Rural Mexicans Learning to Make Ecotourism Pay

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2001

It's not hard to advocate ecotourism—loosely defined as a form of travel that protects an area of the natural world while enabling the local people to preserve their culture and meet their daily needs.

The hard part is making ecotourism work.

Mexico, with many natural, still largely unspoiled areas and a land system based on community ownership, seems a likely ecotourism paradise. But its record of tourism development tells a different story.

Now, thanks to the efforts of two consultants in Mexico City, the country may have figured out a way to benefit from the ecotourism market that is growing rapidly worldwide.

Juan Carlos Ibarra and Antonio "Febo" Suarez, co-owners of Balam Consultants, have succeeded where many other people have failed, helping local communities develop the ability to operate ecotourism ventures.

A development project the team undertook a decade ago with the residents of San Nicolas Totolapan, outside Mexico City, is well regarded by ecotourism professionals from around the world. The program, Parque Ejidal San Nicolas Totolapan, offers facilities for hiking and mountain biking on 5,693 acres (2,304 hectares) of land that otherwise would have been lost to illegal logging and urban sprawl.

Many people hope the work by Ibarra and Suarez will become a model for other ecotourism ventures throughout Mexico.

The product of their efforts "shows what can be done, and it puts the decision-making process in the hands of those who will either benefit or suffer from ecotourism," said Ron Mader, Web host of Planeta.com. The for-profit Web site on ecotourism in the Americas has grown considerably from its roots as a quarterly newsletter in 1995.

Conservation International honored Planeta.com in April 2000 with an "Ecotourism Excellence" award for the Web site's role in shaping the evolution of responsible tourism. Planeta.com, in turn, has begun recognizing excellence in ecotourism, and gave Ibarra and Suarez its first annual Colibri Ecotourism Award.

"The wonder of their work," Mader said, "is that they make it look very simple."

Broad Land Ownership

An advantage for Mexico in the field of ecotourism development is land reforms implemented after the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1917. Property previously owned by the wealthy elite was redistributed to peasant communities in the form of communally held village lands known as ejidos and comunidades.

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