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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 2016: June 6 – July 6
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 marine and terrestrial ecosystems of Bocas del Toro and the challenges presented by a growing reliance on tourism for economic development. Students assess the impact of tourism on the natural environment, including cultural, economic, and political dimensions. Students gain an understanding of the challenges of developing environmental policies that effectively conserve the region’s natural resources while providing economic sustainability for local communities.

Students become familiar with the biodiversity of the islands, paying particular attention to the natural elements that attract tourists to the region. Trekking on land through farms, forests, and rangeland, and snorkeling in the clear waters of the archipelago exposes students to a variety of tropical habitats—coral reefs, mangroves, and lowland rainforest—and fauna, from poison dart frogs to howler monkeys, sloths, and bottlenose dolphins. Students visit popular tourist destinations, observe tourist activities, and learn to use various assessment techniques to measure and analyze potential correlations between tourism practices and 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.


  • Recognize the major forms and incentives of tourism in Bocas del Toro and identify key issues
  • Snorkel on the archipelago’s coral reefs, mangrove cays, and seagrass meadows to evaluate the health of local marine habitats
  • 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
  • Visit national parks in the archipelago to determine how tourism can support protected areas
  • Compare ecotourism lodges with large-scale resort hotels and assess their impacts on social, economic, and environmental systems
  • Explore lowland humid rainforests to understand terrestrial biodiversity
  • 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. whale and dolphin watching)
  • Draft model plans for optimizing sustainable tourism in Bocas del Toro


This summer course can be taken individually (4 credits) or in combination with Session II: Applied Research Techniques & Strategies Toward Sustainability in Costa Rica (8 credits). The combined summer program provides 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, as well as to immerse themselves in the practice of Spanish language skills. By engaging in field-based research, students come away with both a conceptual framework for understanding the challenges of addressing complex conservation questions, as well as direct, hands-on experience in two different Central American 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 most populous island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Located a short distance from Bocas Town, the field station sits on a quiet waterfront. It is common to hear the sounds of frogs, birds, and monkeys in the surrounding area. Caribbean waters are the backyard of the Center, providing plenty of activities for students including snorkeling, volleyball, and swimming. The classroom is located over the water with views of nearby islands. Due to the Center’s central location, the coral reefs, jungles, and beaches of Bocas are only short distances away. The facility includes a dining/classroom area, outdoor classroom, student lounge, pool, plenty of hammocks, and a library/laboratory.