Sustainable Tourism Brings Economic Growth

Seth Roffman

If you consider yourself a seasoned globe-trekker, the word “ecotourism” should conjure images of adventures in exotic destinations like the rain- and cloud forests of Costa Rica or the Mayan ruins of the jungles of the Yucatan. Maybe you’ve explored the Amazon Basin, trekked in the Himalayas, or have been on an African Safari. Or, if you are like most “armchair” ecotourists, you haven’t been to these places yet, but would love to go, someday. Maybe you haven’t thought about New Mexico as an ecotourism destination. Maybe you should think again…

In 2009, the NM Tourism Department (NMTD) launched the first state Ecotourism Division in the country in an attempt to lure the domestic green traveler as well as the discerning international ecotourist. The vision was to unite the different sectors of the tourism industry in order to offer visitors authentic cultural experiences and life-changing journeys into NM’s pristine wilderness. Web surfers can visit the NMTD’s growing ecotourism site at www.newmexico.org/ecotourism.

The initiative was the brainchild of Jennifer Hobson, then Deputy Secretary of Tourism for NM. “Ecotourism is a driving force for the promotion and preservation of NM’s rich cultural heritage and adventures in the wild,” says Hobson, who has since moved into the private sector. “Through our efforts, I have witnessed local outfitters and guides increase their bookings with the kind of visitors that stay longer and spend more money. This is the one of the high potential futures of tourism in the Land of Enchantment, and it has only just started.”

The NMTD contracted with a Santa Fe company, EcoNew Mexico, LLC (www.eco-newmexico.com), to design and implement a comprehensive ecotourism program. Eco-NM was selected because of their work developing ecotourism opportunities in African and Australian communities. The company assembled a team of experts and traveled the state educating local communities on the benefits of sustainable travel. “Ecotourism offers rural NM communities an opportunity to create sustainable economic development in a model that respects the land and honors local cultures and their traditions, said Eco-NM’s Sandy Cunningham, who was recently ranked among the top travel agents in the world by Travel and Leisure.

Ecotourism is based on a set of principles, values, and a standard of operating practices that include low-impact, responsible travel to natural areas and cultural sites, educational experiences, maximizing the involvement and economic benefits to local communities, and including a way for guests to contribute to the conservation of the areas they visit. Workshops were held throughout the state in Taos, Silver City and Chama. Communities and business owners were encouraged to take an inventory of their regional ecotourism assets, from outstanding natural areas to exceptional cultural sites and activities, to recreational opportunities – in an attempt to create regional, statewide ecotourism hubs that showcase NM’s diverse wilderness environments and traditional cultures. Reducing negative impacts to rural and wild areas take planning and tourism management to meet sustainable criteria.

Taos Ecotourism Project

In 2010, the NMTD selected the Taos Region and the Gila Wilderness as the two state Ecotourism Pilot Projects. Taos was chosen because of its rural location, immediate access to traditional Pueblo and Hispanic cultural sites, activities and experiences, it’s proximity to outstanding natural areas with opportunities for wildlife viewing and inspiring solitude, and an array of unique, interpretive outdoor adventures into NM’s pristine wilderness areas.

Taos was progressive enough as a community to embrace the spirit of the state’s initiative and run with the opportunity. Many Taos tourism operators and local business had already been employing ecotourism and green business practices for many years. The NMTD initiative worked as a catalyst to bring local business owners and ecotourism operators together to redefine adventure and cultural tourism in northern NM.

“The greatest benefit of this program has been all the networking and new business relationships that have developed,” says Stuart Wilde, regional ecotourism coordinator and owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures. “In Taos, we’ve seen a “ripple effect” that has branched out into the community as a whole, encouraging local business to “green-up,” and generating new opportunities for sustainable economic development.”

The Taos Ecotourism Project (www.Eco-Taos.com, or toll-free 1.855.ECO.TAOS) is a collaboration between local outfitters and guides, lodging/dining establishments, spa/wellness facilities, and conservation organizations that have partnered to offer a variety of fixed and customized eco-itineraries for both the domestic and international ecotraveler. These eco-vacation packages include a conservancy fee where 5% of the total package goes to support local conservation and cultural preservation efforts such as Senator Bingaman’s proposed 235,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area and the permanent protection of the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area. “If there is not a way for guests to directly contribute to the protection of the areas they visit and to better the community, it’s not real ecotourism,” says Wilde.

The group has put together a collection of 5, 7, and 9-day itineraries built around a core wilderness adventure like 3 days of whitewater rafting down the Rio Chama, or trekking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a team of eco-friendly pack llamas. “We feel that at the heart of any ecotourism experience is a multi-day wilderness trip where the guest can reconnect with nature and recharge their batteries,” says Cisco Guevara of Los Rios River Runners, NM’s oldest rafting company (losriosriverrunners.com).

“What’s great about these eco-trips is that they provide stellar experiences packed full of real discoveries in culture and the outdoors,” says Jamie Tedesco, marketing director for the Historic Taos Inn (www.taosinn.com). “Given the tricky economic times we are in, this is precisely the kind of new marketing niche that will continue to fill up rooms in boutique hotels and inns.” The Taos Inn works with the Red Willow Farm Project at Taos Pueblo in a “Farm to Table” sustainable agriculture program that provides locally grown produce for the inn’s Doc Martin’s Restaurant.

The Ecotourism Project’s itineraries also include visits to northern NM cultural sites and private tours of Taos Pueblo (www.taospueblo.com) and Puye Cliff Dwellings (www.puyecliffs.com) with Native American guides. “The cultural component of ecotourism is critical, and we are thrilled that the Pueblos have been receptive to participating in this program,” says Jamie Schultze, owner of the Bavarian Lodge at Taos Ski Valley. “No visit to Taos is complete without a visit to Taos Pueblo.” Taos Pueblo is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited dwelling – and the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in North America.

Once visitors have ventured out in the NM outdoors and experienced our rich multi-cultural history, what better way to finish off an eco-vacation, than to soak in natural hot springs and enjoy a massage or spa treatment? “These ancient waters have been a gathering place and source of healing for centuries,” says Wendi Gelfound, marketing director at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (www.ojospa.com).

Packages also include hot air balloon flights over the Rio Grande Gorge, technical rock climbing with instruction, guided fly fishing trips, and mountain biking, with visits to cultural sites such as Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve (www.vallescaldera.gov).

Adventure travel has consistently been one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Last year, NM tourism dollars accounted for more than $6 billion in spending, and generated more than $764 million in tax revenue for the state. Tourism is the second largest industry in NM, next to Big Oil and Gas. For every dollar spent on tourism in here, forty in generated in revenue. It is the biggest bang for our buck, in terms of bringing money into the state, which eventually finds it’s way to many NM small businesses; from local merchants and artists, to dining and lodging establishments, to outdoor recreation providers.

Ecotourism overlaps with cultural tourism, holding potential for small-scale, rural enterprises. For example, when tour guides are local, the sense of place and cultural histories enrich authenticity of the experience. Put simply, the “local guide” knows where the interesting referrals are, growing a network of potential jobs. This direction in tourism inspires cultural learning of traditional arts and cuisines, stories, local history, increased growing of food specific to NM cuisine, and knowledge of special places. Local job creation is not only important economically; it also enables youth of rural traditional cultures to stay on their land and not out-migrate to urban areas – a trend that furthers cultural loss. With planning, technical assistance and careful evaluation of sustainability factors, ecotourism in NM has great potential to expand as a green industry.