Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: Finding a Balance between Conservation and Development

Tourism has become one of the most important industries in the world with significant growth potential. Mexico attracts most tourists in all of Latin America, and with over 20 millions visitors each year, it is among the top ten tourist destinations worldwide.

Tourism is one of the leading industries in the country, and the Mexican Caribbean relies largely on tourism. Pressure imposed on the environment by the drastic and constant increase of tourism in the Riviera Maya and Cancún – as well as the lack of sustainable planning and management in many of Mexico’s towns and cities over the past forty years – has led to an environmental crisis and the industry is urgently required to seek greater harmony between economic needs and environmental sustainability.

The industry is endangering the same natural resources that tourism relies on to attract visitors. To build large hotel and resort complexes, forests and mangroves have been cut down at an alarming rate, leading to coastal erosion. Inadequate waste and water treatment are polluting the cenotes, or underground rivers. These are just a few of the negative impacts irresponsible tourism development has had in the Mexican Caribbean.

In recent years, there has been a new trend in increased environmental consciousness, and many tourism businesses and developments companies, with the help of local and international NGOs, are working to reduce the impacts of new constructions. The government has also set aside protected areas, one of which is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo, south of the Riviera Maya.

Unique Natural Treasure – UNESCO World Heritage Site

One of the most important protected areas in the Mexican Caribbean, the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “Gift from the Sky”) is a place with an incomparable natural beauty and immense richness in flora and fauna. For these unique characteristics in biodiversity and its cultural treasures Sian Ka’an was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1987.

On January 20th 1986, Sian Ka’an was established as one of the first Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and also is part of the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) program, which tries to find compromising ways of low human activity while securing the long term conservation of the area.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve spans for an area covering 652,000 hectares, making it the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. Including the world’s second largest coastal barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, Sian Ka’an is the most important coastal protected area in Mexico.

The Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an has gained significant importance as a destination for ecotourism and sustainable livelihood development projects for local communities. It is known for its biodiversity and various ecosystems, consisting of a mosaic of inland water canals, mangroves, marshes, and tropical lowland forests containing ancient Mayan sites.

There is also an abundance of wildlife including manatees, four species of marine turtles, as well as howler and spider monkey, crocodiles, the rare Jabiru Stork, and some of the most elusive large mammals in the region including jaguar, puma, ocelot and tapir. By 2008, over 370 bird species had been identified, from tiny little birds to giant birds the size of a small person.

Visit Sian Ka’an – a Small Local Tourism Project

Recognizing the tremendous value of Sian Ka’an’s natural, historic and cultural resources, as well as the needs to conserve and foster these resources for future generation, Aldo Ancona has launched the small and responsible ecotourism project Visit Sian Ka’an. A locally-owned tour company, Visit Sian Ka’an offers ecological boat tours within the lagoons and coastal wetlands of Sian Ka’an. The tours are designed for travelers who are seeking to experience the nature in a respectful manner and are interested in learning about various wildlife, Mayan history, cultural heritage and local conservation efforts.

Visit Sian Ka’an’s tour guides are natives from the area. Equipped with a lifetime of experience, these local guides are professionally trained to showcase local history and culture. Committed to offering the most intriguing and informative tour, they have a sincere respect and passion for the cultural treasures and natural wonders that make Sian Ka’an the amazing place that it is.

At Visit Sian Ka’an, we are proud to have established our projects inline with the principles of biosphere reserves – to enhance people’s livelihoods and to ensure environmental sustainability. Our strong commitment to sustainable livelihoods and to the rich biodiversity of these fragile ecosystems is part of our business culture.

Visit Sian Ka’an tours only take very small groups of 2 up to 6 people. This contributes to two important factors: the exclusivity that enhances each guest’s experience, and the guarantee that the environmental impact of the tours is minimized and the unique coastal wetlands remain viable for our future generations.

More About Visit Sian Ka’an

Visit Sian Ka’an is committed to protecting the local area and its fragile ecosystem, through a business model based on sustainable tourism – minimizing the environmental impact of tours. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, and remains the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean.

