by Rod Martin
Bandera Azul Ecológica… sounds exotic, doesn’t it? Well, it is exotic in a pristine tropical beach kind of way. Bandera Azul translates to English as “Blue Flag” — a designation awarded annually by the ICT (or the Tourism Board in Costa Rica). Eighty-nine beaches received at least one Bandera Azul, while some received an additional two, three, and even five stars for exemplary status.
Inspired by a similar program developed in Spain in 1985, the “Bandera Azul Ecológica” is intended to curb the negative impacts of increasing tourism and population by helping the local community to protect the beach environment and limit pollution. Costa Rica’s version was started in 1996, and 10 beaches received a blue flag designation that year. In 2004, an executive decree was made that clarified and organized the various government institutions to better manage the program. That foresight to protect one of its most precious attractions (clean beaches and water) is part of the reason why Costa Rica is booming now. Over 2.5 million visitors came to Costa Rica in 2014 (not to mention an influx of new coastal residents), and eco-tourism is one of its fastest growing sub-sectors.
For those who like the specifics behind a catchy headline, the beaches are evaluated on seven different criteria:
- Quality of Seawater (35%)
- Quality of Water for Human Consumption (15%)
- Quality of Sanitation, which includes garbage (10%)
- Domestic Sewage (15%)
- Industrial Sewage (5%)
- Environmental Education (10%)
- Safety and Administration (10%)
If the beach earns at least a 90% rating, they are awarded a Bandera Azul. In addition, multiple stars are now awarded if the beach community makes an extra effort in areas such as safety in the form of lifeguards and signs announcing “heavy surf/rip currents”, toilets and showers, bins for trash and recyclable items, and environmental education, among others.
Three beaches received a 5-star rating—Matapalo and Punta El Madero in Northern Guanacaste, and Playa Blanca on the Central Coast. There were three beaches within the southern Pacific zone of Costa Ballena that received blue flag ratings—Playa Dominical, Playa Arco, and Playa Hermosa – a beach that now has designated trash bins and lifeguards thanks to community initiative. Those lifeguards have saved 30 people from drowning in recent weeks, so safety is an ancillary benefit to a community. House hunters even base their searches using this Blue Flag criteria. If you are one of those seeking pristine and protected beaches, check out both our Dominical and Tamarindo listings.
Last year, the Costa Rican Times reported “[…] more than 90% of the beaches in the Costa Rica have minimal pollution levels, with little to no risk to human health.” This is good for beach-goers and for everyone who will benefit from tourism in the years to come. So, if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica in the near future, don’t forget your beach towel and your sunblock. The water is warm and the tropical beach experience is definitely part of the pura vida.