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MEXICO: Native Tourism Businesses Need to Sell Themselves Better

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 27 2010 (IPS) - Native tourism companies dedicated to the preservation and promotion of indigenous culture and to sustainable development face a number of hurdles, especially in terms of marketing and commercialising their services.

“We have perfected the design of regional tourism circuits and have trained the people who work in the tourism companies, but we have not adequately designed a marketing strategy, to highlight the difference with other destinations,” Antonio Medina of the Mexican Indigenous Tourism Network (RITA) told IPS.

Founded by 32 member companies in 2002, RITA now groups 160 indigenous businesses, with 5,000 members and 20,000 beneficiaries in 15 of Mexico’s 32 states.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, nearly 12 million of Mexico’s 108 million people are indigenous, a definition based on the preservation of native languages, traditions and cultures.

Indigenous businesses “are seeking to join efforts for commercialisation, training and the implementation of strategies for selling tourism packages,” said Iris Vargas of the Community-Based Ecotourism Network of Michoacán (Ecomich), which is made up of 12 companies in the west-central state of Michoacán. “In terms of commercialisation, they haven’t done so well.”

To draw attention to the activities of these companies, RITA is holding the Second Indigenous Tourism Fair Thursday through Saturday in Puebla, 125 km south of Mexico City. The event will focus on questions like development that respects the identity and culture of native peoples, the marketing of tourist destinations, and access to financing.

“One of the big weaknesses of community-based tourism companies is the marketing and commercialisation of their products or services,” Álex Villca of the Bolivian Solidarity Community-Based Tourism Network (Tusoco) told IPS.

“In addition, training of human resources is still in the early stages, which diminishes chances of success,” he said.

Tusoco, which emerged in 2006 and now has 18 member businesses, was invited to take part in the Oct. 28-30 fair in Puebla.

In Mexico there are an estimated 1.2 million micro- and small businesses operating in indigenous territories, with an average staff of 25 people. These companies are involved in a wide range of activities, from ecotourism to mining. There are no figures on their contribution to the economy.

There are 89 community-based tourism initiatives in Bolivia, according to the vice ministry of tourism, but only five percent of them are financially self-sufficient.

Indigenous companies “need to design good tourism products, structured in such a way that they are self-sufficient, sustainable, inclusive and integral,” Olivia Bringas, a Mexican consultant for tourism businesses, told IPS.

Between 2007 and 2009, a group of 32 companies belonging to RITA developed a 300,000 euro (415,800 dollar) project financed by Spain’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) to carry out studies, help design business plans, and improve training, infrastructure and marketing.

Another project aimed at strengthening RITA, whose cost of 100,000 dollars has been covered by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) run by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), began last year and is to be completed in December.

This year, RITA has also received support from the Programme of Alternative Tourism in Indigenous Areas of the governmental National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), for raising awareness in native communities on their rights.

In 2006 Mexico’s tourism ministry issued regulations on requisites and specifications for the sustainability of ecotourism. Since then, some 60 tourism circuits have been certified under the ministry’s regulations.

But indigenous businesses are calling for the regulations to be modified by the incorporation of specific conditions applying to native areas.

“We want binding directives for tourism businesses operating in our territories, to ensure that they respect our forms of organisation and our ceremonial spots, and to guarantee the proper handling of water and waste,” said Medina, who is organising the three-day fair in Puebla.

The certification of ecotourism businesses is a tool that should have an impact on the commercialisation of indigenous tourism routes. The Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, founded in 2003, is comprised of 130 governmental and private bodies from 23 countries in the western hemisphere.

In Bolivia, the municipal government of the northern town of Rurrenabaque and the German government’s technical cooperation agency (GTZ) certified the “Rurrenabaque ecotourism destination”, which covers six municipalities in the provinces of La Paz and Beni, in 2007.

The design of a 20 million dollar National Community-Based Tourism Programme, financed by the IDB, is to be completed in Bolivia in 2011.

But Villca said “There is still a vacuum in terms of public sector support and promotion for this kind of economic initiative.”

“Marketing a single destination is a bit difficult, and more costly,” Vargas said. “But if destinations are promoted together, agreements and joint routes to take could be charted.”

RITA, a founder of the Latin America Community-Based Tourism Network (Redturs), which has the support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and of the Indigenous Tourism Network of the Americas (Intiruna), sponsored by Stanford University in California, was a finalist for this year’s Equator Prize.

The Equator Prize, which has been awarded every two years since 2002, recognises and celebrates outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation of biodiversity. The Equator Initiative is a partnership that brings together the United Nations, governments, civil society and businesses.

Bringas said native companies should not compete with conventional tourism operators. “They are targeting different segments of the market. In the context of the globalisation process, the best way to differentiate themselves is by reaffirming their culture and collective identity,” she said.

The First Indigenous Tourism Meeting of the Americas will be held in March 2011 in San Martín de los Andes, in the southern Argentine region of Patagonia.

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