By Karen McDaniels, member of Rotary Club of Denton, Texas, United States
During a trip to Costa Rica, my club members and I met a member of the faculty at The Tropical Agricultural Research and Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba who studies barriers rural women face in joining Costa Rica’s fast growing tourism business. Sitting with him over coffee and learning about women’s struggles to enter the local tourism economy, we saw an opportunity for Rotary to help.
We visited with women in three communities who had started a small tourism business. Their focus was on experiential, sustainable tourism: inviting tour groups to learn about their history, plants, rainforest ecology, wildlife, and culture from local residents.
Through a partnership between Rotary clubs in Denton, Texas, United States and the Club Rotario de Cartago in Costa Rica, we were able to implement three projects funded through a Rotary Foundation global grant. The projects training the rural women on how to support tourism to benefit their communities. We also refurbished a traditional Costa Rican house to serve as an eco-hotel and office, and built aquaponics gardens for women in three communities to teach residents about nutrition while feeding their families and tourists.
Denton, Texas is home to the University of North Texas (UNT), who partners and shares faculty with CATIE. Graduate students from UNT study at CATIE through the Masters of Science in Sustainable Tourism (MIST) program. MIST graduates share their knowledge of experiential/ environmental tourism throughout Central and South America and locally, in the Turrialba area.
A 77-year-old Sustainability House is located on CATIE’s campus. This house is the heart and central location of the offices and tour meeting locations for the women’s tourism business and surrounding rural communities. We refurbished the house with updated electrical, plumbing, some minor structural repairs and new paint inside and out. A team of Rotarians and Interactors from Wichita Falls, Texas, spent a week at the Sustainability House in July working with local members on these enhancements.
After a series of community assessment interviews, it was clear that there were about 20 women who wanted be involved in tourism as guides and related businesses such as restaurateurs, home stay hosts and craft artisans who could make souvenirs. The women needed business, marketing, financial and social media training to better connect with tour companies and travel agents. Professionals from four Rotary clubs in North Texas created a curriculum and series of week-long workshops to train the women in the identified topics. Workshops were held on the CATIE campus. The women attended a total of 100 hours of training over a 5-month period, with 63 hours of classroom and 37 hours of “in the field” tour guide training.
Early on, we identified that most of the women did not speak English well enough to communicate with tourists. In addition to the other training we included English as a Second Language courses. At the conclusion of training, each woman was partnered with a volunteer Rotarian in the United States to speak several times a month and practice their English skills.
We had three teams that traveled to Costa Rica from January through July 2019. Each team had a leader from one of Denton’s Rotary clubs and a schedule to complete their part of the project: either training the women is tourism, refurbishing the Sustainability House or building the aquaponics gardens. Our host club in Cartago and CATIE’s faculty and staff were invaluable. Our local partners also helped navigate transportation and lodging logistics, ordering materials from the hardware store and paying bills.
The biggest and most rewarding impact has been empowering the women in the communities. They are writing business plans, bringing other women into their organization and planning activities for tourists that include festivals, fairs and cultural celebrations. They stained the walls and painted the window sills and floors in their office at the Sustainability House where they elected a board of directors and host their meetings. One woman who started an aquaponics garden has already arranged field trips for children in local elementary schools. She proudly teaches about aquaponics and encourages the children to try her produce. There is a pride in the communities that shows through their meticulous maintenance: continued repairs, new paint and welcome signs for travelers.