Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo


Exploring Mexico

Ecotourism: Reality or Rhetoric
Ecotourism Development in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico

by Natasha Kate Ward
March 1997

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Contents: Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Conclusion and Bibliography

Chapter 4 - Nature Tourism Projects in Quintana Roo.

Ecotourism or another Cancún?

"Tourism poses a threat but also an opportunity....Man is the problem but also the solution" [Bezaury, Executive Director of Amigos de Sian Ka'an, cited in Jones and Wersch, 1990:31].

4.1. Quintana Roo Jumps on the Ecotourism Bandwagon.

Since the early 1990s Mexico has jumped on the 'ecotourism bandwagon' in a big way. It is hardly surprising, considering the diversity of local ecosystems in Quintana Roo, that on an international, national and local scale, government and private bodies have taken to promoting nature tourism. But it has to be asked; to what extent ecotourism is being marketed in Quintana Roo? Are ecotourism developments simply labelling themselves as such in order to take a share of the ever increasing profits of ecotourism, or are they sincerely turning to ecotourism in a conscious effort to conserve the natural resources of the region so, as to avoid falling into the same environmental pitfalls that Cancún has done this decade? This chapter, then, assesses a number of tourist developments in Quintana Roo that have been labelled ecotourism.

4.2. Measuring the success of ecotourism in Quintana Roo.

In order to critically assess the extent to which the ecotourism projects in Quintana Roo live up to the claims that they are making, it is necessary to find a means to rank the various developments. Chapter two outlined the difficulties involved in trying to define and, therefore measure ecotourism. By using the scale of ecotourism proposed by John Shores, as a starting point, it is possible to rank these developments, in order to further analyse them. The preferred scale, for this however, is adapted from the Shores model [Figures 3] and Wights Segmentation Model of Ecotourism Suppliers, Motivation and Impact [Figure 6]. In particular, it is felt that personal involvement by the tourist is very important in Shores scale. This involvement, however, in the context of this assessment, is not considered such a core feature and is thus moved from level 2 to level 5. The scale also encompasses Shore's earlier 'Rainbow of Definitions to Describe Ecotourism' and Orams views on passive and active ecotourism [Figure 13 and 14 The Scale and Ranking of Ecotourism projects in Quintana Roo]. A second scale, based on Wight's ecotourism marketing theory, allows the assessment of the marketing strategies used by different ecotourism projects [Figure 15, Ranking of ecotourism projects in Quintana Roo by marketing strategy].

Figure 13: The Scale of Ecotourism [Adapted from Shores and Wight]

Level 0. Any travel based on the natural environment. The management and / or tourists are unaware or uncaring about the impact of their presence and is therefore a case of 'eco' sell. This is the lowest possible threshold of ecotourism.

Level 1. Ecotourism requires a positive monetary support between the ecotourist and ecosystem visited. The desire to conserve is still passive but nature is a central value of the experience. Responsible travel marketing tactics are involved which demonstrate sensitivity of project towards the physical and cultural environment.

Level 2. Nature centred tourism. Travel is organised with the specific aim to providing an appreciable financial support of the green environment enjoyed. There is association with locals, conservation groups and scientists, and ecotourists are educated by the experience. Ecotourism in this sense is moving from being a passive to an active experience.

Level 3. Travel includes use of local transport and accommodation. Level 3 ecotourism demonstrates that the net effect of the ecotourists presence is positive or at least neutral. Tourist revenues are used to support not only local conservation projects but help with the sustainable development of local rural communities and may, for example, involve education programs. This is active support tourism.

Level 4. The net positive effect of travel is positive. Use of appropriate local technology, low energy consumption, involvement of local communities in the project. This is active 'grass roots' ecotourism. The motivation for ecotourism is conservation and preservation

Level 5. Travellers make a personal contribution to ecosystem restoration and the entire system operates in an environmentally sound way. The trip is advertised responsibly and on recycled paper and ecotourists are briefed before and throughout the trip. Transportation is environmentally benign. heating and air-conditioning of accommodation is solar based and low impact. Foods and souvenirs are produced in sustainable ways. This is active ecological tourism the motivation for which is preservation, education and research.

4.3. The Intergovernmental Approach. Mundo Maya.

In October 1988 government members from the five Maya nations [Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico] met in Guatemala City to discuss common problems relating to conservation and regional development. The outcome was an ambitious regional tourism plan called La Ruta Maya [later renamed Mundo Maya] which aimed to promote environmentally sensitive tourism and sustainable development, creating employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas, and stimulating regional development [Appendix 2, Mundo Maya Objectives].

