For better of worse, a long-touted project to build a third international airport in Costa Rica  seems to have suddenly gained enough speed to get off the ground.
The Southern Zone International Airport is planned for the Valle de Diquis on a site mid-way between the town of Palmar  and the sleepy riverside village of Sierpe , gateway to the fragile Térraba-Sierpe Wetland  (one of Central America’s largest mangrove forests) and to Drake Bay  and the Osa Peninsula  in the far southwest Pacific corner of Costa Rica.
First touted almost a decade ago, the controversial project has found a new champion in current Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla , who has designated it “of national importance.” Her pitch is that this will help create jobs and fight poverty.
The government seems to suddenly be moving with urgency to complete impact studies and lay a foundation for permitting. If the green light is given, the airport will be built on a 1,000-acre agricultural site currently planted in bananas. (The site, known as Fincas 9 and 10, is owned by a government agency, the Instituto Nacional de Fomento Cooperativo.) Construction is planned in two phases, beginning in 2012 with a runway designed to accept 50-passenger planes. By 2016, this will be expanded into a mammoth 10,000-foot-long runway capable of accepting the double-decker A380 Airbus , the world’s largest commercial aircraft (it has a maximum capacity of 853 passengers). The three main destinations for arriving travelers will be a) the Costa Ballena  (Whale Coast) north of Palmar, b) Drake Bay and western Osa Peninsula, and c) the eastern Osa Peninsula and Corcovado.
(The area is currently served by four local airports serviced by NatureAir  and Sansa  using 19-passenger Twin Otters and 22- to 35-passenger Cessnas, respectively, and by a half-dozen smaller airstrips. And the region can be reached from San José  in less than six hours by bus or rental car.)
The expansion of Daniel Oduber International Airport  from a local to international airport in 2002 caused a massive influx of real estate development in the northern Nicoya peninsula. (Most major U.S. airlines—American, Delta, United, etc.—now have direct flights into Liberia from gateways throughout North America.)
If the Liberia example is anything to go by, tourism in southern Costa Rica is about to be turned on its head. The result won't be pretty!
What’s undisputed is that rampant and unregulated real estate development (often with the connivance of get-rich-quick corrupt officials) resulted in scores of huge condominium projects and mega-resorts up and down the Nicoya coast, many of them properties whose owners have clear cut the forests and/or torn up mangroves with no concern for local ecology. Real estate prices have rocketed beyond what the local populace (mostly peasant farmers) could afford. Almost all the coastal land has passed into the hands of wealthy josefinos and foreigners. The job boom (construction, hotel staff, etc.) has mostly benefited outsiders, who’ve flocked to the area. The tourist boom has brought in its wake a crime wave. The cost of living in the area has also risen, while wages for many have not kept pace. And the water table (northern Nicoya is semi-arid) has fallen dramatically, causing supply problems throughout the area.
Note: I still think northern Nicoya is a great destination, with plenty of pristine beaches, pockets of wilderness, and off-the-beaten-track places to stay.
Fortunately the Osa Peninsula region doesn’t lack for water. In fact, it’s a tropical wet zone renowned for its pristine rainforests.
And there’s the rub.
Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places left in the world. It’s also Costa Rica’s largest remaining pocket of pristine rainforest. The rainforests of Corcovado National Park  and the Terraba-Sierpe Wetlands are the region’s greatest asset. Crown jewels of neotropical biota.
They're also extremely fragile.
Representatives of Costa Rica’s Dirección General de Aviación Civil  (civil aviation agency) claim, without any hint of irony, that the airport will be the country’s first “green” airport, thanks to its use of modern technology. However, the Center for Responsible Travel , a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit research institution, performed an exhaustive two year study that advised against the project: “With few rules, limited government resources and little planning or control could readily lead to the same negative effects seen in Guanacaste.”
The airport and the development that is sure to come in its wake could wreak havoc on the region’s ecology and local communities.
By pushing for this airport, the Chinchilla administration is setting the region up for a real estate boom that will threaten the very nature of the region. Real estate developers are already touting the proposed airport in their advertisements.
Where are all the people arriving on A-380s, er by the planeload, going to stay?
Thus far spared any large-scale development, the southern Pacific region has established itself as a model for sustainable ecotourism based on its exemplary network of small-scale ecotourism lodges, many of which have been at the forefront of conservation efforts. The region has no Riu’s (which recently opened the 700-room all-inclusive Hotel Riu Guanacaste , in northern Nicoya) nor Marriotts (which recently opened the 289-room JW Marriott Guanacaste). Yet!
Large corporate hotel chains no doubt have their sights set on this prime real estate. Which is one reason, cynical pundits speculate, that government inspectors appeared in Drake Bay for the first time ever last year, marked the 50 meter zone (the distance from the high tide mark in which real estate may be built) and cited some 50 properties, including eight small eco-hotels, for potential demolition. See my blog post: “Costa Rica hotels face closure following environmental report” 
A cynic could say that that’s a dandy way of cleaning out the small fry to make room for larger fish.
Thus, I quote from the website of Sabalo Lodge , tucked on the Sierpe River, midway between Sierpe and Drake Bay: “We have heard that it’s time to clean the old hotels out of Drake Bay (remember there are not enough hotel beds to accommodate all the tourists they want to bring into the area with the airport) and make room for the big names. No doubt these new hotels will be the latest in ‘green’ building design, eco-friendly and of course eco-luxury (one of my favorite oxymorons). The costs of these eco-palaces will be passed onto the consumer and if you want to stay near the beach in Drake Bay bring your Mastercard, where you can ‘Master the Possibilities’ because those prices are going to be in the higher ranges for nightly stays, tours, drinks, etc.”
And what will the airport mean for the Térraba-Sierpe Wetland, which is just three miles from the proposed airport? This huge tract of mangroves is a critical habitat that plays a vital role in erosion control, water purification, a nursery for marine life, and carbon storage (mangroves store four times more carbon per acre than any other tropical forest ecosystem).
The coastal ecosystems are already threatened by siltation and erosion problems due to uncontrolled development inland (illegal construction sites have already been found within the boundaries of the Térraba-Sierpe Wetland, a protected Ramsar site). And the small coral reef off the Costa Ballena is dying due to siltation from rampant development since that slice of Pacific coast was opened up a few years ago by construction of a coast highway linking it to Dominical .
The southwest region deserves better. What it needs is government support for a development model that fosters environmentally sustainable livelihoods for local communities. Meanwhile, local community groups who oppose the project (including families that currently utilize the land and face eviction) are preparing to testify against the airport before the National Assembly’s Environmental Commission next week.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
For further information about travel in Costa Rica, buy Moon Costa Rica 
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal & Monteverde  pocket guide.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker