by Ron Mader
Ron Mader is a
leading expert in and exponent of ecotourism in Mexico.
Sometimes it seems as
though ecotourism in Mexico resembles two hikers separated by the abyss of the
famed Copper Canyon, a gorge in Chihuahua deeper than the Grand Canyon in the
United States. Conservation is marooned on one side, tourism on the other.
Perhaps it’s the
hybrid origin of “ecotourism” that makes ecologists and tourism officials
distrust each other.
shudder when tourism leaders brand amusement parks as ecotourism destinations.
Likewise, when environmentalists devise complicated circuits or vacation
packages that tour operators can’t book, the operators see ecotourism as
nothing more than utopian whimsy.
Yet from formal
speeches by Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo to campesino dialogues in rural
country, “ecoturismo” or ecotourism has been all the rage for the
past five years and shows no signs of disappearing soon.
Long ignored as
“attractions” by conservationists and tourists, Mexico's wilderness is
being explored as never before. In the 1990s, though, organized tours and
individual travelers discovered and raved about the natural wonders of Mexico.
Whether to watch birds or whales, people began visiting the great outdoors to
experience the diversity and beauty of nature. Therein lies great hope – and
danger – for ecosystems and local communities. Tourism has traditionally not
treated either sector kindly. Will ecotourism be different?
most buzzwords that pop in and out of the language, “ecotourism” is a
confusing term used by different people to mean different things. Without a
standard definition, anything involving tourism and the environment is
sometimes referred to as ecotourism. Even if the act of tourism diminishes or
destroys that environment, even if there is no educational component, and even
if no respect or fees are paid to the indigenous peoples living there.
but green jet skis in Cancún is not ecotourism.
there is no single strict definition, the most common tenets of ecotourism
hold that it is a form of tourism that assists local environmental
conservation efforts, includes the active participation of local communities,
and can pay for itself (is sustainable over the long run).
examples are those tourism facilities that go out of their way in providing
travelers with environmental education. Facilities include the Ecomundo in
Baja California Sur. This laid-back resort is a far cry from other coastal
developments. The cozy palapas utilize straw bale construction and solar
energy. It is a model of “alternative tourism.”
definition, ecotourism assures the traveler – and local leaders – that a
portion of the financial resources spent on a vacation remains in the area to
protect the environment and bolster the local economy. Eco-travelers don’t
necessarily expect air-conditioned suites; they want to immerse themselves in
the adventure of getting to know a particular place.
serves as a catalyst to other services and practices important to sustainable
development, such as environment-friendly lodging, organic agriculture, the
promotion of local handicrafts, and environmental education. In Spanish, this
is called un ciclo virtuoso, “a virtuous cycle.”
of the advantages of ecotourism is that it has the potential to offer both
large and small trips for travelers of all incomes. There are ecotourists who
take educational cruises and those who backpack throughout the rural
countryside. There is shoestring ecotourism and gold card ecotourism. It is
not about money. It is about intention and the effects of one’s action.
One caveat should be mentioned. Many tourism agencies and officials do not place a high value on environmental protection. Their focus is on the utilization of resources for profit, not on conservation. Conservationists, on the other hand, often hold the attitude that environmental problems are caused by people, and so people, including tourists, should go away!
a result, the two components of ecotourism – economic development and
environmental conservation – are seemingly at odds. Those who respect both
tourism and conservation are in fact few and far between. Our challenge is to
find a bridge across this gap. This ought to be the shared goal of
conservationists, tourism officials, and travelers alike. Who can argue
against development that is sustainable, or against income that provides
locals with a financial incentive to protect their resources?
of creating cities from villages, such as the Mexican megaresorts of Cancún
or Huatulco, ecotourism highlights the local biological diversity and the
surrounding towns and villages. This approach spreads the economic benefits
throughout the countryside, instead of hoarding them in an urban center.
succeeds when it not only benefits a local community but involves it from
start to finish. On the northern border, linkages between Tamaulipas and Texas
promote tourism to both the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve and Cuatro Ciénegas
Protected Area. Research documents that the poor are more likely than any
other group to protect and improve their environment – if given the
opportunity and resources. Ecotourism must have a strong local component if
the promoters want the tourism to be sustainable.
efforts must be kept in local hands to be successful,” says Maria Araujo,
international affairs director for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which
promoted ecotourism projects both in Texas and in the neighboring Mexican
states. “Money that comes into the area must remain there. On a simple
level, this means not bringing in box lunches.”
the financial revenues in a rural setting and in local hands remains a
challenge to the traditional manner of developing tourism,” Araujo said. But
it will be the only way to assure the local community of the value of
preserving the habitat the tourists have come to see.
Tourism in the Ajusco Mountains
San Nicolas Totolapan is located on the old two-lane Pichuca to Ajusco Highway
that heads south from Mexico City to Cuernavaca. The park officially debuted
in 1998 and is regularly used by 2,000 visitors a week – almost half by
cyclists who use the well-made trails to explore and race through the mountain
pre-Hispanic settlement, San Nicolás was founded in the Spanish era in 1535.
