A promotional web-site describes the coast of Oaxaca as rich in ecological tourism, including enjoyment of beaches, snorkeling, bird-watching, rock-climbing, and kayaking. That is all true. But “eco-tourism” should imply more than just an appreciation of nature; it also should involve benefit for local communities and respect for local culture.
According to the International Eco Tourism Society, true eco-tourism means "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." They have outlined 6 principles to unite conservation, communities, and sustainable travel:
- Minimize impact.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
- Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.
Two excellent examples can be found in Mazunte, a small beach community near Puerto Angel.
Not so long ago Mazunte residents derived much of their livelihood from harvesting sea turtles which come ashore here every year. Since sea turtles are endangered, the local industry was not only ecologically destructive, it was also doomed. The federal government stepped in with a creative solution; on the site of a former turtle-processing plant now stands the Mexican Turtle Center, a museum dedicated to research and protection of sea turtles as well as their fresh water cousins. Numerous species of turtles are on display in indoor and outdoor tanks or pools. The center draws carloads and busloads of visitors each day who also stop by the shops and restaurants along Mazunte’s rutted main street.
A few kilometers down the road you can find the community of La Ventanilla, located on a beach where sea turtles land to lay their eggs. Thirteen years ago residents of a nearby village who had derived much of their diet from turtle eggs and iguanas started a project to protect these species, promote environmental awareness, and create local jobs. Visitors to La Ventanilla can take an hour-long guided tour of the local mangrove lagoon and view the egrets, iguanas, and crocodiles that live there. (Swimming in the lagoon is not recommended.) The tour guides are organized into cooperatives, which also operate several cabins where visitors can stay. Local families operate gift shops and restaurants by the entrance.
Although it seemed busy to us, our tour guide said business is slow. He has two sons in N. Carolina. Responsible tourism can help protect an ecologically sensitive area and help the local economy, but it can’t solve Oaxaca’s economic problems by itself. Until Oaxaca has more good jobs and a better economy for small farmers, communities will continue to export workers and depend on what migrants can end home.