In Mexico, the plan covers five states : Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. As part of the project, research programs are to be set up to establish ecotourism projects that involve the direct participation of local rural communities. According to the Mundo Maya corporate manual issued to companies taking part in the project:

El programa turistico Mundo Maya busca opciones que permitan a los habitantes de las zonas que comprenden el circuito, mejorar sus condiciones de vida..... Mundo Maya es un proyecto turistico que de ninguna manera pretende destruir el legado cultural e histórico. El programa tampoco busca destruir et entorno ecológico [Srita. Alejandra Zorilla Martinez, 1994].

Yet others are less convinced of the benefits. Michael McCaughn, claims that:

The project is dominated but wealthy entrepreneurs. Trail operators are well connected to each country's elite: the owners of hotels, buses and planes, who benefit from government loans and tax breaks, gear their tours to rich foreigners and pay minimal wages to locals...any chance the Maya World project will help restore respect for indigenous cultures and reinvigorate the communities is slim [McCaughn, 1993].

The Mundo Maya is an intergovernmental promotional campaign for the region that represents a passive form of ecotourism. Tourists seek to minimise damage as opposed to being actively involved in the protection of the natural resources which their tourist experience is based on. There is a positive attempt to apply rules and regulations to new hotels and resorts, and the Mundo Maya Organisation claims to carry out quality environmental assessments for these new developments. The project, however, is undermined by the promotion of Cancún as part of the Maya World and MayaPass, a project that aims to increase the flows of tourists into previously untouched areas by improving the transport system. For these reasons the Mundo Maya is ranked as an example of Level 1 ecotourism. Furthermore, the nature of marketing used by the organisation does not contain specific, values orientated phrases and it must be concluded that this is very much an 'eco'sell approach to ecotourism [Figure 16. Promotional Brochure for The Mundo Maya Organisation]. Unfortunately, concludes McLaughn "The Mayas sacred treasures have become public property in a Latin Disneyland style atmosphere" [McLaughn, 1993].

4.4. The National Approach: Ecotourism in Protected Areas.

Quintana Roo contains a particularly large slice of Mexico's parks and reserves, 20% of its territory being covered by some sort of environmental protection [second only to Campeche] [Steeb, 1996] [Figure 17 Protected Areas in Quintana Roo]. These protected areas are managed by SEMARNAP, with help from the World Bank and Non-Governmental Organisations and have an annual budget in the region of 50 million pesos [Steeb, 1996]. In the past five years there has been a number of ecotourism developments in these protected areas.

4.4.1. Sian Ka'an: Ecotourism at its best?

Sian Ka'an ['Where the Sky is Born' in Mayan], 1.3 million acre stretch of land south of Tulum, was declared a biosphere reserve on January 20th 1986 by presidential decree. It is the third largest protected area in Mexico and represents one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the southern part of Quintana Roo, made up of approximately 1/3 tropical forest, 1/3 wetlands, savannahs and mangroves and 1/3 coastal and marine habitats. It is managed jointly by the INE (National Institute of Ecology), SEMARNAP and the local communities of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, El Ramonal and Solidaridad, being supported by the non-profit making, private organisation Amigos de Sian Ka'an. According to Amigos "Nuestro fin es lograr que el proyecto de la Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka'an se convierte en un ejemplo de conservación y uso racional de recursos naturales en México" [Madrazo, 1992]. As part of this rational use of natural resources Amigos de Sian Ka'an run ecological tours, for small groups of people, into the reserve. In 1996 Amigos was the winner of the Conde Naste Ecotourism Award [Mader, 1997].

This example of ecotourism rates more favourably than any others in the Quintana Roo. It rates as level 4, in that the main motivation for the tours are education, conservation and research, meaning that there is high local involvement [in that local communities are directly involved with projects of conservation] and the negative effects of the experience are low. All tourist revenues are used for conservation projects in the reserve and for local education programs stressing the sustainable use of resources, i.e. agriculture and fishing techniques. However, some reservation must be noted as the ecotourism experience is undermined by the fact that there is no provision of lodging services in the reserve and so ecotourists stay in Cancún. More revenues could be generated if facilities were made available in the outer general use zone of Sian Ka'an. These could be in the form of cabañas, but this would require careful planning to ensure appropriate use of technology, local materials and labour, low energy consumption, recycling of waste, local ownership and consumption of locally grown foodstuffs.

