Perhaps you have heard the term eco-tourism, where anyone with a tree promotes their touristic attraction claiming it is eco-friendly and sustainable. Eco-tourism, eco-friendly, and sustainable are just a few of the “new” words often seen these days in brochures and websites dedicated to tourism promotion. In fact, they are used so often that they risk becoming meaningless.
Sustainable seems to imply something that could – in theory, and with proper management – go on indefinitely without breaking down, wearing out, or self-destroying. It is an idea that is heavily sponsored both by the providers themselves as well as tourism authorities in charge of promoting all that the state (and the country) has to offer.
For this to work, the promoters of a certain destination, project, or attraction would need to be aware of the fragility of the environment they are selling. That means recognizing the limits – both physical and in terms of exposure – of said attraction. You cannot, for example, cram hundreds of tourists into a cenote at $20 pesos a pop without disturbing the ecology of the site as well as ruining the experience for all the participants.
As visitors, we should be looking for those places where there is a genuine concern for not only the place we are visiting but also where an effort is being made to ensure we have the best possible experience. In the previously-mentioned cenote case, a more attractive option might be the one where there is a limit on the number of people allowed in at any one time. This way, you will be able to appreciate it as it is being promoted: magical, mystical. You might even understand why the Maya considered these places sacred.
I believe that discerning visitors will be happy to pay a little more to ensure a memorable and optimal experience as opposed to something overly touristy and commercial.
Imagine a special tour of an archeological site, limited to a set number of participants, and available by reservation only during a specific time period. How great would it be, to visit Chichén Itzá in the morning hours, and take part in an intimate two-hour, unrushed tour of the entire site, including the roped off areas? The mass tourism, those that only want an overview, can visit between 10 am and 4 pm, at which time there could be a sunset tour, again in smaller numbers and by reservation only. This way, rather than continue down the path of more and more visitors, with more and more areas roped off simply because there are too many people to keep an eye on, Chichén Itzá could become once again a sustainable attraction that fully displays the magnificence of its architecture and culture.
Or imagine entering a dark subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, with crystal clear water and the echo of each footstep as you descend towards the water. The water is so clear and so still that your foot is submerged before you know it. You can hear the flapping of bats and swallows overhead. This is what visiting a cenote should be. You would pay for the opportunity to have this experience. Fewer people, a higher entry fee which benefits both the site and the people running it, and careful preservation of the site. This is sustainable!
We can, as a destination, provide visitors with these kinds of quality experiences, and focus our tourism promotion and services less on volume and more on quality. This will result in tourism that will last; tourism that will provide everyone here with a continuous and dependable revenue stream and will preserve our amazing Yucatán for generations to come.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Photography by Cassie Pearse for its use in Yucatán Today
Author: Modern Yucatan Dictionary; Creator of Mayan Xic and Lawson’s (the tour company not the whisky) and Honorary Yucateco
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