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 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 in April 2000 with an "Ecotourism Excellence" award for the Web site's role in shaping the evolution of responsible tourism., 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.

Today, more than 23,000 communal groups own and live on 75 percent of Mexico's land.

Most of the country's splendid snowcapped volcanoes, lush jungles, and white sand beaches are also communal property. This means that when tourists come to visit the country's natural attractions, the local property owners should benefit.

But some heavily promoted resorts, such as Cancun and Bahias de Huatulco, have been built on ejidos that were expropriated by the government and sold to corporations.

Although some local people are hired, many do not have the appropriate skills or the knowledge of how the corporations work, said Ibarra. As a result, most of the well-paying jobs are filled by people from urban areas.

Ibarra and Suarez are trying to buck this trend by working with the ejidos and comunidades to develop community-based ecotourism projects. The two consultants have been conducting workshops on the subject in communities across the country.

"In recent years, as the ecotourism boom reached Mexico, many companies started promoting trips to the wilderness areas of the country," said Ibarra. Most of the projects were in areas belonging to ejidos or comunidades.

"In the beginning, the owners of the lands in which ecotourism was being developed were not involved at all," Ibarra said. Now, he added, "slowly but surely, rural populations have begun to perceive ecotourism as an economic alternative."

Building Business Savvy

By the strictest definition, any ecotourism enterprise designated as community based must be owned and operated by local people, with any profits going directly back into the community, said Megan Epler Wood, president of the International Ecotourism Society in Burlington, Vermont.

Even when they meet the requirements of that definition, many ecotourism projects fail. Success in the tourism industry involves many players at various levels—from marketing agencies to airlines to concession operators.

The residents of rural communities usually have no experience in running and marketing a business. Even if they have developed a well-run concession, visitors won't come unless there is also effective marketing. "It is a business," said Epler Wood. "They need to bring in customers."

Ibarra and Suarez say teaching people in local communities how to run an ecotourism operation is easy. The hard part is helping rural inhabitants overcome a culturally ingrained notion that they are stupid and incapable of running such a business themselves.

For every hour devoted to the instruction of business skills, the consultants spend four hours helping local residents build self-esteem and confidence.

Success Story

Ibarra and Suarez began their current line of work in the early 1990s, helping the residents of the ejido of San Nicolas Totolapan develop and market recreational facilities that would attract tourists.

The two consultants decided that the project's success depended on the involvement of the local land owners. Ibarra and Suarez spent more than 600 hours teaching people in the community business, marketing, and public relations skills.

"Now it is the most-visited community ecotourism project" in Mexico, Suarez noted. "It educates visitors on real ecotourism. It is not expensive, creates local jobs, stops urban sprawl, and educates."

Mader views Ibarra and Suarez as pioneers in building successful ecotourism in Mexico. Their work, he said, is "outstanding—not only because they have assisted in development of hiking and biking trails, but because they have demonstrated a profound respect for the communities."

"They put people at ease," said Mader, "and that's the key to their success."

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