Mexico and Central America are home to key habitats of six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, all of which are listed either as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN. The primary threats to their survival are consumption of their eggs, meat, and shells and entanglement in fishing gear, though unsustainable coastal development, pollution, and other threats also contribute to their decline. Throughout this region, residents of the coastal communities near turtle nesting beaches and foraging areas are often severely economically disadvantaged and in many cases have few economic alternatives to fishing and poaching.
Biologists have determined that providing sustainable economic alternatives to fishing and turtle poaching for nearby communities is a critical and under-utilized tool for conservation of these species and their habitat. Tourism has been advocated as a conservation tool in most if not all major international sea turtle conservation strategies over the past two decades including the following:
• A Global Strategy for the Conservation of Marine Turtles (IUCN/MTSG, 1995): Identify and promote economic alternatives to exploitation and economic incentives to conserve marine turtles (e.g., ecotourism, handicrafts).
• Marine Turtle Conservation in the Wider Caribbean Region: A Dialogue for Effective Regional Management (WIDECAST, IUCN/MTSG, 2001): Work with stakeholders to develop and encourage economic alternatives to eliminate illegal poaching of eggs and nesting females.
• Manual for the Best Practices of Conservation of Marine Turtles in Central America (Asociacion ANAI, 2000): (Ecotourism) based in community participation is an excellent way to alter the direct exploitation of turtles and their eggs.
Our project, “Protecting Marine & Coastal Ecosystems Through Community-Based Conservation Tourism” (a partnership of Solimar International, SEE Turtles, and RED Sustainable Tourism) uses a market-based model to link jobs and revenue generated by tourism to support locally-based small and medium enterprises and turtle conservation efforts across Mexico and Central America. Conservation tourism has the potential to not only mitigate the potentially harmful impacts of visitation to a natural area, but also support conservation of the wildlife and ecosystems upon which it and local communities depend.
To achieve meaningful, long-term conservation in these communities, sea turtle organizations need to create local stewards who have a stake in their survival. This project combines 1) Solimar’s proven methodology for developing sustainable tourism enterprises and tourism clusters that link communities and conservation; 2) SEE Turtles’ innovative model of niche marketing to drive sea turtle enthusiasts to conservation tourism sites; and 3) RED’s experience and success working with communities, protected areas, as well as public and private sector partners in Northwest Mexico.
To date, this partnership has produced exciting results. In Northwestern Mexico, RED has spent the past two years incubating community-owned tourism enterprises, training guides and small business managers, and is working with Solimar to lay a foundation for destination management in communities near key turtle habitat, based on principles of sustainability. In Central America, Solimar is expanding the partnership through the USAID Management of Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives (MAREA) project. Within MAREA, Solimar is documenting its approach to developing and linking community-based sea turtle tourism to direct conservation support through a number of innovative strategies. SEE Turtles’ marketing efforts have generated more than $200,000 in support for turtle conservation projects in Latin America & the Caribbean, including fees and donation to conservation organizations, money spent in locally owned businesses, and in-kind marketing support.
The success or failure of small businesses depends directly on their ability to reach their target markets. Funds will be used to create sales and marketing capacity to serve the needs of community businesses and their customers. This partnership will also expand access to markets through a two-pronged strategy of connecting local enterprises with international and regional tour operators and institutions, as well as building on SEE Turtles’ expertise in marketing to specific niches of the international travel market.
Public sector partners are critical to the success of the network, both in Mexico and Central America. In Mexico RED has cultivated relationships with institutional partners in the Mexican government, including the Natural Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) and the Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR), to foster nationwide support for sustainable tourism development and promotion as the model for tourism in Mexico. In Central America, Solimar and the MAREA project are working with the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD) to help ensure government support for the sea turtle tourism network.
MIF funding would allow the partners to scale-up these tools and initial success by bringing additional communities and sea turtle conservation sites into the expanding network across Mexico and Central America. The primary activities supported through MIF funding would include capacity-building (business planning, tourism operations and management, staff training), marketing of the network members, and specialized consultants to mentor the development of successful conservation tourism enterprises.