Mauricio is reforming Mexico’s nature-tourism industry, replacing it with a system that creates sustainable and profitable livelihoods for rural and indigenous communities based on conservation, market value, and local autonomy.
The New Idea
Mauricio is replacing the dysfunctional nature-tourism industry with a market driven system based on conservation and economic value and controlled by local people in protected areas. He does so by playing a key role in the design and implementation of several regulations that promote sustainability in Mexico’s tourism sector. For example, he co-created a Strategic Framework for Sustainable Tourism in Natural Protected Areas along with an action plan for the appropriate implementation of its guidelines. Mauricio also designed a National Manual that is used to ensure sustainable practices in ecotourism throughout Mexico. He is deeply involved in crafting alliances among key actors in the conservation sector to adopt and promote national norms on sustainable tourism and conservation with different governmental institutions on a national and regional level.
Hand in hand with local communities, Mauricio designs and implements ecotourism ventures that comply with the national and regional regulations and are linked to sustainable livelihoods. He uses a model based on market dynamics to create stability for these ventures, thereby replacing the economic uncertainty from which emerging tourism initiatives as well as small-scale agricultural producers often suffer. The development of such experiences is linked to the sustainability policies developed by Mauricio through an incentive scheme through which businesses that comply with the regulations develop higher quality experiences, and as a result, attract more clients and greater incomes. Profits earned, in turn, are partially reinvested in improving livelihoods. Mauricio guides emerging ventures through a transition to a business stage in which they are ready to receive visitors. During the process, he helps to transform traditional agricultural activities, such as coffee production, into attractive touristic products. This transformation marks a shift from the Mexican tourism industry’s current focus on services and activities, which represent a basic business level, to a focus on immersive experiences, which are a more sophisticated offering for tourism markets and a better source of sustainable livelihoods.
Beyond facilitating these processes, Mauricio links quality ecoventures that comply with the sustainability norms to a network of local tour operators that can recommend the businesses to tourists, and with the United Nations and governmental institutions that can promote them as best practices within the tourism sector. In these ways, Mauricio helps them to consolidate their future markets and ensures a more stable stream of visitors.
In Mexico, 13% of the country’s terrestrial surface and 23% of marine territory are designated as protected natural areas. Despite their protected status, these areas are threatened by mass tourism, in particular due to severely deficient political regulations to ensure their protection. The regulations that do exist are essentially meaningless. Rules surrounding risk management in the outdoors and safety equipment for boats are outdated, inconsistently applied, and sometimes illogical. For example, one regulation mandated that all boats carry fire extinguishers, without distinguishing between large ferries and small canoes.
On top of defunct regulations, the existing ecotourism model operates under the wrong incentives. Most problematic is the dependence of community businesses upon public subsidies rather than market dynamics. The process to become certified as a nature tourism business in the first place is plagued by corruption at every step. In order to attain subsidies, a business must receive a certification. In order to become certified, businesses must receive certain trainings, and so on. The officials involved in these processes charge unjust fees that line their own pockets rather than support communities in need.
Furthermore, under the subsidy system, the quality of community ecotourism ventures does not improve because people will be paid regardless of tourists’ experiences. For example, a community may receive a subsidy to build cabins (even though there is no need for more cabins) that is greater than what they might earn from visitors over an entire year. The sector is in dire need of a different incentive scheme that motivates people to adopt sustainability norms for their ventures that will result in environmental benefits as well as higher quality tourism experiences, by creating opportunities to achieve greater profits than they could purely through government subsidies.
Although more than 1,300 community ecotourism initiatives in protected natural areas around Mexico seek to promote sustainable tourism, fewer than 10% have the necessary conditions for a sustainable business plan, as they lack business skills, access to markets, and financial sustainability. National policy has been slow to aid the development of these local ventures, as prevailing policies continue to focus on infrastructure development for mass beach tourism and neglect to support community ecotourism businesses in rural and indigenous areas.
Considering this set of conditions, a dual challenge faces Mexico’s ecotourism sector. On one hand, community initiatives must receive support to boost their competitiveness, professionalism, and profitability, thereby strengthening sustainable livelihoods for the local indigenous and rural populations at the helm of these businesses. On the other hand, great efforts are required to ensure the sustainable management of tourism in natural protected areas and guarantee the conservation of Mexico’s rich natural and cultural heritage.
La Mano del Mono tackles these harmful defects within Mexico’s ecotourism sector by advocating new norms to replace or improve upon nonsensical ones, in order to guarantee sustainable local development in rural and indigenous communities and conservation of natural protected areas.