The 340 families on the ejido are hoping that ecotourism can help pay
some of the bills. It might be one of the first working examples in Mexico of
tourism connecting with local economic and environmental development.
you want to assure the conservation of these areas, you have to work with ejidos
first,” says Antonio “Febo” Suárez, who works with the consulting firm
Consultores Balam. Suárez and partner Juan Carlos Ibarra initiated cycling
trips throughout Mexico and now are dedicating their energies to tourism
training sessions for local communities, such as in San Nicolás. The project
received a $50,000 grant from Fondo Mexicano Para la Conservación, the
country’s environmental fund.
identify the native plants, which transform the forest into a combination
pharmacy and multi-purpose tienda. On my trip into the Ajusco, guides
pointed out perlilla, used for making brooms, and the sauco tree –
its flowers are used in tea to relieve coughing.
ejido has established areas for camping as well as easier trails for
the elderly and children. Wisely, they want to make sure the hiking and biking
trails are clearly defined. It’s no fun to dodge slow-moving hikers if
you’re on two wheels and it’s worse being hit by a fast-moving mountain
bike if you’re on foot.
says that after the Mexican revolution, the government turned over large
parcels of land to communities of farmers. Ejidos comprise 60 percent
of Mexico’s territory, and in the areas that the government has declared
“protected,” the ejidos comprise 90 percent of that territory.
Ajusco mountains have been declared protected areas for their biodiversity as
well as for their role in providing a watershed for Mexico City. The park has
inspired other regional efforts to foster environmental conservation
throughout the Ajusco mountains.
The cackle of Maroon-fronted parrots (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) draws my head to the auburn sky. A species which has evolved to live only among high altitude conifer forests in Northeastern Mexico, the birds are searching for a place to spend the night.
hard to believe. I had always thought of parrots as a tropical species, yet
here we are just three hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the state of
Nuevo Leon. There are many surprises here. I am learning so many things about
this country and its environment that have shattered countless media
stereotypes and preconceptions.
is poor only in terms of economic wealth. In terms of biodiversity – the
number and variety of species of flora and fauna – Mexico is a global power.
It is among five nations on this planet in which scientists have found the
majority of the world’s life forms.
parrots nest on the limestone cliffs in this area of the Sierra Madre
Oriental. The area is recovering from a regional wildfire that destroyed 8,000
hectares in 1975. The major source of the parrots’ diet – conifer seeds
– was destroyed in the forest fire. Biologist Jose Sánchez de la Peña
family runs a small lodge, Renacer de la Sierra (Rebirth of the
Mountains) in the heart of the Sierra.
family has been responsible for a major reforestation project undertaken with
proceeds from tourists. The work is slow, Sánchez acknowledges. It may take
800 years for the ecosystem to return. But given the 400 years his family has
already lived on this mountain, recovery is a long time away – but not
explains. “If by offering a humble retreat for tourists from the big cities
(Monterrey and Saltillo) we show them how to appreciate nature, we are part of
a larger effort in renewing Mexico's appreciation for its natural
some setbacks, Mexico's newfound interest in ecotourism has taken root in the
federal government. The Tourism and Environmental Secretariats (SECTUR) and (SEMARNAP)
respectively signed an agreement to collaborate on ecotourism development in
1995. That said, while the two offices are officially working together, there
have been few results.
was called in by SECTUR to discuss their new ‘sustainable tourism
strategy,’” said international ecotourism consultant and Mexican architect
Hector Ceballos. “‘But how can this be sustainable?’ I told them.
‘You're leaving office in a few months. You should have called me in five
At least ten different people have occupied positions promoting ecotourism and “alternative tourism” at SECTUR in the past administration – sexenio – alone. Lack of continuity is a problem at both federal- and state-level tourism offices.
lack of continuity in federal government is nothing new, particularly in
between sexenios. So in 1994 a group of private entrepreneurs set up
their own group – Mexico's Association of Adventure Travel and Ecotourism (Amtave).
The association now raises most of its funds via membership fees (2,500 pesos
or $250/year) and profits generated at events that the organization
co-sponsors and promotes. This private group boasts members throughout the
country and keeps an eye on the linkages between conservation issues and
the San Ignacio Saltworks project was cancelled in March, Amtave director
Marlene Ehrenberg said, “Isn’t it fine that at the end of the sexenio,
Mexico confirms that, yes, nature is important and we Mexicans will protect
what we have.”
the ecotourism business has not been as successful as Amtave members would
like. In fact, very few of the Amtave members or other ecotourism providers
are successful enough that ecotourism is their only job. Many work a second or
third job so that they can dedicate the energy in developing nature tours that
actually protect nature.
will come,” Ehrenberg says. “There is a lack of information about the
services and destinations here in Mexico. For example, a colleague called the
SECTUR information line and asked what kind of bird watching is available in
Mexico. The response was a quizzical, ‘Birdwatching? We don't know. Wouldn't
you like to know about our butterflies?’ Given that kind of promotion,
it’s hard to develop authentic ecotourism.”
the National Program of Development of the Tourism Sector (Programa de
Desarrollo de Sector Turismo) 1995-2000 mentions sustainable tourism as one of
its goals, no changes were made to the Ley Federal de Turismo.