Chumbe Island: Marine Ecotourism at its Best

This article was originally published by Lights of Africa, an 8-month media expedition throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. The expedition is led by TIES Travel Ambassador Mikael Castro, and his father Haroldo Castro, an award-winning video producer, photographer and journalist.

Chumbe Island Coral Park, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Chumbe Island, a half-mile-long coral rag island just eight miles south of Zanzibar’s infamous Stone Town, has become a celebrated ecotourism success story in the Zanzibar archipelago. Its history is a narrative best told directly by Sibylle Riedmiller, a German conservationist who came to Chumbe looking for a coral reef to protect in the late 80s. After years of complex negotiations among several actors, Sibylle’s determination persevered and in 1994 Chumbe Island Coral Park (CHICOP) became Tanzania’s first marine protected area gazetted by the Zanzibar Government.

Geared-up with snorkels and fins and floating just a couple hundred yards off shore parallel the island, we witnessed first-hand the motive behind creating a Chumbe’s marine reserve. “There is a blue-spotted sting ray over here” called out Karlyn Langjahr, Chumbe’s project manager. A few minutes later, Khamis, former fisherman and now guide and park ranger, pointed out a hawksbill turtle swimming our way, followed by a huge grouper fish.

What is most amazing about Chumbe, besides the 400 species of fish that can be seen in this reef, is the amount and the diversity of the corals reef. Neither of us, in our years of snorkeling and diving (from the Caribbean to the Philippines), have seen such an amazing coral garden.

While she has won nearly every international and local award in sustainable tourism (from the World Legacy Award to Tourism for Tomorrow Award), Sibylle remains focused marine conservation and environmental education rather than ecotourism. The revenue from tourism on Chumbe merely provides the means for the conservation of the Coral Reef Sanctuary and Forest Reserve along with the extensive list of educational initiatives. Chumbe’s staff, numbering near 40 – a pretty good staff-to-guest ratio with a capacity for some 15 overnight guests – includes trained park rangers who serve as guides.

Nearly all staff members are native to Tanzania, most from Zanzibar’s main island. The park rangers, many former fishermen from neighboring villages, have been trained in park management and monitoring techniques for reef and forest. Along with local and international researchers supported by CHICOP, they have collected data indicating that fish size and marine diversity have increased in the coral park while illegal fishing incidents have significantly decreased.

After our candle-lit dinner on the beach, we went in search of the Chumbe’s night life. Saidck Magwiza, who began as waiter in 2000 and after years of training became an assistant manager, took us to the rag forest of the island to find the world’s largest land crab. These crabs can reach up to a foot and a half in diameter.

As we retreat to our bungalow for the night we are reminded why Chumbe received such high marks in ecotourism. Each of the seven eco-bungalows was constructed using local materials as self-sustaining units with their own rainwater catchment, composting toilets, grey water filtration, and photovoltaic panels for electricity. The room temperature is regulated by a fan that runs on solar energy and a thatched-wall lowered by a coconut fiber rope, providing a bedside view of the Indian Ocean.

Chumbe Island Coral Park

Chumbe Island Coral Park is a not for profit private company, founded in 1994 to manage the conservation and environmental education programmes within the conservation area on Chumbe Island, on behalf of the Government of Zanzibar. These activities are funded through sustainable ecotourism operated on the island since 1998. The island only uses sustainable technologies such as solar power, compost toilets, rain water harvesting etc. in order to have as little as possible impact on the surrounding environment.

Mikael Castro, TIES Travel Ambassador

Mikael Castro is TIES Travel Ambassador (2009-2011). Having worked with TIES in several capacities, Mikael is now on a six-month expedition throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, documenting ecotourism initiatives as well as various stakeholder perspectives of ecotourism as a tool for bio-cultural conservation. You will be able to follow Mikael’s adventures in Africa at:

Pack for a Purpose: Making a Difference, Five Pounds at a Time

How to Make Big Impact with Little Effort

Pack for a Purpose™ is a newly founded non-profit organization dedicated to providing needed educational materials and medical supplies to children around the world. The organization was founded on the principal that every little bit helps, and all it takes to get involved is to use a small amount space in your luggage for supplies when packing for a trip abroad.

The concept is simple, and getting involved is easy. The Pack for a Purpose website lists, by country, the contact information for lodges around the world already supporting legitimate educational and medical community projects, and their specific needs based on the projects they sponsor.