As far as advertising is concerned Amigos de Sian Ka'an also rates highly. Their responsible attitude towards the marketing of the tours and the reserve clearly put them in the non profit making sector of ecotourism suppliers. Brochures and leaflets are printed on recycled paper and contain science, conservation and explanatory, value-orientated, phrases and information about the natural ecosystems being visited, with maps and pictures or wildlife [Figure 18 and 19 Brochures for Sian Ka'an]. Furthermore, clients are briefed prior to the tour. This, concludes Lane Simonian, is a "Good example of a well-managed natural area based on local participation" [Simonian, 1995].

4.4.2. Isla Contoy: The virgin Island?

The national wildlife preserve of Isla Contoy [recently upgraded to special biosphere reserve], a small island that lies several miles off the north eastern coast of Quintana Roo, was created by presidential decree in 1961, to protect the natural wealth of flora and fauna that is found there. It is a virgin island, which has over 90 species of birds. Private companies, marketed under the auspices of the Mundo Maya Organisation run tours to the island to view the natural assets of the reserve. Travel writer and environmentalist Peter Eltringham described his ecotourism experience:

This was a tour that was specifically aimed at travel agents and people in the business, for us to see ecotourism in action in the Yucatán peninsular. What we got was tour guides who were not in any way trained to interpret anything that we saw. They weren't even from the Yucatán. There were people filleting fish on the decks as soon as we got there, there were beer cans in the water and they were roasting baby lobsters behind the visitors centre. Everyone was just so shocked. It really wasn't a well organised tour [Eltringham, 1997].

The nature tours to the island are best viewed as an example of eco-sell tourism, whereby the experience is based on the resource but there is only a passive desire to conserve it. More recent reports, however, suggest that tour companies are adopting a more serious attitude towards the environment of protected areas. The tours that are run to the island may in fact be seen as contributing to conservation, in that an entry fee is charged to the park which goes to the management of the island. Furthermore the visitors centre offers information on the ecosystems being visited, giving the tour an educative stance, and thus complying with the idea of ecotourism. This considered, Isla Contoy is rated as an example of level 2 ecotourism. It must be noted however that tours vary from one tour operator to another, some respecting the natural environment more than others. That said, though, this example of tourism is creating funds for conservation and preservation of the resource base.

4.4.3. Xel-Há "One of natures most perfect creations."

Xel-Há ['Where water is born' in Mayan] is a national park, marketed as "The worlds largest Aquarium" by Mundo Maya. Its attractions lie in its 22 acres of crystal clear lagoons and inlets of vibrant blues and greens and its abundance of marine flora and fauna. The secluded coves of Xel-Há made it a safe harbour and port of call for the ancient marine merchants of Quintana Roo. Today it has become one of the states largest tourist attractions and the most well known snorkel site in Mexico. This 'glossy' marketing of the parks natural features indicates a more eco-sell orientated approach to the park, with an absence of specific values orientated phrases [Figure 20 Promotional Brochure for Xel-Há]. However, entrance fees do help to fund conservation in the park and there is a passive desire to minimise the damage caused, for example, with water-polluting suntan lotions prohibited. For these reasons Xel-Há rates as level 2 on the ecotourism scale: it is a nature centred tourism project which does provide support for the environment and it shows a certain level of sensitivity towards the local natural environment and local people have been able to find work in the park. Unfortunately there have been concerns recently that the park is exceeding its carrying capacity and that the increase in cafes and souvenir shops is giving the park a more touristy image. There is a worry, that if stronger regulations are not placed on the park, then the overuse and misuse of the lagoons, by tourists keen to experience 'nature's natural aquarium', will cause long term environmental damage.

4.5. Private Enterprise.


4.5.1. Ecotourism Yucatán: The Ecological Tour Operator.

Ecotourism Yucatán is a small, privately owned tour company based in Mérida, Yucatán, which specialises in ecological tours. The company was founded in 1989 by Alfonso Escobedo and Roberta Graham de Escobedo to promote nature tourism and environmentally responsible behaviour in the Yucatán peninsular. It is managed by the Escobedos and employs 15 full time staff [from the region] who have specialist areas of knowledge:

Our tours are designed to illustrate how the past, including the colonial and pre-colonial periods, shed light upon the dynamic actions in process today and why the Yucatán's unique ecosystems are so important. We seek to provide an understanding of the Maya and their tremendous accomplishments with visits to their ancient centres; and to place this fascinating culture in the natural context in which it developed with excursions to reserves actively involved in the preservation of our ecosystems [Personal Interview with Gabriel Flores Ramirez, 1995].