The Ecological Commission within the Chamber of Deputies (Camara de Diputados) held a forum on biodiversity and ecotourism in November 1998. They held meetings with experts and after a year developed their proposal (iniciativa de dictamen) which was revised by the parties participating in the commission. It was then presented to the Chamber of Deputies in December 1999 and accepted in March 2000 by a unanimous vote (392-0). It was then sent to the Senate (Camara de Senadores) where it awaits approval.
or not we recognize the laws now, it’s important that those on the books
reflect the needs of our country,” said Jorge Chávez de la Peña, an
ecotourism expert and a retired professor who developed the first ecotourism
training program at the National Polytechnical University. He assisted the
commission in the formulation of the revision.
has a lot of ecotourism going on, but there is still no regulation,” said Chávez.
“The revised law will help all of us to have criteria to know what is or is
not ecotourism and what needs to be done so that this is sustainable.”
Conservation and Responsible Tourism in Mexico
successfully pioneering such large-scale, megatourism destinations as
Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Cancún, Mexico now is reviewing how to promote
the small-is-beautiful approach of ecotourism. Local guides are being trained
throughout the country and some of its state tourism offices. Oaxaca and
Veracruz for instance, are at the forefront of marketing Mexico’s natural
the global tourism industry, nature-based travel services and destinations are
the market’s hottest niches. For developing countries with limited financial
resources, nature-based tourism promotes both environmental conservation and
local economic development. That’s the idea, and part of its success depends
its best, ecotourism is a tool to channel the energies of the tourism market
toward building sustainable economies. At its worst, it is a marketing tool
that sells environmentally destructive activities under nature’s banner.
you travel through Mexico, and through other countries including your own, ask
yourself the following questions:
To what degree does the introduction of tourism encourage members of the local
community to preserve and protect their natural surroundings?
Are poor local people being displaced to make way for a resort that will
profit a wealthy owner? You might not want to see a milpa, a
campesino’s cornfield, in the buffer zone of a national park, but remember
that he and his family were probably born here and you are a guest who is just
passing through. In the best circumstances, locals are hired as guards and
guides and let their fields go fallow.
Who owns the resort or hotel? How does the travel agent I am paying support
local conservation efforts? Ask around. Community-owned hotels and tourism
services do the most good to support the goals of ecotourism.
Where does the food that is served come from, and does the demand for that
food hasten environmental degradation? Some hotels serve iguana meat, or
lobster out of season. The food might be tasty but the consequences of eating
of it are bitter.
Where does the sewage that I flush from my hotel bathroom go? If human waste
washes out onto a coral reef, causing an algae bloom and killing the reef, how
good do you feel about the waterfront location of your hotel?
Ecotourism Sources and References:
- Mexico's National Ecotourism/Adventure Tourism Association
Sanchez de la Peña
de la Sierra Lodge
Chavez de la Peña
Suarez and Juan Carlos Ibarra
Ecotourism Network (Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo)
Mexican Ecotourism Network is both a physical and virtual network providing an
open space for announcements, news and other valuable information for
professionals working toward improving ecotourism in Mexico. The
loosely-formed network (or "red" in Spanish) also meets on a
quarterly basis. Our last meeting was an internet workshop held on March 7,
2000, in Mexico City's Centro Historico.
created this network in the spring of 1999 because as a journalist I found I
was talking to many ecotourism players who weren’t talking to themselves.
This is a problem not limited to Mexico. I established a similar mesa
redonda (round table) when I lived in Austin, Texas. Too often experts
talk to only those in their field, thus conferences establish a dialogue among
academics or among government officials. Rare is true cross-sector dialogue.
about the network are online http://www2.planeta.com/mader/ecotravel/mexico/red.html
and if you would like to receive the synthesis of news, subscribe to the
free mailing lists.
Send a blank email to red-mexicana-subscribe@eGroups.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for the active discussion group. In the "Anuncio" or "Announcement" list, members post short conference announcements or summaries, trip itineraries, press releases, general news and job vacancies. Both of these lists are quite popular and provide a means of information sharing for Mexicophiles interested in ecotourism.
Mexicana de Turismo de Aventura
tourism info is welcome here. Members post short announcements, news, job
vacancies, etc., in the field of adventure tourism. Rafting, mountain
climbing, other extreme sports will be sent to this group. To join this list,
send a blank email to email@example.com
Mexicana de Turismo
tourism info about Mexico is welcome here. Members post short announcements,
news, job vacancies, statistics, tourism development projects, etc. I receive
a great deal of info from museums and state tourism offices. If it’s not
ecotourism/adventure tourism-related, I'll post it here. To join this list,
send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ecotourism Network/Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo
Nacionales de Mexico - Fernando Vargas Marquez
vs. Ecotourism in Mexico - Tim Burford
Threats and Conservation in Southern Mexico - Les Beletsky
sobre ecoturismo en Mexico - Jorge Chavez de la Pena
Naturaleza y Desarrollo Sostenible - Hector Ceballos
Mexican Ecotourism Websites