Interviewed by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“There are around 1,400 community ecotourism businesses that not only create jobs and direct income, but also represent valuable projects to conserve the country’s natural, cultural, and historic heritage.”
Mexico’s undeniable biological and cultural diversity has helped it to become one of the 10 most-visited countries in the world. Tourism is the third most important source of income in the country and provides jobs to nearly 2.5 million Mexicans. Unfortunately, its negative impact on the environment is equally strong.
During the past two decades, the Mexican government has taken steps to transform its tourism sector into a more sustainable industry. The creation of tourism certification standards and programs is one of the goals of the General Directorate for Environmental, Urban and Tourism Promotion at Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT). Efforts include a 2006 Regulation that has certified ecotourism businesses and provided small, rural tourism business owners with training, technical assistance, and marketing support.
We talked with Gabriela Mercado, Director of Promotion and Environmental Integration at SEMARNAT, about the 2006 Regulation — its successes, challenges, and goals.
Question: Many people think of tourism in Mexico as large-scale beach tourism. What portion of this sector involves ecotourism and how important is it to the industry?
Mercado: There is no exact figure, but we know that sustainable tourism is still marginal in comparison with mass tourism. However, at SEMARNAT we believe that its importance cannot and should not be seen in economic terms. Mexico is a rural country, and so the economic benefits of ecotourism for rural communities and conservation in general exceed those of mass tourism. There are about 1,400 formally registered ecotourism business — although in reality, there are many more — that are run by rural families who own communal lands in biological reserves and natural areas, and their businesses not only create jobs and income, they also help to conserve the country’s natural, cultural, and historic heritage.
Q: Why and how did the Regulation for ecotourism businesses come about?
Mercado: There came a time when ecotourism was seen as an alternative path, under the erroneous idea that only ecotourism was or could be sustainable, when in reality all tourism should be. The international year of ecotourism, celebrated in 2002, was a key event that motivated SEMARNAT to develop its definition of an ecotourism business, from its planning stages through the business’ launch. In 2006, SEMARNAT published its Regulation, where businesses that fall under the globally established concept of ecotourism can voluntarily participate, and, if they comply with the Regulation, become certified.
Q: If this certification is only for ecotourism businesses, are there other certification programs that certify businesses in other segments of the tourism industry?
Mercado: Yes. We have standards for marine tourism, for “sun and sand” tourism, and we are preparing standards for tourism development in coastal areas.
Q: Why not use one certification that covers all types of tourism businesses?
Mercado: Each business has very unique characteristics that would be incredibly complicated to standardize in a single instrument. Even within our ecotourism Regulation, we experience problems due to differences between ecosystems, communities, and customs of each business, so I can’t imagine what standards could cover all businesses! The risk would be that the standards would end up being very general, lax, and they wouldn’t meet the objectives of the program.
Q: How does SEMARNAT’s ecotourism Regulation work?
Mercado: Like any certification scheme, it complies with international guidelines to develop certification programs, such as the World Tourism Organization, and uses basic guidelines from the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, and ISO standards, among others. There is a legally recognized, third-party body that conducts audits to evaluate whether the business complies with the criteria of our Regulation. Those that comply obtain a certification that is valid for four years, and they are evaluated each year to ensure strict compliance — a certification is suspended if any non-compliance is found.
Q: What business practices does the Regulation regulate?
Mercado: The general requirements range from having a planning document for each stage of business development to specific requirements for the business’ infrastructure and tourism activities. For example, it cannot affect tributaries of water, deteriorate wildlife habitat, or interrupt the biological processes of native species; a building’s architecture and design should utilize natural sources of energy such as the sun, incorporate the surrounding landscape, and use materials that are compatible with the environment; it should use eco-techniques to manage water and wastes correctly, and incorporate alternative energy sources; it should use sustainably produced biodegradable products from local providers; offer information and educational materials about environmental and cultural themes to tourists; establish marked trails; and have an environmental education program and participate in conservation, cultural, and community initiatives, among others.
