Responsible tourism in Mexico

The definition of ecotourism was first thrown into the world of travel in Mexico, in 1983. Unusually, it was coined by a government urban developer, but also environmentalist, Héctor Ceballos-Lascurain. At the time, he defined ecotourism as: “Ecotourism is that tourism that involves travelling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found in these areas… the person who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing him or herself in nature in a way that most people cannot enjoy in their routine, urban existences”. This definition was then extended to include community benefits, and although highly admirable and pioneering at this time, many businesses jumped on the eco bandwagon and stuck it as a prefix on every tourism outlet going. Mexico supports myriad responsible tourism adventures, but Sr. Hector Ceballos-Lascurain must shudder when he sees some of the destruction taking place, and hope that this next generation of influencers can get back in touch with what eco, sustainable and responsible tourism really means today.

People & culture

Not just 'those Mexicans'

We think that Donald Trump’s recent disgusting comments about Mexican people are not only racist and irresponsible but also totally misinformed. Mexico is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. You can’t just throw them into one ‘Mexican’ box, Mr Trump. Their rich history means that there are 60 different indigenous groups in Mexico, and just as many languages. The most prolific are Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and Mixtec. For most, nature, earth and landscape are the pillars of their belief systems, and being stewards of the earth is a responsibility they take seriously, something from which we, and of course, Mr Trump, can gain a wealth of knowledge. The white tailed deer, for example, is for the Huichol Indians, who live in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, sacred. In 1988 they were awarded the National Ecology Prize of Mexico for their work towards repopulating the Sierra Madre with their beloved creature.

What you can do
Read up on and support the various indigenous peoples living in the parts of Mexico you plan to visit. Do not put them in a box or behind a metaphorical ‘wall’, otherwise you are feeding the Trump-esque machine of meanness. The Minority Rights website is an excellent starting point.  You may also want to find out more about the campaign to save the Sierra Madre region for the people who have protected it for generations. You can read more at The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and the Traditional Arts.

The Huichol Center: A model for cultural survival from David H. Rose on Vimeo.

All inclusive resorts

From the private enclaves of Puerto Vallarta to full on concrete Cancún, Mexico is famous for its all inclusive deals. For the most part, these holidays have little or no regard for local culture or the regional economy as it is usually a foreign company that owns the hotel, airline, ground transport and often excursion providers. Rather than condemning them all outright, at Responsible Travel we do believe that all inclusive holiday companies have the potential to be a lot more responsible and that indeed, some are taking baby steps to doing so. From a travel point of view, what most people don’t know is that all-inclusives aren’t always the cheapest way to holiday in Mexico, if you just know where to look.

What you can do
Seek out a fairer way to leave your mark on Mexico and travel with a responsible tourism holiday company. And if you want to really push the envelope, you could always contact the all inclusive resorts and ask what their responsible tourism policies are, if they source food locally, employ locally, pay a living wage, offer cultural tours with local guides… the list goes on. After all, most of these businesses won’t wake up and smell the Fairtrade coffee until tourists actually start demanding to see change.

Wildlife & environment

The humungous floating hotels

We don’t sugar coat it at Responsible Travel: we are not a fan of giant cruise ships. Not all cruises are irresponsible, but the giant ‘sleep thousands’ ones that anchor up between the months of February and April, are not a pretty picture. Particularly when it comes to the marine environment. Recent research shows that these colossal cruise ships are savaging our seas. Friends of the Earth (FOE), and a network of environmental organisations in 74 countries, has rated the leading liners, based on their water treatment, sewage treatment and air pollution efforts, and this report shows the good, the bad and the ugly. And yes, most of these liners head down Mexico way.

What you can do
If you want to take a cruise, do so with a responsible cruise operator, but they are rare. Generally they won’t sleep more than about 100 people. Support the work of organisations like Friends of the Earth, the first organisation to lead on serious research into the environmental damage caused by cruise ships. And if you feel very passionately, write to the Ministry of Tourism to tell them that you don’t like what cruise ships are doing to this famous ‘eco’ destination. Sometimes they listen. They did in Dubrovnik, and reduced the numbers allowed to anchor. Baby steps and all that.

Whale & dolphin watching

Xel-Há is a celebrated eco resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, with a sustainable tourism certification, that has all sorts of exciting adventures in nature. Tubing down the river, ziplining through the jungle. All cool. All fun. But they also offer the chance to swim with dolphins. Dolphins that are trained to jump and perform, and are enclosed so that you can swim with them. The irony is that so many people believe that interacting with animals in this way IS eco. That it is kind to animals, that it helps teach you about conservation and animal welfare. When really, in our opinion, this is hugely harmful to cetaceans. They are naturally sociable creatures, but out in the ocean, in the wild, and not through being cuddled, kissed and canoodled by a human.

