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Mexico's ecotourism: A good but tough proposal
Conversation with Ron Mader
by Barbara Belejack


Publication date: June 1999


FLICKR ALBUM: Lessons from Mexico

According to Ron Mader, ecotourism is a niche within the tourism industry that accomplishes three goals: it benefits conservation, benefits local communities and makes money. Putting all those goals together is the hard part.

For the past five years Mader has been researching ecotourism in Mexico, trying to separate the "green-washing" from the real thing. The result is a new guidebook, Mexico: Adventures in Nature, published by John Muir Publications. He is also the co-author of a guide to Honduras by the same publisher, and the host of a comprehensive web site devoted to tourism and the environment -- ( Excerpts follow:

We've been told that ecotourism is an option for sustainable economic development. How do you grade Mexico's efforts so far?

I think we see a number of innovative successes in Mexico, such as the town of Cuatro Cienegas in the state of Coahuila, about an hour and a half west of Monclova. For the better part of the century the town has depended on gypsum dunes for its economic development. The problem with this form of mining is that it is not sustainable. For many years this resource was mined and now the dunes that would have been 40 meters high are 10 meters. This is one of three places in the world - the others are in Russia and White Sands, New Mexico -- where the dunes occur in such a pure concentration.

The name Cuatro Cienegas suggests "four lagoons;" actually there are more than a hundred - plenty of wonderful swimming holes. The town also has adequate hotels and some of the best food from the northern border. The former mayor and now the head of the Reserve of Cuatro Cienegas looked at the situation and started to encourage the town to develop its tourism infrastructure - not in terms of building new hotels or new restaurants, but in trying to fill up the ones that already exist and get the ejiditarios who own this land involved as guides. It's still early and we'll see if it works, but that's a good model.

Near Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, there's a hotel called Renacer de la Sierra in an area that has suffered very severe deforestation. The owner's son is a biologist who estimates it will take about 400 years for the forest to regenerate. But they're going to do it. The family is using the profits from a small number of cabanas to assist in reforestation efforts. The larger picture, though is that Mexico has been so successful in developing its tourism industry, that there hasn't been much of an interest or need to develop alternative niches.

As a comparison -- ecotourism took off in Costa Rica in the 1980s and 1990s. What does Costa Rica have to offer that sets it apart from other destination? Its nature! It doesn't really have the artesania, the food, the archeology that Mexico has. Mexico "suffers" from its success in the traditional sol-y-playatourism mentality.

So isn't Mexico now behind the times? Isn't there a growing market for people who want something more than Cancun?

There is definite market for both authentic ecotourism as well as adventure tourism for people who don't want to see Mexico behind the smoky black glass of a charter tour bus. There has given terrific lip service to ecotourism. That said, government policy has rarely made good on its promises or its potential. Very few governments do. Governments are always attracted to the tried and true, the financially stable.

What could the government be doing to promote ecotourism for community development?

Unfortunately, there isn't a government on the planet that has shown itself to be a leader in a successful ecotourism or alternative tourism strategy. They may, however, learn to follow the global trends that give more control and respect to local communities. Tourism is maturing and future success will be based on what today we label "alternative" tourism that provides a more meaningful experience for the tourist and community alike.

What can government do so that it interferes the least?

Work with people who are developing these "alternative" services, destinations, and markets. Mexico ought to have better information available for the tourist or the tour operator. Mexico is far behind countries like Costa Rica or Ecuador where it's so much easier to get information -- which is a vital component to the promotion as well as the management of true ecotourism. And it's simply missing.

You've written a lot about the Internet and ecotourism. What about using the Internet?

The biggest problem for Mexico is that the Tourism Ministry's [Sectur] website was originally developed in Canada. Now the site has a tremendous amount of information, but it's not well organized. When Sectur begins to take ecotourism seriously, they're going to be building better databases and sharing that information with people in Mexico as well as globally. Second what's happening is that some state and city offices are taking the lead. If you want to know about adventure tourism or ecotourism in Veracruz, you go to their office and you'll get brochures as well as information on the pre-Colombian history and ecosystems of the area. Same for Oaxaca, same for the town of Cuatro Cienegas.

What's happened with the Mundo Maya project? We were told that this was going to be the great gift to travelers as well as to local communities throughout the Mayan region of Mexico and Central America.

Mundo Maya starts off with the best of intentions -- create a multi-nation approach to tourism. Too often we create borders either around states or other countries and we refuse to deal with people in the other area. In the Laguna area of Mexico, for example, the states of Durango and Coahuila don't want to work together. The problem with [the Mundo Maya project] is that money gets in the way. I don't believe there's a single Maya on the board of directors and the Maya themselves have very little say in the development of this project.

But wasn't that part of the initial agreement? That local people would be involved?

Ah, but what does "involvement" mean? Too often you talk about public participation and involvement and what you mean is "I as the most wealthy person with the grandest scope and the grandest ambition invite you to a meeting." That's why we see a number of problems.

There are many efforts, many projects run by the indigenous. The problem is that the way tourism is structure in Mexico, as well as throughout the "Mundo Maya" countries, those efforts promoting "eco" or "indigenous" or "alternative" tourism seem to get the least amount of publicity or support. So if you go to the tourism office in Merida or in Cancun and you say, "What environmental groups are working on these projects?" or "What indigenous groups are working on these projects?" you receive blank stares.

How do you see ecotourism developing in Mexico?

There are people who are committed, who are interested in improving not only the promotion but the actual substance of ecotourism. That's happening at an accelerated rate thanks to efforts of a vast number of individuals as well as the country's association of ecotourism and adventure tourism providers, Amtave.

The biggest problem is that within Sectur, the office for ecotourism has had a revolving door for officials. In the past five years of researching this topic, I've talked to ten people in charge. If Mexico sincerely wants to promote ecotourism, it has to have more continuity as well as improve its information sharing. Other countries such as Costa Rica, such as Ecuador, have good tourism offices in all their major cities.

You go to many tourism offices in Mexico and they're closed. When I fly to into Tepic, Nayarit last year, I spotted the tourism office at the airport. Closed. Well, when does it open? "Oh, it's never open," the airport employees told me.

I spent a week in Zacatecas last summer. My hotel was next to the tourism office, so I went to visit. Closed. And the office remained closed until the last day of my visit. I went in and saw a beautiful poster of the Sierra de los Organos. I started questioning the woman there about access to the park, its history and such until she became quite frustrated and replyed "It's only a poster!"

Unfortunately, Mexico spends more time promoting its image getting people to come here than it does telling them what they can do once they're here.

But that's also last year's mentality. I'm saying that's going to change. My optimism is generated by the amount of email I get from Mexican and other Latin American students as well as others who are looking for precisely this kind of information. There is a tremendous hunger for environmental knowledge at the close of this century. I can't wait to see what the next decade brings.

A version of this article appeared in El Financiero International on February 8, 1999.



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