All travelers need to do is visit the site, find a listing for a location where they are staying on their vacation, and bring a few pounds of the requested supplies in their luggage to drop off when they arrive. Each lodge listed on the Pack for a Purpose website has been contacted about the program, has agreed to participate, and will eagerly welcome all contributions from travelers.

The first time we took supplies, we visited a local school in Botswana and the kids were playing soccer with a ball of rags tied together with string. It’s startling to see just how little some of the schools and clinics have to work with.

Five pounds can be as much as 400 pencils or five deflated soccer balls. While crayons, Band-Aids and similar items are very simple things that most Americans take for granted, many people in the places where we have traveled just don’t have them. We can all find a little space in our luggage for a bag of supplies. If enough people make small contributions, we have the potential to make an enormous positive impact.

Changing the Way World Travelers Pack

The idea behind Pack for a Purpose came to me while talking to my travel agent regarding a trip to Kenya in 2008. I asked the agent why his other safari clients did not also use some of their luggage allowance for taking supplies. “Because nobody thinks about it,” he said. That was my Aha moment. “Then I need to provide a way for them to think about taking supplies.” I told the agent.

From that conversation, Pack for a Purpose was born.

One of the first contacts we established for the program was Michelle Puddu of Wilderness Safaris in South Africa. My husband and I had personally worked with Puddu to bring many hundreds of pounds of school supplies to South Africa and Botswana over the course of several different trips.

“The idea is a brilliant one – it costs almost nothing on the part of the donor, just a great deal of kindness and a small amount of effort,” Puddu said. “This is the type of goodwill that nobody really thinks about, but makes a big difference.”

Initially, we identified 25 locations in popular tourist destinations in Africa, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The goal is to identify all appropriate locations on every continent and in every country where vacation travelers are already staying and can drop off needed supplies. To facilitate this, visitors to the Pack for a Purpose website can go to the contact page and submit an appropriate lodging for consideration.

As word spreads and more travelers participate, we have the potential to deliver several tons of needed supplies each year directly to the people who need them. Pack for a Purpose makes it easy for everyone – vacation travelers, honeymooners and business travelers – to contribute in a meaningful way.

TIES Business Members on Pack for a Purpose

Here are a few examples of TIES business members participating in Pack for a Purpose, and the items needed for the local community projects that the lodges support.

Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort (Costa Rica): Printer paper, graphite and coloured pencils, construction paper, rulers, clay, scissors, glue, dictionaries, markers and white boards, pens, notebooks, crayons, erasers, uniforms, coloring books, accessories for motor skills development such as puzzles.
Lapa Rios Ecolodge (Costa Rica): Games (e.g. Shoots and Ladders, checkers, dominoes, playing cards), mathematical functions flash cards, soccer balls, uniforms and cleats, jump ropes, jacks, frisbees, clean, second hand children’s clothing (both boys and girls, ages 6-15 years).
Yachana Lodge (Ecuador): Laptop computers (new and used), white board markers, deflated soccer balls, books in Spanish, solar calculators, rulers, pens, pencils, large maps.
>> See full list of destinations & participating businesses

More about Pack for a Purpose
Pack-for-a-Purpose_logoRebecca Rothney, a former North Carolina school teacher turned entrepreneur, founded Pack for a Purpose along with her husband, Scott and several friends. For more information about Pack for a Purpose, travel locations, lists of needed supplies and other ways to get involved

Seeking Lasting Knowledge and Inspirations in Mexican Riviera Maya

There is a lot to learn and explore in Riviera Maya, if one chooses to go beyond the tourist areas. Having lived in this region for six years, I have personally gained valuable insights in terms of downsizing my life. Simplifying our lives does not mean that we have to let go of quality. Downsizing can be liberating, and can help us become more at ease with our lives during the current times of economical and ecological “cleansing.” We have to ask ourselves, what do we really need? Knowledge and experience gained through travel lasts for a whole life and beyond; material gains are subject to the law of impermanence.

