Choosing Sustainable Travel: Costa Rica’s Sustainable Tourism Program

Costa Rica is known as an ecotourism destination, but how do you know your hotel or tour company is truly sustainable? The Costa Rican government has created a formal certification program. Called the Certification of Sustainable Tourism, this rigorous program allows hotels, tour operators, and other tourism businesses to be recognized for their sustainable practices. In this post, we’ll tell you more about the program. In a subsequent post, we’ll provide a list of hotels in Costa Rica that have the Certification of Sustainable Tourism.

Certification Sustainable Tourism Costa Rica



Certification of Sustainable Tourism Overview

The Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST) program was created in 1997 to ensure Costa Rica’s success as a sustainable tourism destination in the world. It was also intended to prevent “greenwashing,” where businesses exaggerate their environmental practices for marketing purposes.

The CST is a voluntary program that recognizes tourism companies that mitigate their impacts. It focuses on environmental impacts, while at the same time advancing social, cultural, and economic goals.

The program defines sustainable tourism as

ICT definition sustainability

The CST standard incorporates goals on a national level. It also reflects various international criteria, including the United Nation’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The program has been recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Program Administration

The CST program is administered by Costa Rica’s Institute of Tourism (ICT).

Two organizations were formed specifically for the program, the Department of Certifications and Responsible Social Tourism and the Technical Verification Commission. They are responsible for certifying businesses and ensuring ongoing compliance.

The Technical Verification Commission is made up of the academic sector, private companies, the public sector, and two international organizations. Specifically, the ICT, Ministry of Environment and Energy, Ministry of Culture, National Institute of Biodiversity, University of Costa Rica, Central American Institute of Business Administration, National Chamber of Tourism, Land Council, and the World Union for Conservation of Nature.

You can find more information about the program on the ICT website and CST website.

Getting the CST

Looking at the requirements for a business to get the CST, the CST program is rigorous.

The application process requires businesses to submit detailed responses to a series of questions, along with supporting documents about their business management and environmental, social, economic, and cultural impacts. There are also industry-based factors (e.g., for hotels, tour operators, restaurants, rental car companies).

Once an application is submitted, an auditor does an in-depth review. They then make a technical report, explaining the corrections needed and requesting an action plan from the business. There is then some back and forth about the final action plan and the auditor may do a site visit.

We have heard from hotels that it is a very involved, time-consuming process—often taking years! Hotels usually need to hire a specialized consultant to help with the paperwork, which can be expensive.

CST Levels

When a business gets the CST, it either achieves basic or elite status. The basic level requires fulfilling all the mandatory questions. Elite status goes beyond that and requires an even higher level of compliance.

You may see some businesses with a logo showing leaves instead. This was the program’s old designation of using zero to five leaves, where five leaves had the highest certification level. Some companies still use this logo today.

Old CST Logo
The old logo with leaves

What It Means to Be CST Certified

A tourism business that is CST certified has met several sustainability requirements. Here’s a short list to give you an idea:

The company avoids emissions and damage to the environment by pollution and chemicals.

The company actively works to manage and conserve the environment.

The company uses environmentally friendly waste management practices.

The company uses natural, biodegradable products and recycles.

The company has a program for conserving water and electricity.

The company educates and encourages guests to be sustainable.

The company complies with environmental standards, archaeological heritage standards, and safety standards.

The company employs residents of the local community.

The company promotes the traditions and customs of Costa Rica.

Solar Costa Rica Hotel
Solar panels on a hotel in Costa Rica

CST-Certified Businesses

You can find a list of businesses that have the Certification of Sustainable Tourism on the CST website (“Empresas y Organizaciones Certificados”). Keep in mind that this list is not complete; it does not seem to include all the businesses that have the CST for some reason.

The majority of businesses that have gone through the certification are hotels; however, there are some tour companies and operators, museums, rental car companies, and transportation companies.

Non-CST Businesses & Other Certifications

Additionally, there are lots of sustainability-minded businesses in Costa Rica that may not have the resources to obtain the CST certification or are still in the process.

You may be able to find other efforts of sustainability by browsing a company’s website.

Another robust sustainability program to look for in Costa Rica is the Blue Flag Certification. This certification has different levels as well, ranging from zero to five stars. It covers many sectors from beaches and parks to businesses and farms.    

Finally, there are international certifications and recognitions for things like obtaining carbon neutrality, being Rainforest Alliance Certified, donating to organizations like 1% for the Planet, and more.

Wind Turbines Costa Rica
Wind turbines in the Miravalles Volcano area


The CST program is a good step towards improving sustainability in tourism in Costa Rica. The businesses with certification have done a lot of work to achieve it. With this knowledge of the program, you’ll now have a greater appreciation of those little green leaf logos proudly displayed in hotels and other businesses.

Next week, we will be coming out with a list of hotels that have attained the CST, so stay tuned!

Have a question about sustainable tourism in Costa Rica? Ask us below.

Interested in hearing more about environmental organizations in Costa Rica? Check out these posts:

Keeping Costa Rica Green: Community Carbon TreesThis organization is helping to reforest Costa Rica with native trees using the help of local farmers.

MareBlu: Protecting Costa Rica’s Beaches – MareBlu, on the central Pacific coast, focuses on combating ocean pollution, especially plastic.

Kids Saving the Rainforest: If you’re visiting Manuel Antonio, you can support this important wildlife rehabilitation center on a tour.


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