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Session I: Tourism and Island Systems: Assessment of Sustainable Practices


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Location Bocas del Toro, Panama
Language English
Dates 2017: June 5 – July 5
Rolling admissions. Early submissions encouraged for acceptance into program of choice.
Program Cost
Click here for program costs. Program cost includes all tuition, room, board, local travel. Excludes airfare.
Financial Aid Click here for more information about need-based scholarships, loans, and travel grants.
Prerequisites No academic prerequisites; 18 years of age
Credits 4 credits (8 credits if taken with Session II in Costa Rica)


This course introduces students to the study of tourism via a historical and ecological understanding of Bocas del Toro. Students examine the challenges presented by a growing reliance on tourism for livelihoods and economic development. Students assess the impact of tourism on the natural environment within the context of the larger cultural, economic, and political dimensions. They learn about the complexities of creating environmental policies that both conserve the region's natural resources and support livelihoods and economic sustainability for local communities.

This course emphasizes the human dimensions of tourism. Students become familiar with the biodiversity of the islands, paying particular attention to the natural elements that attract tourists to the region. Walking through farms and forests and snorkeling in the clear waters of the archipelago, students see a variety of tropical habitats—coral reefs, mangroves, lowland rainforest—and fauna including poison dart frogs, howler monkeys, sloths, and bottlenose dolphins. They also visit popular tourist destinations, observe tourist activities, and learn to use various assessment techniques to measure tourism practices and tourism impacts on ecosystem function.

By interacting with local stakeholders—indigenous community members, seasonal residents, nonprofits, business owners, and government agencies—students collect data and information on belief systems, traditions, and livelihood practices and how they play a role in the management and protection of this fragile island ecosystem.


  • Interview local stakeholders regarding their perceptions of tourism and its role in Bocas del Toro
  • Practice environmental assessment techniques to identify drivers of human-induced stress in natural systems (snorkeling and swimming skill level dependent)
  • Visit a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to determine how tourism can support protected areas
  • Compare ecotourism lodges with large-scale resort hotels, assessing their impacts on social, economic, and environmental systems
  • Perform cost-benefit analyses on tourist activities and identify the positive and negative effects on natural systems and livelihoods in the archipelago
  • Study the impacts and policies related to tourism centered on watching wild animals in their natural habitats (e.g. dolphin watching)
  • Draft model plans and proposals for optimizing sustainable tourism in Bocas del Toro


This summer program offers one four-credit course that may be taken individually or in combination with a four-credit course in Costa Rica to provide a thorough introduction to environmental management, tourism, and sustainable development in tropical ecosystems.

The eight-week combined summer program gives students an opportunity to gain a two-country comparative perspective on the impacts of tourism and development on the natural environment and human communities. Students gain a conceptual framework for understanding the challenges of addressing complex conservation questions, as well as direct, hands-on experience in two different countries. Students participating in both sessions receive a $1,000 discount.


The SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies is located on Isla Colón, the largest and most populous island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Located on a quiet waterfront a short distance from Bocas Town, it is common to hear the sounds of frogs, birds, and howler monkeys as well as the hustle and bustle of the nearby town while at the Center. Caribbean waters are the backyard of the Center, providing plenty of activities for students including snorkeling, paddle boarding, and swimming. The classroom is located over the water with views of nearby islands. However, with such proximity to the coral reefs, jungles, and beaches of Bocas, our classroom for active learning extends over vast parts of the island system. The facility includes a dining/study area, outdoor classroom, indoor class (to shelter from occasional tropical deluge), student lounge, pool, plenty of hammocks, and a library/laboratory.