Insider Tips on Traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula

Probably the most outstanding feature of this part of the globe is the Caribbean Sea with its turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. If you are into snorkeling or scuba diving, you will love this place: the world’s second largest barrier reefs runs right in front of our noses. You can also snorkel and dive in regional cenotes, sweet water sinkholes that are typical for the Yucatan peninsula. They are openings in the limestone and are connected to a giant subterranean river system that flows into the ocean. Guided cave dives are offered in various cenotes.

If you feel like escaping to an island, visit Cozumel, which is among the five best places in the world for diving, or enjoy the Caribbean charm of Isla Mujeres. On the more peaceful islands of Contoy and Holbox, you can swim with whale sharks.

There is an abundant offer of things that you can do to reconnect with nature: ocean or lagoon kayaking, snorkeling, kite surfing, catamaran cruising, horseback riding, exploring jungles and mangroves, or just enjoying an endless beach walk. The Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve was declared UNESCO world heritage in 1987, and is a bird watcher’s paradise. The Bacalar lagoon is said to be of seven different shades of blue.

Considered one of the Seven World Wonders, Chichen Itza is the most popular archaeological site of the Yucatan peninsula. Overlooking the ocean, the Tulum temple served as a calendar to indicate important dates. Ek Balam’s ruins are not as well known, but you will be surprised in what excellent condition the wall paintings are.

Mexican Riviera Maya Today


The Riviera Maya has evolved tremendously in the past six years. Playa del Carmen has made it into the Guiness Book of World Records as fastest-growing city in Latin America. Today, the Tulum ‘hotel zone’ is an outstanding example of solar and wind-powered small lodges and beach cabanas, appealing to backpackers as well as high-end travelers.

New living communities are designed to comply with green building criteria, and workshops are offered in a range of sustainability practices from composting and recycling to bio-architecture, to alternative energies. Locals offer many natural, organic, and biodegradable products. Eco park staff does not allow regular sun block in the water, and will send tourists to the shower. Beach cleaning and turtle conservation initiatives are strongly supported.

In recent years, several eco-conscious, annual expos (such as Think Green Expo and Green Expo Tulum) have been launched, attracting exhibitors and attendees from across the nation, and from beyond the national borders.

Project Mayan Encounter

As one of the supporters of ecotourism in this region, I have launched Project Mayan Encounter in 2008, to offer group tours and escorted trips to Riviera Maya, with the primary goals of promoting ecotourism and making available the unique experience of the rich Mayan culture and nature reserves to active seniors, students and special needs groups. Our trips can be adapted to wheelchair users and travelers with other physical needs.

Due to our individualized service, we see travelers from all walks of life. Our tours always include healthy food, and sufficient time left to enjoy some of the world’s top-rated beaches. We work with guides certified by INAH (Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History), for tours inside the archaeological sites, and with Mayan natives and biologists in the nature reserves. We offer small group tours (no larger than 20 travelers) to ensure each participant can follow the guide’s presentation inside the archaeological sites, and that our impact on the local Mayan communities is kept as low as possible.

In January 2010, we launched a new small-group 8-day Study Trip, which is primarily geared to school classes, but equally fitting for active seniors or any adults who love to learn. The focus of this trip is to learn about the unique ecosystems of the Yucatan peninsula with its underground river network and cenotes, rich marine life and the world’s second largest barrier reef, as well as Mayan history, culture, and archaeology.

Our goal is to help students interpret Mayan history and sharpen their analysis skills and chronological and spatial thinking. Depending on the age group, tours are designed to match school curriculum requirements, and we set the focus accordingly.

The following is an example based on California’s state curriculum:

History & Social Science:

5th grade: The entrepreneurial characteristics and aims of the early explorers of the Americas, technical development of navigation instruments, caste war, and epidemics.
6th grade: World history and geography, ancient civilizations and archaeological studies; geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures during the development of Mayan civilization.
7th grade: The geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the Mayan civilization; landforms and climates of the Yucatan peninsula, and their effects on economies and development of urban societies; Mayan class structures, family life, warfare, religious beliefs and practices; and Mayan achievements in astronomy and mathematics.
8th grade: The relationship between neighboring nations Mexico and the US.
10th grade: World history, culture, and geography; Mexico’s roles in the modern world and patterns of global change in the era of New Imperialism in Latin America.
11th grade: The origins and geopolitical consequences of the Cold War and the Latin American Policy.
Geography and Earth Science:

5th grade: The underground river system (cenotes) and water conservation, the barrier reef, hurricanes and their effects, and Mayan astronomy.
6th grade: Ecosystems and cenotes.
7th grade: The solar system and Mayan astronomy, and the importance of Venus.
9th-12th grades: Astronomy, ecology and the geographical uniqueness of the Yucatan peninsula.

