Environmental Cost of Transportation in Costa Rica

It will probably surprise you to know that environmentally it’s about the same or maybe better to fly than take a bus in Costa Rica.  Amazingly flying burns less fuel per person transported, creates less pollutants and carbon dioxide (see calculations*), and has lower impacts in many other ways as well.

A typical airport in Costa Rica
A typical airport in Costa Rica

For example, you have to count the environmental impact of the road itself against traveling by road. Bulldozing the trees, eroding the hillsides and laying down all that petroleum based asphalt aren’t necessary if you fly.

Another factor that is frequently ignored in environmental “friendliness” estimates is the manufacturing impact.  There’s very roughly the same amount of raw materials and energy used to make a small plane and a bus but planes typically last four times as long.  This is because planes get to their destination 5-10 times faster so they aren’t running as much and wearing out parts and they also have significantly better maintenance programs.

A rarely considered cost of road travel – when tires wear out, where is out?  Mostly it’s into the atmosphere as micro-fine, carcinogenic, toxic dust released as the tires rub against the road.  Another strike against the bus.

Noise pollution is probably about a toss up.  Turboprops aren’t nearly as loud as jets, but still, a bus is much quieter.  However, the bus trip takes more than eight times longer and the noise is much closer to both the human and rainforest residents along the way.

*The Calculations

Comparison of flying, taking the bus or driving between San José and Puerto Jiménez on the Osa peninsula of Costa Rica.

The twin engine de Havilland Otter turboprop airplane carries 20 passengers and burns 64 gallons of fuel per hour.  It takes 50 minutes to cover the 113 air miles so that’s 2.66 gallons per person.

A 38 passenger Volvo 9500 diesel coach gets 2.4 miles to the gallon takes eight hours to cover the 249 miles (via the Caldera and Costanera Sur) burning 2.73 gallons per person.

A 6 passenger Toyota Prado gets 10 miles to the gallon takes seven hours to drive the 249 miles burning 4.15 gallons per person.

The Explanation

You’ve probably heard how horribly inefficient air travel is from an environmental perspective and are wondering who’s right, CNN or this crackpot claiming flying is better.

The answer is both and there’s a simple explanation.  In general air travel is less efficient but in Costa Rica the roads are so inefficient they more than make up the difference.  You have to travel more than twice as far by road than by air to get most places in Costa Rica.

In the example calculation it’s 113 miles between San José and Puerto Jiménez on the Osa peninsula by air but 249 miles on the road.

The Disclaimer

I don’t work for any airline and don’t have any hidden motivation to try to make air travel sound “better”.  In fact I co-own a small company that produces roadmaps of Costa Rica and would, if anything, have a bias towards promoting ground transportation.  Mostly I’m just interested in people taking a more realistic view of the world around them – don’t even get me started on the evils of electric cars (did you know that the majority of them secretly burn coal and they pollute up to twice as much as a regular gasoline engine).

Airfares are Down and Travel to Costa Rica is Up

Update – May 24, 2010 – in the past two weeks prices have been heading up.  They’re still lower than the past few years for all the reasons described below, but we’re not seeing the super bargains for $2-300.

The official ICT (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo) numbers are in and they confirm what we’ve noticed over the past several months; Travel is up  5% to 15% all over Costa Rica.

Although the ICT does not keep statistics on advanced reservations we’ve seen a significant increase in map, guidebook, and travel sales over this time last year and the most popular lodges are already filling up.  Whether you’d like professional travel planning assistance, or you’re doing your research and booking directly with hotels and tours of choice, please get started early or don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Despite worldwide decreases due to the economic downturn travel has remained strong in Costa Rica for a number of reasons.  Airfares that are lower than we’ve seen them any time in the past ten years ($220 – $550 round trip with all taxes etc. on kayak.com) are making Costa Rica vacations very attractive.  For example, a search a few minutes ago found one stop fares from Chicago for $237 round trip including taxes and fees on Mexicana or $287 on American Airlines or Continental.

Because Costa Rica is close enough to reach easily from anywhere in the U.S. without refueling (3½ – 5½ hours from most U.S. cities), the airlines are adding more non-stops from places like New York City ($353 on American Airlines and $408 on Continental, again round trip including all taxes and fees) and Denver($455 total on Frontier).

These result weren’t just for one seat on one flight next Tuesday.  The prices are available for dozens of dates in April all the way into the peak season in December. It’s hard to believe that they are even covering fuel costs at these prices, so if you’ve ever wanted to visit Costa Rica it would be hard to find a better time.

Another factor is people choosing Costa Rica Vacations instead of Mexico where the horrific drug cartel violence is keeping tourists away by the thousands.

Costa Rica’s warm peaceful people, stable democratic government, national parks covered in rain forest, and of course beautiful tropical beaches make it an irresistible escape even in tough times.

Costa Rica is not a magic wonderland with no crime.  Especially on the crowded streets of the capital you should exercise common sense keep an eye out for a hand that’s not yours headed for your pocket, not carry large sums of cash or wander in neighborhoods you don’t know late at night.  Leave your expensive watch and jewelery at home and use the hotel room safe box for your camera.

However, violent crimes are rare and Costa Rica is more like Disneyland than the mess that is Mexico now.

The final reason that tourism continues to grow in Costa Rica while dropping of nearly everywhere else is that it’s a nearly unbelievably wonderful place to visit.  We’ve been all over the world in four decades of travel and we keep going back to Costa Rica again and again.

Once you’ve visited you’ll be tempted to too!

A somewhat clumsy (and not in any way guaranteed to be completely accurate) translation of the letter sent to members of the ICT is posted below for the curious.

Official data on ICT Tourist arrivals grew in January and February 2010
Increases of 4.3% and 16.5% compared with 2009

San Jose, Costa Rica, 18 March 2010 – Tourist arrivals to Costa Rica, by all means,grew in January and February compared to the same period in 2009. Official data of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) show an increase of 4.3% in January and 16.5% in February, numbers similar to those of 2008.

In the first two months of the year the country received 428,233 visitors – 37,405 tourists more than reported in January and February 2009. “These figures are similar to those recorded in early 2008, when the tourism in the country had not suffered the impact of international economic crisis, “said Minister of Tourism, Allan Flores. “Although there are regions and businesses affected by the decline in visitation recorded in 2009, these numbers bode well for recovery,” he said.

The data are grouped and analyzed by the ICT based on information from the Directorate General of Immigration.

The growth in international tourist visitation is more noticeable from the air arrivals. For Juan Santamaria International Airport the first two months of last year combined for 208,610 visitors. In January and February 2010 227,026 arrived through this port, an increase of 18,416 tourists.

The increase is also seen in the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste. Here, 50,427 tourists entered during January and February of this year, 9,863 more than the same period of 2009.