Visitor Centers

If You Build It, Will They Come?

When Hurricane Mitch opened up a prison in the port city of La Ceiba, Honduras in 1998, several escaped prisoners scrambled up the Cangrejal River and spent the night in the newly inaugurated visitor center on the boundary of Pico Bonito National Park. It was certainly not the purpose of the center to lodge prisoners. But then again, what are visitor centers for?

“We were unable to show what tourists could do there,” admits Fito Steiner, president of the organization that manages the park. Today the visitor center—doors stolen—sits idly watching whitewater tourists rush by.

Obsolescence sets in early for many Central American visitor (also “interpretive” or “nature”) centers. Take the three parks with the biggest centers: Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica, Masaya National Park in Nicaragua, and Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

Poas, built more than 20 years ago, has fallen under disrepair, and represents an historical epoch in visitor center design gone by. Masaya has cracked under acid rain and was even used as a disco by the Sandinista government. Tikal enjoys the fame of towering Mayan temples, and a heavily transited location rich with culture and biodiversity. But even an exhibit design team from the Bronx Zoo has done little to resuscitate the park’s center.

Many parks start with the erroneous assumption that if you erect deluxe buildings, tourists will come. But as Brett Jenks, president of RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, observes, “No one comes halfway across the world just to see a visitor center.” According to a recent nationwide tourist survey in Costa Rica, visitors most want the basics: decent restrooms, bilingual directional signs, simple interpretive exhibits and literature, security, trained naturalist guides and access roads.

If there is a better trail to building visitor centers, why don’t more parks take it? Deirdre Hyde, who helped to design both Poas and Masaya, has repeatedly observed big chunks of money from donor countries transferred to parks for high-profile monuments that can be underlined in project reports and press releases. What park could refuse such a gift?

Pico Bonito, first born of a $50,000 U.S. Agency for International Development project in 1994, now finds itself ironically on the short list for a five-star luxury makeover. Officials have created an ecotourism plan that identifies a location near a major crowd-pleasing waterfall, and have even mustered community support. Caught by funding forces bigger than they, Pico Bonito hopes this time to build a visitor center people will actually use.