In Mexico’s vibrant forests, locals adapt to a year without tourists

Ecotourism and conservation efforts go hand-in-hand. What happens when the tourists disappear?

When she was 10 years old, Ana Moreno watched buses full of tourists pull into her village. They had come to see the monarch butterflies, which arrive in flurries each November and stay the winter in the Sierra Madre’s forested peaks. Moreno watched the monarch enthusiasts pour from buses, chattering to each other. She thought to herself, “How is it possible that I don’t speak English?”

Moreno went on to study tourism and learn English at university. Her goal was to become a butterfly guide and lead tours into the forest. Moreno’s father had worked as a forest ranger, and on several occasions she accompanied him up the mountain to see the monarch colonies. “I wanted to be up there every single day,” she says.

This year, however, Moreno won’t be leading tourists into the Cerro Pelón Butterfly Sanctuary above her village. “It’s going to be a really, really hard year,” she says. “If we don’t have people coming, we don’t have income.”

The forests’ best guardians

Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, home to vast swaths of forest ecosystems ranging from tropical to deciduous to cloud to evergreen. Nearly 80 percent of the forested land is owned by Indigenous groups and ejidos—communities that share land granted by the state. A majority of these communities suffer extreme poverty and rely on subsistence agriculture and remittances for survival. With few employment opportunities, many have whittled their own forests away through illegal logging and clear-cutting. But in other cases, forest communities have become the trees’ best guardians.

Across Mexico, ecotourism plays a key role in forest conservation. It addresses the twin problems of rural poverty and deforestation and can generate revenue on par with logging and clear-cutting. The influx of visitors to remote areas incentivizes locals to preserve their natural resources. In addition to protecting forests and generating income in places where jobs are scarce, ecotourism can also improve gender equity, preserve local culture, and protect wildlife.

But the coronavirus pandemic has stalled—and in some areas, halted—ecotourism from domestic and international visitors alike. What does this mean for Mexico’s forests?

Loss of tourist revenue has prompted some forest communities to return to illegal logging, while others scrape by on subsistence farming. But under pressure, solutions also tend to crystalize. Forest communities across the country are finding new ways to invite the outside world in—and protect their forests at the same time.

A lighter footprint

The UNESCO-listed Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve claims one third of the state of Querétaro. It’s a mountainous expanse of nearly one million acres where evergreen, oak, pine, deciduous tropical, and cloud forests grow. Only three percent of this land is federally owned; the other 97 percent belongs to ejidos and private landowners.

Sierra Gorda Ecotours partners with these landowners to establish ecotourism activities that generate employment alternatives to illegal logging or remittances. Since the construction of the reserve’s first ecolodge over two decades ago, a well-developed ecotourism network has flourished, comprising 15 ecolodges (each in a different ecosystem) and 53 microenterprises of artisans and restaurants.

The businesses are owned and operated by locals, many of whom are women employing other women. This ownership gives forest communities a say in decisions about the biosphere reserve’s natural resources. (In the Sierra Gorda, the forests’ biggest threat isn’t illegal logging but government public works projects like roads, dams, and electricity lines.) Laura Pérez-Arce, communication director of a five-member alliance that includes Sierra Gorda Ecotours, calls ecotourism in the region “a tool for conservation” and a way to enforce biosphere regulations.

(Related: Here’s how Palau became the first country to require an “eco-pledge” from visitors.)

When the coronavirus began to spread through Mexico, local service providers shuttered immediately. In recent weeks restaurants have reopened, but at the time of this writing only 30 percent of ecolodges are accepting guests. At the same time, domestic tourists who can make the trip by car are returning to the biosphere reserve. As Querétaro’s tourism board pushes to make the area a top outdoor destination, Sierra Gorda Ecotours has had to think through sustainable solutions to manage the influx of tourists in a way that lessens both environmental impact and risk of virus transmission.

One response? Offer smaller, socially distanced visitor experiences. “It’s going to imply a much more hands-on approach to connection between tourists and microenterprises,” says Peréz-Arce. Sierra Gorda Ecotours is working to design tours of very small groups that will visit artisans and restaurants in a staggered approach, spending longer periods of time at fewer sites.

In Chiapas, Julia Carabias Lillo also sees small-scale outdoor recreation as a solution to tourism in the time of COVID-19. An ecologist, former minister of the environment, and cofounder of the NGO Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos (known colloquially as Natura Mexicana), Carabias has worked with communities in Chiapas’s Lacandon Jungle on conservation efforts since 2007. Despite being more than 90 percent deforested, the Lacandon Jungle is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Natura Mexicana partners with ejidos and indigenous communities in the jungle—the heart of which is the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve—to establish and promote ecotourism initiatives. Visitors can book a stay in an ecolodge or camping facility, explore the rainforest through guided tours, visit a butterfly farm, eat at a locally run restaurant, and kayak down a jungle river.

(Related: This Costa Rican town is facing an eco-tourism crisis. What’s next?)

Although most communities in the Lacandon region have been shielded from the virus thanks to their remote location, locals feel the economic impact acutely. So far, they’ve hung on with emergency funding that Natura Mexicana secured from donors and private foundations. “We are looking for income alternatives for the people in this emergency, knowing that these are the tourism sites of the future,” Carabias says. She anticipates a rising interest in ecotourism due to the pandemic, as people begin to look for destinations that allow for social distancing and limited risk of contagion.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, communities in the Lacandon region were well-positioned for this kind of small-scale, low-impact travel. The Canto de la Selva ecolodge, for example, is designed specifically to prevent ecosystem disruption. Fourteen elevated cabins allow the free passage of fauna and host 28 people at most—offering minimal exposure to other people while maximizing exposure to the jungle.