Stefanie Baeker, Founder, Project Mayan Encounter

I grew up on the North Sea coast in Germany, where green tourism prevails. Visitors find peace on the islands and in the wet lands along the coast, hearty locals and honest food. My understanding of tourism, coupled with my passion for the outdoors and nature, and my knowledge of wellness and the teachings of ancient high-cultures, as well as the experience gained through my work in the special needs field, have led me to launching Project Mayan Encounter in 2008. I have lived and worked in the Riviera Maya for several years, and have found that there was not much offered for mature or physically impaired travelers, who want to spend some quality leisure time. In collaboration with some environmentally passionate, multilingual nature guides, I decided to fill the need and designed eco-cultural tours, with an emphasis on learning.

Community Based Adventures in the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas Part 1

If you want to explore the mountains and valleys of the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas, 3 of the 5 local travel operators who form India’s groundbreaking Green Circuit initiative offer the perfect opportunity to do so. This 3 part blog will explore the northern Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh with Spiti Ecosphere (Part 1), the North Eastern regions and the Neora Valley National Park with Help Tourism (Part 2), and Nepal’s Tamang heritage trail with Social Tours (Part 3).

Part 1 – Exploring the Spiti Valley with Ecosphere

Spiti Ecosphere is an endeavour to promote community-based ecotourism in the Spiti valley, a stunning high altitude desert region tucked away in the Trans-Himalayan belt of Himachal Pradesh. A passion for conservation, mountain travel and adventure brought together a collaboration of local community members and professionals from diverse backgrounds to offer a range of trekking, mountaineering, biking, rafting, cultural and spiritual adventures in this beautiful and remote corner of the Himalayas.

Spiti – “the middle land” – between India and Tibet is one of the least populated regions of India. Breathtaking mountain scenery and a fascinating history and culture make this relatively unknown destination very appealing to the adventure traveller. Described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘a world within a world’, Spiti is home to a Buddhist Society of just over 10,000, who bear stark cultural similarities with their neighbours in Tibet and Ladakh.

Ecosphere offer visitors the opportunity to experience the true essence of trekking by traversing through remote, pristine and forgotten trails. Passes in and out of Spiti provide a strategic access to neighbouring areas of Ladakh, Kinnaur, Kullu and Lahaul. Some well-known treks are the Pin-Parbati, Parang-La and the Pin-Bhaba. You can also head out on multi-day mountain biking excursions deep into the Himalayan backcountry.

Their trademark trip for the less active traveller is the Spiti Kaleidescope, a jeep safari which takes you up and over the majestic Rohtang and Kunzum passes and through the stunning and graphic valleys of the Chandra, Spiti, Pin rivers. The safari then climbs up to the highest villages in the world to experience Spitian culture through traditional homestays and visits to ancient monasteries that are the cultural and spiritual hubs of the Spitian way of life.

The aim of the not-for-profit initiative is to develop unique, authentic and reliable tourism products and activities and link them to community livelihoods. This not only provides the residents of the Spiti Valley with a sustainable source of income but also serves as an incentive to conserve their unique natural & cultural heritage and environment. 90% of permanent staff are local to the Spiti Valley, and the revenues are all ploughed back towards the local Spiti community, either to service providers, or for conservation activities, welfare and development of the region.

All trips are also carbon neutral thanks to their investments in in-house renewable energy projects such as solar passive housing, green houses, setting up of solar cookers and solar lighting. Ecosphere has also been conducting volunteer travel in the region with an attempt to directly link travel development and conservation, and volunteers can contribute to the construction of these renewable energy projects. As well as tourism, Ecosphere are also turning to the indigenous production of organic and health products to stimulate the sustainable development of the entire region.