Ecotourism—Getting it Right, Right Down the Road from the Eco-Resort

2017-jan-pics-2016-12-22-at-7-47-00-amBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Marytere Farrell was born and bred a city—Mexico City—girl. She thought beaches first appeared through the windows of high-rise hotels in Acapulco, decorated with colorful umbrellas, pixilated with brightly tan bodies. Trees marched down neatly curbed esplanades or decorated urban parks. And then Marytere reached that age when young people slung on their backpacks and went traveling to find completely undecorated, un-peopled beaches and forests that were jungles. So now Marytere and Naim Sultan, her Lebanese husband, run Yiimtii.

High on the cliffs above the untouched Playa Carrizalita, maybe halfway between Puerto Angel and Coyula, Yiimtii is a handcrafted example of the pure form of ecotourism. After a challenging up-, down-, and uphill, 2.7 mile trek on the very rough road from Route 200, you arrive at a small parking lot in the coastal forest (selva seca, dry jungle). You beep your horn to alert the dogs, and the dogs bark to alert Marytere and Naim.

The short trail from the parking lot, through the dogs and the tarp-covered woodpiles, doesn’t seem to promise much. Then …you reach the top and the brilliant blues of the sky and the ocean open out through the trees.   The clearing is bordered by red-clay-colored (more about that later) buildings with palapa roofs and bright tiles, while paths lead off to similar structures or mysterious destinations. You can stay in one of two cabins, at a campground with two dozen or so sites, or, if it’s really busy at Yiimtii, in a dormitory space atop a combined storage and water collection building.

This is a far cry from the eco-resort that is Bahias de Huatulco. Huatulco is the first “sustainable tourist community” in the Americas, and the third in the world (Bali, Indonesia, and Kalkoura, New Zealand preceded it). In 2013, Huatulco received the first-ever gold certification from the international organization Earthcheck, which advises the travel and tourism industry on how to provide “clean, safe, prosperous and healthy destinations.” In fact, Huatulco has received annual certifications (formerly called “Green Globe” awards) of various levels from Earthcheck. Earthcheck’s Mexican partner is the federal agency SECTUR (Secretaría de Turismo, Tourism Administration), probably a good thing because the SECTUR website makes no mention of environmental issues.

What gets these awards for Huatulco? Water management, treatment, and recycling; waste management, minimization, and reuse/recycling; focus on environmental sustainability; land use planning and management. If you actually live in Huatulco for any portion of the year, you are aware of conflict and performance issues associated with all of these. If Huatulco is the best in the Western Hempishere, it’s easy to see that this approach is basically “How to Have a Mega-Resort while Minimizing Environmental Damage and Promoting Economic Viability.”

Resorts that take environmental sensitivity and sustainability into account are the coming thing in the international hotel industry. Such resorts can be evaluated in terms of the “ecotechniques, environmental sponsorship, and eco-packaging [that would be trash reduction].” These ideas are getting popular enough that new resorts almost all take them into account—we’ve had a shift from “vacation product” to “place product” as the foundation of competitiveness and destination quality: “The resort-plus scope of master planning, an expanded capacity to assimilate, and a layered approach to product development are the core principles, that in their interplay will distinguish an ecoresort product from a resort product.” No cigar, not even close to eco-tourism.

Clear ideas about what constitutes ecotourism started emerging in the 1990s, following on the environmental and sustainable development movements that had been building for thirty-odd years. Research investigates various aspects of ecotourism, but the core tenet is tied to a particular place, a place where the “tourist” experiences nature as it is. Plus it’s great if an ecotourist experience contributes to the self-sufficiency of the community where it happens. Even more important, the experience should not damage the ecosystems of the place where it happens.

And that is Yiimtii. In 2000, Marytere was living in San Augustinillo, Naim ended up there as well, and shortly thereafter they started looking for land for just such an undertaking. With San Agustinillo and Mazunte already looking ripe for over-development, they borrowed a friend’s car and went to Playa Tijera, just east of Puerto Angel. From there, they could see the beach at Zapotengo, so they borrowed the car again and went to Zapotengo, where they ran into someone who said, “I have land.” Naim had been expressing impatience with not spending enough time looking for the right piece of land. Marytere told him, “This land is the kind of land that comes to you. It will find us.”

The next day they went back to see the land, which was actually the property of I-have-land’s father. It was just after the rainy season, maybe October, and the jungle was green, green, green. Dad led them along a “teeny” trail; with the green of flush jungle, they couldn’t see too far ahead. When the trail reached the top of the hill, the brilliant blues of sky and sea . . . and that was it.

An added positive was the village of Zapotengo itself, which was friendly and welcoming, and working towards its own ecotourism enterprise. Until 2013, when Hurricane Carlota wiped out its lagoon, the villagers of Zapotengo operated a restaurant and offered crocodile trips to the lagoon. Marytere and Naim offered their help and promoted Zapotengo on the Yiimtii website. It now looks as if Zapotengo is on track to reopen its beach restaurant.

For four or five years, Marytere and Naim alternated working in the States with working on Yiimtii, living in tents in what is now the campground. They acquired more land (a total of 36 hectares, or 90 acres), declaring much of it a reserve and concentrating the buildings at the top of the cliff. Marytere, it turns out, is an architect, and she and one local helper built these buildings by hand. The patterns of small and large blocks in the building walls, punctuated in places by glass bricks, decorative stone insets, and colorful tile, testify to Marytere’s skill and vision.

If you go to Yiimtii, you can roam trails through the jungle, visit the orchard and gardens, descend by a switchback path carved into the cliffside to one of those deserted beaches, stay on the porch of your cabin—whatever. Naim is cultivating about 40 types of fruit in the orchard, from jackfruit to Brazilian cherries, different varieties of sapotes, citrus, lychees and longans. The garden produces all sorts of vegetables, including what Naim is developing as “habaneros payasos” (clown habanero peppers), with wrinkly little faces.

All that Earthcheck stuff? Naim dug Yiimtii’s well, and water is carefully managed. The eco-toilet avoids wasting all the water used by even the best water-saving, low flush jobs. There is little trash, much composting, organic agriculture, and appropriate (mostly non-mechanized) technology, and limited solar power (about enough to keep the computers going or recharge your cell phone).

Marytere and Naim will tell you about the birds and wildlife you see, talk to you about the produce they use in their vegetarian (leavened with fish broth) kitchen. Although they know Yiimtii is not for everyone, and they sometimes worry that a guest might be one of the people it’s not right for, by the time guests actually get there, they turn out to be right for Yiimtii and Yiimtii for them. In the true spirit of ecotourism, many guests say “This has changed my life.” Marytere and Naim have heard back that some do indeed change the course of their lives to accord with respecting and protecting the natural world.

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