This article is from the June 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Mexican Ecotourism in the New Millennium

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.

Conservationists 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? 

Exploring Ecotourism 

What is ecotourism? 

Like 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. 

Sorry, but green jet skis in Cancún is not ecotourism. 

While 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). 

Better 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.” 

By 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. 

Ecotourism 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.” 

One 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!

As 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? 

Instead 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. 

Ecotourism 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. 

“Ecotourism 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.” 

“Keeping 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. 

Improving Tourism in the Ajusco Mountains 

Parque 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 passes. 

A 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.  

“If 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. 

Guides 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. 

The 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. 

Suarez 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. 

The 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. 

Sierra Madre Reforestation 

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.

It’s 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. 

Mexico 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.

The 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. 

The 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 unthinkable. 

Sánchez 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 resources.” 

Ecotourism Filters Upward 

Despite 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. 

“I 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 years ago.’” 

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.

This 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 tourism. 

When 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.” 

Yet 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. 

“This 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.” 

While 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.

“Whether 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.

“Mexico 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.” 

Sidebar: Conservation and Responsible Tourism in Mexico 

After 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 destinations.  

In 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 on you.  

At 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. 

As you travel through Mexico, and through other countries including your own, ask yourself the following questions:

1. To what degree does the introduction of tourism encourage members of the local community to preserve and protect their natural surroundings?

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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? 


Mexican Ecotourism Sources and References: 

Marlene Ehrenberg

Amtave - Mexico's National Ecotourism/Adventure Tourism Association

(011-52) 5663-5381


Jose Sanchez de la Peña

Renacer de la Sierra Lodge

Monterrey, Nuevo Leon

(011-52) 8353-9023


Hector Ceballas Lasquirin

Independent Consultant

(011-52) 5676-8734


Jorge Chavez de la Peña

Independent Consultant

 (011-52) 5839-4223


Antonio Suarez and Juan Carlos Ibarra

Balam Consultores

(011-52) 5849-3705 and


Mexico Ecotourism Network (Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo) 

The 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. 

I 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. 

Details about the network are online and if you would like to receive the synthesis of news, subscribe to the free mailing lists.  

Send a blank email to or 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. 

Additional Mailing Lists 

Red Mexicana de Turismo de Aventura

Adventure 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

Red Mexicana de Turismo

General 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 References: 

Mexico Ecotourism Index


Mexico Ecotourism Network/Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo


Balam Consultores


Parques Nacionales de Mexico - Fernando Vargas Marquez


Tourism vs. Ecotourism in Mexico - Tim Burford


Environmental Threats and Conservation in Southern Mexico - Les Beletsky


Articulos sobre ecoturismo en Mexico - Jorge Chavez de la Pena

Ecoturismo, Naturaleza y Desarrollo Sostenible - Hector Ceballos


Other Mexican Ecotourism Websites 





Parque San Nicolas