Virtual tours, digital education

In the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, three of four sanctuaries are set to reopen for butterfly season (beginning in November and running through early March) despite plunging hotel reservations. The Cerro Pelón sanctuary in the State of Mexico, however, will remain closed to outside visitors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Ana Moreno faces a quiet season. So do her nine siblings and mother, all of whom are involved in the butterfly business. Her brother Joel and his wife Ellen Sharp run the village’s only bed-and-breakfast. They also founded Butterflies and Their People, a nonprofit that employs six full-time forest guardians to patrol the mountain and protect the monarch sanctuary from illegal logging. Ana’s mother and sisters manage the bed-and-breakfast restaurant, and other siblings work as butterfly guides or forest rangers.

It’s not just the Moreno family who will lose income: Tourism employed eighty people from the community as guides and horse handlers. Other locals earned income as drivers, housekeepers, cooks, and artisans. Some have already begun logging in the forest again, which threatens the monarchs’ winter home.

To keep their six forest guardians on the mountain, Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp designed virtual tour packages. “I’m hoping it can save us this year,” says Sharp. Would-be tourists can “adopt a colony” and receive bimonthly updates from November to early March—the entire butterfly season. These virtual tours offer visitors an experience they couldn’t get in person: up-close observation of the colonies on an ongoing basis.

“When you are here, you only have one or two days,” Ana Moreno says. “With the virtual tours you are going to have a totally different experience because you will have the opportunity to see the butterfly colony in different ways—not just one.”

Most importantly, proceeds from the virtual packages will keep forest guardians employed. The six forest guardians, along with three state-employed rangers, will serve as boots on the ground during this quiet season. They are tasked with collecting footage, reporting on the butterflies’ movements, and preventing loggers from encroaching into the sanctuary. “It's a pretty big forest, and there are only six of them,” she adds. “It’s going to be hard to control the illegal logging. But they are trying.”

(Related: At France’s newest national park, it’s all about the trees.)

Sierra Gorda Ecotours has also turned to digital engagement in the absence of in-person visits. “We’ve had to take a really big leap into social media,” says Pérez-Arce. “Fortunately we were accepted by a program that has been helping to train us and really get us thinking about how we can get people to understand where we are and what's happening here.” The team brought on a communications assistant to help with storytelling efforts. They also participated in webinars to share best practices with international partners in the ecotourism industry.

But more than boosting its digital presence, Sierra Gorda Ecotours used the slow season to reevaluate its messaging and education. “We need to up our ante in being technologically more adept at showing what the value is, as well as the activities that you can do responsibly here,” Pérez-Arce says.

Booking tours through Sierra Gorda Ecotours allows travelers to offset their environmental impact, an element that the team is working to highlight in their marketing and online education. The goal is to educate would-be tourists about a form of travel that offsets their carbon footprint by contributing to forest conservation. If people understand this larger mission of ecotourism, Pérez-Arce hopes, then they will seek travel opportunities that facilitate carbon capture and natural regeneration.

Tourism for a new normal

Through an increase in remote offerings, the pandemic has expanded access to ecotourism in Mexico’s forests. Sharp hopes that, by moving online, immersive conservation experiences will reach new audiences. “I'm looking forward to the opportunity to connect with people who can’t make the trip themselves,” she says. Since the Cerro Pelón Butterfly Sanctuary can only be reached through horseback and hiking, “accessibility is a real issue. I’m excited about the possibility to reach more people who physically can’t make the trip up the mountain to see the butterfly colonies themselves.”

For those returning to in-person travel, the pandemic has highlighted the need for safe alternatives to mass tourism. “We can’t keep working like we are now, on platforms and webinars sixteen hours a day,” says Carabias. “We need open spaces and recreation.” Ecotourism provides exactly that.

<p><a href="" target="_blank">Topas Ecolodge</a>—a National Geographic Unique Lodge north of Hanoi, Vietnam—organizes treks into Hoang Lien National Park, a global biodiversity hotspot.</p>

Topas Ecolodge

Topas Ecolodge—a National Geographic Unique Lodge north of Hanoi, Vietnam—organizes treks into Hoang Lien National Park, a global biodiversity hotspot.

Photograph Courtesy Topas Ecolodge

During this slow season, Natura Mexicana has focused its efforts on preparing for a future in which ecotourism is the most responsible form of travel. Carabias and her team have provided safety protocol training and equipped service providers with sanitization supplies. When the tourists return, communities in the Lacandon Jungle will be ready to welcome travelers seeking a safer, more socially-distant form of travel. “As long as they can endure right now, they’re going to be very well positioned for the future,” says Carabias.

(Related: A pandemic quiets mariachis and tourism in Mexico City.)

Little by little, tourists are trickling back. The Canto de la Selva ecolodge recently booked its first reservation in eight months; a family traveling together will have the lodge to themselves, their only neighbors toucans and howler monkeys. (“I’m dying of envy,” says Carabias). She hopes that small group visits like this will increase as people look for alternatives to mass tourism. “There is no better place to be than in a natural, outdoor environment, safely distanced from others, where you have incredibly low chances of contagion,” Carabias says. “It’s the best tourism alternative that we have.”

A return to travel the way we know it may be a long way off. But in Mexico, forest communities are finding ways to adapt their ecotourism offerings. In doing so, they provide both an alternative to mass travel and a means of ongoing environmental conservation. “These sites are the sites where we can combine economic recovery, personal recreation, improvement of people’s lives, and forest conservation,” Carabias adds. “For me, this is the alternative.”

Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who covers food, travel, and ecology. Her work appears in The Sunday Long Read, Hidden Compass, Civil Eats, Life & Thyme, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing 2019. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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