Tours are based on small groups, and aim to benefit local communities as far as possible, using locally owned hotels and tourist facilities. Ecotourists are given briefings before departure concerning the environment and culture of the areas to be visited and tours are led by local specialists in the natural environment and / or the ways of the Mayan people [Appendix 4 Example of Ecotourism Yucatán Tour Itinerary]. The tours are advertised in specialist nature magazines and cultural reviews, although, the company values word of mouth more. Their clients are, for the main part, American archaeologists, anthropologists, university lecturers, university groups and people associated with environmental issues [Personal Interview with Gabriel Flores Ramirez, 1995]. The company donates 20% of its profits to Pro-Natura, the largest private Mexican conservation group, and in this way it is actively contributing to the conservation of the region. It is also a member of the non-profit making organisation, The Ecotourism Society, to which it also makes contributions. According to Ron Mader "Ecotourism Yucatán is one of the few companies in Mexico that needs to be singled out for its natural history tours" [Mader,1997]. This tour company, therefore, rates favourably on the scale of ecotourism: Level 3, and uses specific science, conservation and value orientated phrases to market its product. As a private company this is a very positive rating and may be considered an example of good 'eco' practice.

4.5.2. Xcaret : The Mexican Theme Park Painted Green ?

In the central part of the state of Quintana Roo, 55km from Cancún on the Cancún-Tulum corridor, is Xcaret ['Small Inlet' in Mayan]. Xcaret, a more commercialised attempt at ecotourism, constructed eight years ago, is marketed as an 'eco-archaeological' park. The idea for the park came from Mexican entrepreneur Miguel Quintana Pali who decided to build an 'all in paradise resort' that was based on the natural environment. Pali, along with three partners, set about the task of turning 'natures natural inlet' into a 150 acre resort comprising beaches, museums, aquariums, aviaries, underwater swimming tunnels, galleries, restaurants and shops. The doors opened to the first visitors in December 1990 and has, since, become a commercial success, attracting more than 600,000 tourists a year [Mader, 1997].

The owners of this park are committed to a number of environmental research projects that are financed by the park revenues [visitors pay in the region of £20 to enter the park]. These projects have included research into the possible uses of medicinal plants, breeding of wild birds, a sea turtle rescue program and tree nurseries. "La Voz y El Alma de la Naturaleza" is a free publication, printed on recycled paper, aimed at raising awareness of the work carried out at Xcaret. It gives details of the different projects the park is carrying out, answers commonly asked questions about the environment, and gives recommendations to tourists about good 'eco' practice. Furthermore a concerted effort is made by the park to avoid the every day environmental damage that is caused by tourists. For example, tourists are requested not to bring sunscreens or suntan lotions into the park, as it has been recognised that this leaves a film residue in the water which is in part responsible for reef degradation and may kill marine and aquatic life. Hannah Stephenson writes:

There is a feel-good factor all around the park. For while it is a tourist attraction, you feel that your entrance fee and the money you spend there on souvenirs and T-shirts is actually going to a good cause, preserving species, ensuring the well being of its animal residents and teaching future generations to be eco-friendly [Stephenson, 1996].

However despite the fact that Xcaret would appear to be conforming to the rules of ecotourism, it has come under severe criticism by a number of advocates of true ecotourism. Ron Mader, an American environmentalist writes: "Xcaret is frequently derided by environmentalists as "an amusement park painted green'" [Mader, 1996]. It is hard to fault this park, perhaps it is more a feeling as you walk around the purpose built attractions or stroll across the man made beach [the sand had to be imported from elsewhere to cover what was originally a rocky shoreline], that this is not really ecotourism in its natural environment. Maybe it's the knowledge that to install the necessary lighting and ventilation to the underground river, explosives were used to clear unnecessary 'natural debris'. Moreover, the irony is that the tourists visiting this ecotourist destination are probably not true ecotourists. They are, for the main part, wealthy American tourists attracted by the glossy brochures that are distributed in hotel foyers in Cancún and Playa del Carmen by travel representatives and tourist offices and in airport kiosks. [Figure 21 Xcaret Promotional Brochure]. The significance of this is that this type of tourist is already in the region, and an ecotourism trip to Xcaret, is a day trip, no more, no less. It is, therefore, an example of level 2 ecotourism as whilst there is a positive monetary supply between the ecotourist and the natural environment, there is a sense of artificiality about the park. Its approach to marketing is very much eco-sell orientated, using phrases such as "it is the only place in the world..." and "natures sacred paradise."

Club Las Velas Gold; An "Ecological" Resort?

