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Ecotourism and Responsible Travel in Mexico

Photo: Grutas de Cacahuamilpa (Some rights reserved)

Mexico boasts a well-established system of ground, air, and sea-based transportation, allowing easy access to and within country. Of note is the world-famous cuisine noted for its diversity and sophisticated flavors. Like potato dishes in Peru, Mexico’s corn dishes number in the thousands. Slow food (and innovative agriculture … Mexico was the first country to domesticate corn, more than 10,000 years ago).

Thanks to abundant flora and fauna, the nation is labeled as megadiverse in scientific literature. Mexico is a veritable greenhouse of the world’s ecosystems, with an example of almost every habitat on earth. With less than 2% of the world’s territory, the country is home to 10% of the plant and animal species in the world.

There is consensus that tourism is one of Mexico’s top income generators as well as a catalyst for other sectors. So, what is the status of ecotourism and responsible travel in Mexico?

Building Bridges
Environmental awareness and tourism are learning to tread the same path. Sometimes it seems as though environmental tourism is like the famed Copper Canyon, a gorge in Chihuahua deeper than the Grand Canyon in the United States. Conservation is stranded on one side, tourism on the other. Sometimes it appears that there is no bridge across the abyss.

To be defined as ecotourism, the service must provide for environmental conservation and local participation. It must also be profitable. As the saying goes – you can’t be green if you are in the red.

Mexico should be the textbook example of things done right. It is one of the few countries in the Americas in which a formal agreement has been signed between the Tourism and Environmental Secretaries to collaborate. The first accord was signed in 1995. Today ecotourism and sustainable tourism are perceived not as outside imports, but rather compatible with Mexican traditional values.

Mexico’s protected areas cover more than 12% of the national territory. The country has a national tourism strategy in protected areas and a reforestation effort which work hand in hand with the parks through the offices of CONAFOR, the National Forest Commission.

Individual travelers have long raved about the natural wonders of Mexico. Whether to watch birds or whales, people began visiting the great outdoors. Tourism providers discovered the accompanying economic benefits of offering natural history tours, and communities themselves began to see that nature travel were becoming mainstream interests.

Stones in the Road
Perhaps it is the hybrid nature of ecotourism that made conservationists and tourism professionals question the concept. Conservationists shudder when tourism leaders brand amusement parks as ecotourism sites. Likewise, when environmentalists devise complicated eco-trips that tour operators can’t book, the operators see ecotourism as nothing more than utopian whimsy.

Given the diversity of Mexico’s wildlife and natural attractions, a broad approach to tourism in the country makes sense. Since 2002’s International Year of Ecotourism, development is increasingly financed by various governmental and non-governmental institutions but without much in the way of public disclosure. Imagine a public doc with a list of investments and results!

Parks and Protected Areas
Until recently, most of Mexico’s protected areas and biosphere reserves were simply off-limits to tourism. The government tried to keep areas free of visitors due to the lack of qualified park guides and protection. Tourism was also kept low because many of the protected areas are far from the main tourism corridors to attract visitors. Today what was remote – the Riviera Maya for example – is being developed with mixed reviews in terms of environmental conservation and local consultation.

In Mexico, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) defines ecotourism as ‘trips that aim to carry out recreational activities and knowledge of nature through contact with it.’ (Turismo de naturaleza)

Snapshots of Ecotourism and Responsible Travel

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries – In the center of Mexico the iconic monarch butterflies were ‘discovered’ in 1974 when researchers traced the butterfly’s flight path from the USA and Canada. The news made the covers of National Geographic and Scientific American, which ran startling photographs of the great oyamel trees veiled with thousands of monarchs. Tourism followed and led to a boom in the winter economies of small rural towns. But the employment was as fleeting as the wintering butterflies. Today there is a growing effort from local, state and national leaders to cooperate with one another and use tourism as a catalyst for regional development. In the sanctuary, visitors are asked to purchase tickets and contract a local guide. The hike uphill is strenuous and will take anywhere from two to three hours. On overcast days the butterflies cling to oyamel trees. At times, branches break under the weight of hundreds of thousands of butterflies. When the sun comes out and the temperature warms, the butterflies drop from the trees to fly and drink nectar from flowers and dew collected on the ground. In Spring, as the days get longer and the temperatures rise, the monarchs begin their northward flight.

Copper Canyon – The individual Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) is just one of more than 20 canyons that stretch west of Chihuahua City in the Sierra Madre Occidental, located between the Sea of Cortez and the High Central Plateau. The canyons are one of Mexico’s youngest geological formations and the largest in North America. They were formed about 30-40 million years ago, during a period of intense volcanic activity in what is present day Northwestern Mexico. Thousands of volcanoes erupted, throwing lava and ash onto the surrounding plateau and creating the Sierra Madre Occidental. While spectacular in scenery and cultural and biological diversity, the region is not within a protected area and as recently as five years ago hotels would dump sewage from the canyon rim to the river below.

Xochimilco Gardens – Xochimilco was the agricultural hub of the Aztec city Tenochtitlán, a metropolis of 235,000 inhabitants and one of the largest cities in the world 600 years ago. In the Náhuatl language, the name Xochimilco means ‘garden of flowers’ a reputation it maintains today. Xochimilco became recognized as a tourist attraction in its own right in the 1920s. European guidebooks romanticized the gardens and described the area as the Venice of Mexico. Today the region depends on tourism to maintain thousands of jobs — from musicians to the cooks to the craft vendors. As testament to the site’s historic value, UNESCO declared Xochimilco a Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. Of note are the breeding areas for the axolotl, an endangered salamander, on the Apatlaco Canal.

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Ecotourism in Mexico


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