If you do want to see dolphins and whales in the wild, then Mexico is a wonderful place to do so, especially on the Baja California Peninsula, where whales come in their droves between the months of February and April. Most whale and dolphin watching companies act responsibly, but don’t book with one that doesn’t show signs of stringent conservation and animal welfare practices. The focus of the trip should be on education rather than sensation and a responsible company will have details of expert guides on their website, their experience and qualifications. An environmentally aware guide will give a detailed talk before and during the trip, for example. Operators that replace guides with pre-recorded talks are only interested in cutting costs rather than caring for cetaceans. They might charge less for their service but, for a once in a lifetime experience, do you really want the no frills-no fairness experience?

Read more about issues regarding Dolphin and Whale watching in our travel guides for more details. And support the work of organisations like Born Free Foundation, and the World Cetacean Alliance. The latter is a global partnership which was formed to protect the world's cetaceans from all sorts of threats, and an organisation that really gets whales, rather than just wanting to get money out of whales. And in general, unless very well supervised, don’t swim with dolphins.
Amanda Stafford, from our supplier Dolphin and Whale Connection, is an expert in responsible cetacean holidays: “Swimming with dolphins is so abused in some places. Putting 30 people in the water at the same time, all thrashing around, is complete and utter madness. There’s a lot of really weird stuff that goes on when it’s not properly managed. We’ve gone to great lengths to develop management protocol around training people, getting them confident – it’s almost like training to go diving. They need to know how to use a snorkel and mask, feeling confident in the water – some companies just throw people in and they can’t even use a mask and snorkel!”

Responsible tourism in Mexico

Some people are wary of travel to Mexico because of reports of drug wars and kidnappings and so on. However, Mexico is a vast country, and sometimes it can take days to travel to areas where there have been problems. And remember that millions of people travel through Mexico safely every year and the majority of violence is among rival gangs. The government also values the importance of tourism not only as a source of income but also as a force for peace and reconciliation and so safety is taken very seriously throughout the region when it comes to protecting tourists. Unfortunately, there is a continued threat of kidnappings and car jackings, particularly of US visitors. Places like: Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Estado de Mexico, and Morelos, are often regarded as the most risky. Although the vast number of trips take place without incident, to be on the safe side, tourists are advised not to drive in remote areas at night. And to be extra cautious around casinos and adult entertainment businesses*. Check with the FCO travel advice for specific updates too. If you suspect a business is calling itself ‘eco’ but actually is far from it, here’s our handy list of questions to find out if they are truly green – or simply greenwashing. With so many different cultures and traditions in Mexico, it is important to be socially aware. Don’t take photos without asking permission, be polite and dress appropriately. Avoid overuse of plastic water bottles. Buy the giant bottles and refill your own reusable if possible or boil tap water in your hotel or use filter tablets.
Buying coral is generally illegal, although black coral harvesting is still legal in Mexico. It should display the government label saying that it comes from a licenced source, although many are faked. Best policy all round is to just leave coral where it belongs. In the water. Tortoise shell jewellery or decorative goods are illegal, as they are made from the shells of sea turtles. Don’t buy anything made from fur or feathers, either. Seeing sea turtles is very popular in Mexico, particularly on the Yucatán Peninsula, but also on the Baja Peninsula. Check that any organised trips are tied in with a marine conservation initiative. Tips are greatly appreciated – 10 percent is standard in good restaurants; otherwise, just round up your bill and leave the change.
Nic Slocum from our supplier Whales Worldwide who leads responsible whale watching holidays in Baja: “Baja Mexicans take their religion seriously and are justly very proud of their amazing missions, built by the Jesuits in the 15th and 16th centuries. Show respect when visiting these and always make a small contribution to their coffers as they are frequently open to the public free of charge. Also, the average Mexican wage on Baja is very low by European or American standards, they rely heavily on tips during their tourist season. Tip appropriately, but not too generously. If in any doubt about the appropriate levels of tipping do ask. The Baja Mexicans are very honest people, they are also quite laid back…”
Vicky Rodford from our leading supplier of responsible holidays in Mexico, Intrepid Travel: “Some people can be a little bit afraid because they see stories about Mexican gang violence on the news. But Mexico is a very big country, and as an organised tour operator we stay away from areas with documented issues. One of the great things about travelling in small groups is that it does give that safety layer, especially for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to go somewhere where they don’t speak the language, who might be travelling on their own, or who has never been there before. The security of the small group and having a local leader who imparts their knowledge, lets you know how to get to places, and keeps an eye out for you, is a great plus point.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: ryan harvey] [Mayan woman: Stefano Ravalli] [Xel-Ha: Kirt Edblom] [Sea turtle: Ale art] [Stall: tjabeljan]