Ecotourism Company Expediciones Sierra Norte: Conserving Nature and Working with Local Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico

Written by Rainforest Alliance’s Milagro Espinoza, Senior Communications Manager for Latin America

In 1994, tourism development in the cloud-wrapped forests in one of the highest regions of Oaxaca, Mexico seemed unlikely. At the time, many thought that tourists would not want to travel to a region with mountains higher than 9800 feet (3000 meters) above sea level, a very cold climate, and little or no infrastructure.

Fortunately, those behind the community-based ecotourism project Expediciones Sierra Norte, Pueblos Mancomunados, decided to venture forth with their idea of building an ecotourism project in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca. Since its inception, Expediciones Sierra Norte has kept conservation at the heart of its mission and, therefore, when developing the ecotourism concept, it made perfect sense to team up with the Rainforest Alliance to help deepen their commitment to sustainability.

Expediciones Sierra Norte had realized that it was incorrectly limiting sustainable tourism to environmental conservation only and, in 2012, the Rainforest Alliance was invited to conduct a more comprehensive evaluation of the project. As a result of the audit, Expediciones Sierra Norte was provided with tools and resources to help them expand beyond their environmental focus and work to improve their social and economic impacts as well. This new methodology allowed them to take a more holistic approach to sustainability to benefit people and the planet.

Angelina Martinez, General Coordinator of Expediciones Sierra Norte, also participated in sustainable tourism business training offered by the Rainforest Alliance, in coordination with the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples and the Association of Women Generating Change and Wellbeing. This training on the use of the Rainforest Alliance tools for assessments of sustainable tourism destinations was aimed at local advisors. Angelina quickly applied her learnings to Expediciones Sierra Norte business practices and shared insights with the local communities involved in the project.

Angelina Martinez, General Coordinator of Expediciones Sierra Norte

Today, the successes achieved in Expediciones Sierra Norte’s 22 years of work in tourism is evident, earning them two prestigious international awards. During the ITB Berlin Trade Show, the world’s leading tourism conference, in March 2016, they received the TO DO! prize, awarded by the Institute for Tourism and Development in recognition of their work in driving socially responsible tourism; and just a few weeks later, in April, the World Travel & Tourism Council awarded them the “Tourism for Tomorrow” prize in the category of Community.

Both distinctions are the result of years of steady work on developing an attractive tourism service that is committed to conserving the environment and improving living conditions for the residents of the region. As a result, a network with more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) of rural trails for hiking and mountain biking in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca was created.  During visits, tourists can appreciate many of the natural treasures, passing through cold to warm forests, while interacting with local communities as the local guide shares stories from their culture. In addition to the sharing of indigenous knowledge, local communities benefit economically from the tourist visits as food and lodging services are offered in each community visited.

Since the natural scenic beauty of Sierra Norte is the fundamental attraction for most tourists, Expediciones Sierra Norte ensures that they are taking steps to conserve the environment and reduce the ecological footprint of tourists. Its trails are designed to allow visitors to travel the area on foot, bicycle, or horseback. Vehicles are only used to enter the first community of the network and to depart from the last community at the end of the tour.

Over the past 22 years Expediciones Sierra Norte has had an increase in the number of visitors. While just 20 tourists stayed in the Sierra Norte overnight in 1995, that number is now around 17,000 tourists per year, bringing employment and economic prosperity, which is shared across all participating communities.

Learn about Rainforest Alliance sustainable tourism services (e.g. technical assistance, certification audits, training, etc.).



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