natural habitats, takes advantage of developed-world consumers’ growing demand for knowledge about supply chains for the goods they consume. An offshoot of ecotourism, it offers farm stays and the promise of deeper cultural immersion.
“Many organic and fair-trade food consumers want meaningful learning experiences while overseas,” says Margaret Escudero, who operates the La Loma jungle lodge and chocolate farm on Bastimentos Island in Panama with her husband Henry. “Visitors stay in secluded bungalows, eat 100-percent locally grown foods, explore the island with the help of indigenous guides, and lend a helping hand during harvest season.” Such interaction with the community and production is typical of this growing travel industry trend.
The top destination for ecotourists and agri-tourists in the Western Hemisphere is Costa Rica, which in 2001 reported 800,000 visitors for nontraditional eco-tours. According to a report by SNV Netherlands Development, other top destinations in the region include Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Although such niche travel will always represent a small percentage of the nearly $6 trillion global tourism industry, it is the only growth sector in the field. In fact, overall leisure travel has declined during the worldwide economic downturn. “Agri-tourism isn’t cheap for shoestring budget travelers,” says Margaret Ann, “but it is a real bargain for upscale travelers looking for a beautiful vacation destination that won’t break the bank.”