Rural Mexicans Learning to Make Ecotourism Pay

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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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