In response to the lack of suitable regulations in the field, Mauricio has designed and implemented a series of public policies about sustainable tourism and conservation in protected natural areas. Various government institutions, including the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, and the Secretariat of Tourism (Sectur), have adopted Mauricio’s model to articulate sustainable tourism plans. Mauricio designed a manual that has been adopted by Semarnat as a tool for sustainable tourism across the country. The manual includes best practices for general sustainability requirements and detailed guides for how to develop touristic products and activities in accordance with sustainability guidelines. One of Mauricio’s key contributions to public policy, Mexican Norm 133 on Sustainable Ecotourism, outlines a process for certifying ecotourism businesses that tasks a special committee with ensuring the venture’s commitment to sustainability, evaluating its compliance with environmental standards, and conducting multiple surveillance visits before granting the certification. These procedures combat the carelessness and corruption of the subsidy system.
Mauricio also crafted a Strategic Framework for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Natural Areas that serves as a compass for the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) in developing actions and investments in sustainable tourism along 182 Protected Areas in Mexico. In October 2018, Mauricio was a leader consultant to develop the Subregional Action Plans to implement the National Public Policy on Sustainable Tourism at the coast of Oaxaca, the Sierra Tarahumara, and the Neovolcanic Axis of Mexico. The implementation of these public policies have been adopted and financed by the German International Cooperation and 2 different Global Environmental Funds applied in the country.
During the Third Latin American Congress on Protected Natural Areas that took place in October 2019 in Peru, Mauricio facilitated the presentation of the achievements by 2020 of the 11th Aichi Goal in Latin America and Caribbean, as well as the Agenda Post2020 which will define the public policies for protected areas in Latin América by 2030. In these sessions Mauricio shared hand in hand with the Convention of Biological Diversity, European Commission for Biodiversity Conservation, the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs and different Directors of Protected Areas of Latin American countries, best practices on policy making for biodiversity conservation in the region. Mauricio was also invited to be a key speaker of the International Panel at the International Indigenous Tourism Conference, in order to share his experience on tourism public policies of Mexico.
Furthermore, Mauricio has worked closely with the Mexican Fund for Conservation of Nature and its associates to develop a Learning Community for Protected Natural Areas. This initiative seeks to identify and fortify entrepreneurial projects in protected natural areas, including emerging ecotourism efforts and other businesses aligned with the sustainability agenda.
To combat dependency upon subsidies and government corruption, Mauricio has developed a new series of certification and training processes for the tourism industry, based on the sustainability policies he has influenced in the public policy sphere. Mauricio collaborates directly with local businesses to implement strategies that leverage tourism as a pathway toward conservation and local development. His model strives to create economic certainty and organize industry and community businesses in ecotourism destinations, by facilitating capacity building, product development, and commercial positioning. Mauricio has identified a key stage in the lifespan of businesses between their emergence and the point at which they are ready to receive visitors. He intervenes at this stage, targeting the high proportion of initiatives (90% of all tourism businesses in Mexico) that are not yet self-sustainable and rely upon government subsidies. This intervention includes a range of actions aimed at equipping businesses to receive visitors, such as developing a web presence; involving community members as providers of food, transportation, and other services; and fostering connections with tour operators and travel agencies. Moreover, Mauricio works to redirect existing grants from established national and international bodies, including the United Nations, so that they support the ventures vetted by La Mano del Mono that are actively trying to fortify themselves and their environment.
This progression helps ensure a more stable, year-round income for communities, rather than reliance upon limited domestic markets that only travel during high tourism seasons, which cover just seven weeks of the year (summer, the winter holidays, and Easter week). Moreover, the introduction of tourists diversifies the income stream of rural and indigenous communities and motivates conservation efforts such that ecotourism ventures continue to be attractive to visitors. For example, coffee producers no longer need to depend solely upon coffee, but, with the transition to tourism, can also receive income by selling a well-designed package for tourists including the sale of food and transport. The interest among tourists to witness the process of producing organic coffee provides incentives to farmers to continue and strengthen their sustainable practices, which otherwise struggle to compete with less environmentally friendly, pesticide-dependent, mass production techniques. Thanks to the increased income, the communities have the opportunity to improve their sustainable livelihoods, for example, by investing in the installation of rainwater harvesting systems.
Another branch of La Mano del Mono’s strategy is co-designing and facilitating experiences of deep immersion in nature and local cultures that cultivate closer connections between humans and nature, generate strategic alliances among key actors in the conservation sector, and transform visitors into conservation donors. The profits from these experiences, such as an outdoor team building program and an experiential classroom, help fund La Mano del Mono’s services. La Mano del Mono also leads a “Rutas del Agua” (Water Routes) journey that takes travelers to fresh water sources in some of Mexico’s best-preserved natural areas. One jewelry store owner who participated in this journey was so inspired by the experience that she created a line of “Jewelry of the Forest”, from which she donates 10% of earnings to a conservation fund. In total, tourists have invested at least $50,000 U.S. dollars for conservation after participating in La Mano del Mono’s experiences. In this way, Mauricio activates tourists to participate in the mission to preserve and protect Mexico’s abundant natural and cultural heritage.