Q: Have business owners embraced the program?
Mercado: It has been well-received because its purpose isn’t for regulation alone. Certification is a promotional tool that gives a competitive advantage to businesses that have a demonstrated commitment to sustainable business practices. We help them access a series of incentives such as priority access to the federal government’s main support programs and subsidies for ecotourism, including resources from ProArbol, the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR), and the Alternative Tourism Program in Indigenous Zones.
Q: How many businesses have been certified under the Regulation?
Mercado: To date, 60 businesses have participated in the program, but only half have been certified.
Q: What are the key challenges in certifying more businesses?
Mercado: This is a complicated niche. While the “sun and sand” certification program is financially sustainable, ecotourism businesses typically lack resources, marketing and business plans, and competitiveness, because they are located in remote, inaccessible areas. Some do not meet basic legal requirements for hygiene or security. Another challenge is adapting to the unique dynamics of each rural indigenous community, which can considerably lengthen the process. We are also limited by external issues, as we are dependent on the only third-party certification body in the country, which has only two auditors. Also, there is no investment to help the certification sector yield more positive results.
Q: Despite these limitations, how has SEMARNAT implemented the Regulation?
Mercado: This is no “desk job.” During the certification process, we work with entrepreneurs in the field, on the beach, and in the jungle, giving them technical assistance and training. We also try to provide government funding during the first years of implementation, and we look for partnerships to provide support in areas such as eco-techniques, infrastructure, and equipment. And, we developed an inter-institutional strategy to create ecotourism routes or circuits that promote visitation to these businesses.
Q: Tell us more about these routes.
Mercado: We identify a consolidated, outbound tourism destination that has good infrastructure to accommodate tourists. From there, a route — which leaves from one point, ending at another, or a circuit — which leaves from and returns to the same point, is established that takes tourists to several destinations and businesses, including some certified ones. For example, the Lacandon Forest Route departs from Tabasco and goes to Villa Hermosa which is near Palenque; from there they can go on the Maya Route, where there are eight or nine certified businesses along the way. Other noteworthy routes and circuits are in Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Yucatán, Campeche, and northern and southern Baja California.
Q: Do business owners recognize the benefits of certification?
Mercado: Their businesses are better managed and they have access to subsidies, programs, and support that they would not otherwise have, but it has been difficult to give them the competitive advantage they were promised in the beginning. SEMARNAT is not technically responsible for tourism promotion, but this is what is needed, linking the businesses with tour operators and marketing channels so that they can see the economic advantages of certification. The business owners would like to see more tourists asking whether or not they are certified, so they can see that it is worth the effort.
Q: Are there any plans to add value to your certification program?
Mercado: We are working to reach a larger market. The Regulation has its own seal, which unfortunately doesn’t have any real marketing value, so we are focusing on promoting it. In the next year, we hope to launch a website and publicity campaign to promote certified hotels and businesses, and those that are participating in tourism best management practices programs. Moreover, we want to identify, consolidate, and better promote both the tourism routes and circuits.
Q: What is the target number of businesses to certify?
Mercado: Our goal is to implement the Regulation in at least 15 routes and circuits. This is a modest goal, and we want to work on a larger scale, but this would mean that the execution of the program could not depend on SEMARNAT alone — we would need support from institutions that have more resources to financially support ecotourism. To move ahead, we must identify our responsibilities, those of other institutions, and even those of the tourism sector itself.
Q: What are some of the program’s other goals?
Mercado: We aim to constantly re-evaluate the program, and so we’ve held regional workshops and formed a group to review the program and modify any necessary aspects. The truth is that we have a lot of work to do, but we hope that ecotourism can help to promote Mexico’s enormous biological and cultural diversity, and to improve the well-being of rural communities.
Learn more about businesses certified by the Mexican Regulation for ecotourism on SustainableTrip.org.