Bacalar in southern Quintana Roo, is an example of a privately owned holiday resort, marketed by the Mundo Maya plan. It is the second largest lagoon in Mexico (over 56km in length) and has been called the lagoon of seven colours because of the amazing stripes of blues that it has. There is an abundance of wildlife in the surrounding rainforest and beautiful white sandy beaches fringe the lagoon. It is here that Club Las Velas Gold was granted the permission to build their all inclusive "ecological" resort, comprising of a five star hotel with 296 rooms, a convention centre, an 18 hole golf course, bars, disco, tennis courts and swimming pools [Figure 22 Advertisement for Club Las Velas Gold and Figure 23 Mundo Maya Promotional Brochure for Bacalar]. The use of the word "ecological" to describe the resort in its marketing makes this is a prime example of the private sector cashing in on market interest in the environment to 'eco' sell their holiday package. On a scale of ecotourism this experience is placed at the lowest level, that is to say Level 0, Incidental tourism, as although the resort is based in an environmentally interesting area, tourists will do no more than observe their local surroundings, unaware or uncaring about the negative effects of their presence. The net result of the tourists visit to the resort will not in any way benefit the natural resource base, although it could be argued that employment possibilities will benefit local communities. There is an attempt to minimise the damage caused, in the respect that the style of development is that of a Mexican village, yet advocates of ecotourism are quick to question how many "authentic Mexican villages" there are with 18 hole golf courses and swimming pools.

4.6. Plans for the Future.

Having developed the Cancún-Tulum corridor extensively over the past twenty years, attentions are shifting towards the development of the states southern half. Fideicomiso Costa Maya is a newly proposed ambitious regional development plan for southern Quintana Roo, that aims to promote ecotourism. The area in question is the 130km strip of land that runs from Punta Herrero in the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve down to Xcalak in the far south of the state. It is the least developed region of Quintana Roo, with a relatively small population of 200,000, and its pristine ecosystems hold a great potential for ecotourism development. In total, eight developments are planned for the region by both local entrepreneurs and private companies from Mexico City. Whether this development will be desirable for the region is questionable. The creation of the corridor, for which 1,000 million dollars has been invested, will generate 30,000 jobs for local people, however there is a concern that, whilst this plan is being hailed as Quintana Roo's new ecotourism initiative, the environment will suffer [Diario Yucatán, 19/10/95]. Fidecaribe is starting to apply strict guidelines [which are being established with the help of Universidad de Quintana Roo and the Ecotourism Society] to new developments. These include low impact architectural models with adequate waste treatment methods and low building density. However these regulations may not be enough to prevent the construction of another Cancún. "Most of [the planned developments] are described as 'ecotourism projects' by their respective promoters, but at least two of them feature 18-hole golf courses, and one of them includes a marina" [Ceballos Lascurain, 1996:2]. Grupo Posadas, Mexico's largest hotel operator, is also planning the development of eight 'ecological' hotels, that will adhere to the Fideicaribe regulations. There is, however, growing speculation that this will replicate, at best, developments such as The Club Las Velas resort at Bacalar.

More promising is Aldeas de Placer, a joint venture between Patricio Roche and Emilio Castilla, members of The Ecotourism Society, who are planning to construct eco-friendly accommodation and run ecotours to the surrounding areas, educating tourists about the local flora and fauna [Mader, 1997]. Proaft's Tripartite Alliances in Tulum and Tres Garantias also offer what look to be good examples of ecotourism. Projects are community based and respect the natural environment. Tourists stay with families and are taught about the area they are visiting.

4.7. Conclusion.

There are a wide range of ecotourism packages available to the tourist in Quintana Roo. These range from intergovernmental, national and private approaches to marketing and developing a tourist product that is based on the spectacular natural ecosystems found in this corner of Mexico. Whilst the majority of projects, however, call themselves ecotourism, a degree of scepticism over the claims to be 'eco' friendly is detectable. It would appear that the tourist industry has seen the growing interest in all things green and has been quick to use clever marketing tactics to 'eco' sell a variety of different tourism projects. Projects such as Xcaret and Xel-Há may certainly be classed as tourism with an ecological slant, indeed they are based on the natural environment, yet whether they are true ecotourism is questionable. That said, ecotours run by Amigos de Sian Ka'an may be considered good examples of ecotourism and it is hoped that the success of these ventures will help shape the future of the regions tourism industry. Hector Ceballos Lascurain writes:

Quintana Roo has a chance to avoid the damaging excesses of mass-tourism. While the economic engine may be more limited than mass-tourism, it has the potential to ensure long term social benefits, as well as the protection of the rich natural and cultural heritage of this unique region [Ceballos Lascurain, 1996:3].

This may be possible, but due care will have to be taken in the future to ensure that correct management techniques are applied, and rules and regulations set.

Ecotourism : Reality or Rhetoric: Ecotourism Development in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico is a critical analysis by Natasha Kate Ward. Author retains copyright; all rights reserved. Contact Natasha Kate Ward via email:

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