Joe Sehee

Ecotourism is a term that anyone can love, especially those of us in northern New Mexico working to integrate environmental and economic sustainability. But loving and making viable, I’m discovering, are two very different things.

As part of my work on the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, I recently took on the responsibility of exploring ways of engaging the local business community. I wanted to do something with a decent chance of success, and felt that a great opportunity might lie in tapping into the growing market of visitors who care about sustainability in the truest sense of the word – tourists who like to go to places where they believe their visit can have a positive impact on the local community.

My first instinct was to try to organize local hotels, resorts and restaurants into greening up their establishments by participating in some sort of eco-certification program. I got especially excited by this idea when I learned about the growing number of “green” conferences now looking for destinations to hold their gatherings. Unfortunately, I discovered that there are few in the local hospitality field who share my enthusiasm. And I certainly didn’t want to be in the position of forcing anything on the “Sustainability Capital of America.”

Then something happened a few weeks ago that made me think in an entirely different way about ecotourism and the important role for a city like Santa Fe in allowing visitors to become aware of destinations that might otherwise fall off the map.

Upon an invite to tag along with a friend to Espanola, I began thinking about what we might actually do once we got up there and phoned an artist, and uncle of an old friend of mine, who lives in the village of Santa Cruz. One of the most interesting local painters I’d come across in the past several years, Andreas Martinez and Lucy, his wife of nearly 50 years, live in the house that he grew up in. After viewing Andrea’s studio and viewing his latest work, which included a new tabernacle for a church in Truchas, we headed next door to see the Catholic church, which is the biggest, and considered by some as the finest mission church in all of NM. Full of incredible relics and paintings that date back to the early 1700s, the church is home to one of the oldest Catholic communities in North America that’s still active today.

Afterwards, we walked across the street to a café/gift shop/gallery that had opened within the past year. In addition to serving up a great cappuccino along with selling dried chile from Dixon, the store carries all sorts of works by local artists and artisans including a couple of paintings by Andreas. One of my personal highlights was seeing a poster on the wall that listed all the prominent names of the region and stated the exact years they came over from Spain, including the Martinez clan, which, according to this guide, arrived more than 400 years ago.

We got into a conversation with several locals about why Santa Cruz wasn’t much of a destination for tourists, despite that fact that many local residents would readily welcome them. We kicked around ideas that might make it more attractive including the possibility of a monthly communal dinner. It made me think about a colleague who used to organize large feasts for foreigners in the Italian countryside where people would gather at long tables to dine on local produce and drink wine made from grapes of the region. It occurred to me that the exact same thing could be done in any number of towns like Santa Cruz, and that this would not only put these small villages on the map and encourage economic activity within them; it would also make Santa Fe more of a “gateway” city for ecotourists. A system for referrals to these rural areas would support small, local businesses, while enhancing Santa Fe’s tourism as the hub.

Authenticity is one of northern NM’s precious resources. One of the ways we’re going to be able to best preserve and steward it is by allowing visitors to our town to get in touch with the richness of local traditional cultures. This obviously will take some strategies, planning and implementation on the part of the City Different. Some adventurous tourists will always make their way out to places like Santa Cruz and a host of other incredibly interesting little towns worthy of a visit; but the vast majority will not unless they are invited out in an appropriate manner.

If done correctly, economic development and cultural retention in rural areas is the likely gem of this new type of local cultural tourism.

Joe Sehee is a Sustainable Santa Fe Commissioner, a Senior Fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program, and the Executive Director of the Green Burial Council.