Regenerative tourism in rural communities: the case of Ek Balam

Thanks to Martín Araneda, co-founder of Camina Sostenible, in December 2018 we had the opportunity to join him for a workshop on regenerative tourism in the community of Ek Balam, in the state of Yucatán.

In the community of Ek Balam, there are two cooperatives and one of them is called Uh Najil Ek Balam. The main service this organisation provides is the lodging of travelers in ecotourism cabins and different cultural tours to learn about aspects of the Mayan culture. This project began 18 years ago with help of the National Tourism Board and other public and private organizations. However, back then (and still today) all members of the cooperative were workers of the milpa (Mexican arable farm). It supposed a big change for them to train and work in tourism, something that as they admit, would never have imagined.

Through Camina Sostenible, Martín and his partner Carlos Briceño work on different aspects of the regenerative tourism movement and have been positioning this philosophy for years through the Global Regenerative Tourism Initiative. Thanks to his extensive training on the subject and many different jobs in Chile and other Latin American countries, Martin already had experience working in regenerative tourism with communities of original cultures, such as the Mapuches.

During the Camina journey, they have found that it is common for community-based projects to lose strength, forget their initial drive that made them get together and lose vitality. To regenerate this aspect is important to return to the roots and strengthen the community relationships, returning again to their own purpose and thrive again.

The workshop at Ek Balam was focused on organizational culture and began with a reorganization of the room, where the attendees were invited to sit in a circle. According to Martín, sitting in a circle is an aspect he learned from the Mapuches, who believe that at the center of them is the fire, a key element that holds wisdom.

Subsequently, each participant was asked to present themselves and explain what they would like to improve with respect to their responsibilities within the cooperative. Analysing these opinions, Martín started a group dynamic in order to find the main drives of the cooperative and to recover its strength and vitality.

This dynamic focused on returning to the roots of what made the cooperative get together to work on tourism. According to them, the visitors who arrive here are interested in reconnecting with the real Mayans, learn about their traditions and their way of living. Their great value is indeed lying in its own heritage, still alive from their ancestors who worked, looked after and fought for their land.

With this in mind, we worked on the basis that we are all the same and the importance of strengthening family bonds, which are key in a community project. Through support and understanding, we can continue to build together a better future, always respecting what Mother Earth offers us.

In Ek Balam, the cultural and natural heritage is rich and abundant, and comes from each member of the cooperative. In the communities it is very important to be able to strengthen this type of thoughts, but to facilitate this process it is necessary to involve all the people who actively participate in the tourism development.

After the dynamics, the participants were asked what they understood as their essential values ??and what makes them special, their skills and talents as a community. Among the answers were highlighted the original language, their ancestral culture, traditional clothing, festivities or the protection of natural resources such as the milpa and the conservation of native species.

The workshop ended with the conclusion that every community member should feel the project like their own and take the reins of the tourism activity. The heritage of the ancestors should be taken care of and the young people should be involved in the management and operation of the project itself.

Tourism should be beneficial to the community, and not the other way round. It must be used as a tool that honors the legacy of the grandparents and that is available to the future of young people. Tourism should be understood as a tool, but never as an end.

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