Mano del Mono has achieved significant public policy impacts to date. Mauricio played a key role in assessing and modifying a 2006 norm on standards and best practices for sustainable tourism, leading to a more profound version of the regulation. Mauricio designed the national implementation manual of the Mexican norm on sustainable practices in 2008 which was used around Mexico. The improvements made to the norm focused on sustainable planning, sustainable activities and sustainable facilities. He is now actively participating in the expert group to modify the Mexican Norm NOM-TUR-011-2002 leaded by Tourism Secretary in Mexico, which will be published in 2021 focusing on the new regulation for nature tourism guides in Mexico. Besides this process, Mauricio led the design of the National Framework for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Natural Areas around Mexico.
La Mano del Mono has certified 12 community businesses in sustainable ecotourism practices based on this regulatory norm and trained over 100 ecotourism guides that now operate in protected natural areas as well as over 5,500 leaders in conservation, local development, and ecotourism. Mauricio’s team has directly capacitated over 160 businesses across 12 states of Mexico, for a total of 21,600 indirect beneficiaries. These businesses, by transitioning from emergent to visitor ready, increase their profits by an average of 500%. Thanks to La Mano del Mono’s efforts, fourteen indigenous groups have been equipped with ecotourism business models that contribute to their sustainable livelihoods, over 300 community environment promoters have been trained in experiential environmental education, and about 70 protected natural areas now enjoy the management of more than 300 rangers trained in ecotourism and environmental education.
La Mano del Mono’s model has been replicated across 4 natural protected areas in Mexico: the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas, the Oaxacan coast, the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range in Chihuahua, and the Neovolcanic Axis that stretches across various Mexican states. It has generated over $100,000 U.S. dollars for natural protected areas. Internationally, Mauricio’s model has taken root in Chile, and is in pilot stages in Guatemala. La Mano del Mono has been invited to share its expertise in Germany, Brazil, Peru, Ghana, Canada, and India, thereby spreading the impact of its work worldwide.
Mauricio has been profoundly enamored with nature since the age of six, when he joined the Scouts. Exploring mountains, rivers, caves, and canyons with his troop showed him new ways of valuing the world and shaped what would become his life trajectory. He grew to feel committed, even indebted, to nature for the moments of beauty and peace it had granted him. At age 13, he began adventuring in nature, exploring caves, canyons, and forests with specialized equipment, and bringing friends along with him.
Far from allowing his love of the outdoors to remain just a hobby, Mauricio has been turning it into ventures since an early age. At 17 years old, he founded his first entrepreneurial venture, Mexplore.com.mx, dedicated to adventure tourism. At 20, he became certified as an international instructor of vertical rescue, rescue in moving waters, wilderness survival, and first aid in remote locations. While still a college student, he was taking clients to the outdoors on the weekends, laying the groundwork for future entrepreneurial endeavors.
From 2000 to 2005, Mauricio studied biology at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, where he learned in greater detail about ecological principles and systems. He also grew aware of the alarming biodiversity loss occurring in Mexico. His focus on comparative ecology allowed him to understand how human behavior compares to animal behavior, and from there his passion for environmental education was born.
After university, Mauricio continued his studies and training in environmental education, as well as innovation and social entrepreneurship, in Germany, Spain, Peru, Ghana, Brazil, India, and Colombia. These opportunities to study and train abroad opened Mauricio’s eyes to broad horizons and alternative realities. Professionally, they granted him a variety of tools and relationships that continue to influence his career path and augment his commitment to and enjoyment of his work.
Parallel to these experiences, Mauricio co-founded Petra Vertical and Xaman Expeditions, other businesses dedicated to adventure tourism which he has since left. After college, he rented an office in the San Pedro area of Monterrey, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Latin America, and signed up with the local sports club, to demonstrate seriousness to his clients and better network with influential businesspeople. Despite the success he had achieved at his young age, he was tired of “dressing up” for the business world in which he had become immersed, and he decided to switch gears toward something more meaningful for him. It was then that Mauricio asked a friend who was working in ecotourism in Chiapas for lodging and the possibility of writing his thesis within this sector. The result was a publication on informal environmental education as an alternative form of sustainable development in an ecotourism center of the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas, which was awarded a prize for best undergraduate thesis by the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in 2008. This assignment led him to develop a project hand in hand with an indigenous family from the Lacandona jungle that would eventually become La Mano del Mano.
Mauricio passed through acceleration processes with New Ventures, Agora Partnerships, Mentor Capital Network, the Unreasonable Institute, and Action Coach. In 2011, Mauricio earned an award from the government of former Mexican president Felipe Calderon for Best Cultural Experience for the Diversification of Mexican Touristic Offerings. In 2016, he won an honorary mention from the Mexican government’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas in a contest of nature conservationists. Throughout his career, the indigenous cosmovision has profoundly impacted Mauricio’s way of seeing the world and continues to serve as a guide in his work to conserve nature and promote the sustainable development of rural and indigenous communities.