Community-Based Tourism Is Changing the Face of Cancun, Mexico

©. K Martinko

This post is part of a series about the Maya Ka'an tourism project in Yucatan, Mexico. This project, which aims to create sustainable, community-based tourism for the benefit of indigenous Mayans, is backed by the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an important coalition of NGOs that has been working to combine conservation and tourism throughout coastal Central America since 2006. The Rainforest Alliance, which sent me to the Yucatan, and a local NGO, Amigos de Sian Ka'an, are members of MARTI, which has been responsible for the development and funding of the Maya Ka'an project. See links to related posts at bottom.

Imagine a vacation that takes you into the humble palm-thatched hut of a Mayan elder, a 96-year-old abuelo, who recounts glorious tales of battles and trickery between the Mexican and Mayan armies in the early twentieth century. Picture visiting the peaceful rainforest of a center for alternative medicine, where wise Mayan women teach about the healing power of plants. Now imagine drifting down a turquoise canal dug by ancient Mayans, with a majestic temple rising behind the mangroves. Forget resorts – this is the kind of vacation you’ll want to have in Cancun, Mexico!

An exciting new tide of change is sweeping through the Yucatan. Indigenous, community-based tourism initiatives are springing up, offering experiences that are adventurous, educational, and far more authentic than anything resorts have to offer. These are different from ‘eco-tourism,’ which strives to bring people into contact with pristine nature, whereas ‘sustainable’ and ‘community-based’ tourism can occur anywhere, with an emphasis on leaving minimal impact and supporting locally run operations that directly benefit a community.

Community-based tourism is meant to be advantageous to all. Tourists learn there's a lot more to Cancun's surrounding area than just beaches, and get to support grassroots tourism that’s run by locals who truly care for, and take care of, the places visited. Local Mayans receive a much-needed part of the income that tourism brings without going to work in hotels; they can show off the beautiful and unusual sights where they live; and they preserve age-old traditions through talking with tourists, since the centuries-old taboo on sharing information has been lifted.

Yucatan, Mexico map

Google Maps/Screen capture

Maya Ka’an is the name of a new project that promotes this kind of symbiotic travel while educating travellers specifically about Mayan culture. Last week I spent four days in the Yucatan, travelling the Maya Ka’an route as a guest of the Rainforest Alliance. It was a fabulous trip, and I will be writing a number of posts about it for TreeHugger. In this one, I’ll explain the background that led to Cancun’s development as it is now, which helps to show why having community-based tourism initiatives is so important.

This region of the Yucatan peninsula is famous for its opulent resorts, spectacular white sand beaches, and warm Caribbean waters. An impressive 8 million visitors go to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera each year, plus an additional 3 million cruise ship passengers, most of which go to the nearby island of Cozumel. And yet only 2 percent – a mere 120,000 people – venture into la zona maya.

Interestingly, Cancun and the Mayan Riviera did not evolve organically into a tourist hot spot. The Yucatan peninsula was long considered by the Mexican government to be a wild and inhospitable place – a vast expanse of limestone and impenetrable jungle, inhabited by Mayans who had a long and fierce history of resisting conquest.

In the 1970s, the Mexican government decided it was time to do something about the Yucatan. It sold off large tracts of coastal land to international developers in hopes of creating a tourism attraction. The government also received funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and a building frenzy ensued. Before long, the former Cancun – a tiny fishing village with just over 100 residents – turned into a world-famous, expensive, and very exclusive destination.

Part of the idea for development was to generate income for regional businesses, but forty years’ experience shows that didn’t work out so well. The resorts in Cancun and along the Mayan Riviera are owned almost entirely by international developers. Most are from Spain, with some from the United States, but just 5 or 6 owners are from Mexico. In fact, only 5 big hotel operators control 80 percent of all tourism in Cancun’s state of Quintana Roo.

Because the resorts are so huge and complete, like mini cities unto themselves, there is little need for tourists to leave their boundaries. Even when they do, many of the outside activities, i.e. having lunch in a ‘local’ restaurant, are still owned and controlled by the same hotel operator. As a result, smaller-scale regional businesses have not seen the gains they had hoped for.

The benefit to local residents is restricted to hotel employment. There are many jobs, along with a high turnover rate that fortunately motivates hotels to treat employees well, but those jobs pay the federal minimum wage, offer only seasonal employment, and pull people away from their families in the region’s interior.

Community-based tourism is a great solution to those problems. While international vacations that rely on air travel are not environmentally friendly, it is unlikely that people are going to stop travelling or renounce airplanes. The least travellers can do is seek out destinations that meet sustainability standards, that leave minimal impact, and put income directly into the hands of local residents.

Stay tuned for more posts about the Maya Ka'an project!