Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 43, Spring/Summer 1998
Ecotourism in Drylands

Ecotourism and the desert whale: An interview with Dr. Emily Young

"...Due both to the fragility and subtlety of drylands biodiversity and ecosystems, you need to work especially hard to make ecotourism in drylands as diverse as possible. If you can do that, you will help ensure that the tourists don't miss out on all the interesting subtleties of drylands, while at the same time helping to ensure that their presence doesn't destroy the very areas they are appreciating."

Editor's Note: Dr. Emily Young is an Assistant Professor in the Geography and Regional Development Department, The University of Arizona. Her research interests have focused on ecotourism since 1991. This interview took place on 17 March 1998, between Dr. Young and Katherine Waser, ALN editor.

Q. To start, could you give me some background on how you got involved in working on ecotourism issues in Mexico?
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A. Ever since I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA), I've been interested in problems of conservation in the developing world. I became increasingly interested in coastal wetlands conservation in Baja California, and as I started my research I found a growing recognition that in order to work on conservation, you need to pay great attention to the needs, priorities and concerns of the human populations involved. So, I started to focus on how you can best integrate local people into conservation efforts. This research focus coalesced with my regional interests in coastal wetlands conservation in Baja when I began to look at ecotourism as a possible way to pursue local development and conservation objectives simultaneously. In 1991 my husband (Footnote 1) and I made an initial trip to Baja California to do research on development there. This was supported by the California Coastal Conservancy and a couple of other conservation organizations that work in coastal wetlands conservation along both Californias, such as Pro Esteros and the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Organization. Based on that initial research, my husband and I developed complementary dissertation topics. My topic became an assessment of ecotourism as well as biosphere reserves, a new kind of protected area that explicitly integrates local people into the area's management as a means to link local needs to conservation. It turned out to be a good time to get involved in this research because there happened to be growing interest in ecotourism in general. In fact tourism as a whole now surpasses oil as the world's biggest industry, and ecotourism is the fastest-growing sector within tourism. My interest in ecotourism has continued in my work at the University of Arizona; I'm especially getting interested in how you can integrate local women into such efforts.

Q. How did you structure your research on ecotourism and biosphere reserves?

A. Both during and since my dissertation, my research has focused on California gray whale tourism in arid coastal wetlands along the Baja California peninsula. The California gray whale, by the way, is also known as the desert whale, which I thought was appropriate for the Arid Lands Newsletter! This is the only whale that comes into these coastal embayments both to mate and to give birth; they also rear their young here for a few months before they go back north. There are three main calving and breeding grounds in Baja California: the Laguna Ojo de Liebre complex, Laguna San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena (Magdalena Bay). The whales may also go into the Gulf of California but usually not farther than La Paz -- it really depends on the temperature of the water.

Q. So in a year like this, with El Niño causing warmer ocean temperatures, the whales might be staying farther north than usual?

A. Yes, and that's exactly what people are saying--there aren't as many whales this year for ecotourism! In any case, I did a comparative study on San Ignacio and Magdalena Bay. San Ignacio is part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, whereas Magdalena Bay is not part of a protected area. I wanted to compare on-the-ground differences in relative degrees of nature protection in these two areas.

Q. What were some of your initial findings?
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Fishing families
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A. The settlement of both San Ignacio and Magdalena Bay is relatively recent. People started moving to these areas in the 1920s and 30s for seasonal fishing, mainly to complement inland ranching activities. Commercial fisheries started to expand after WWII. With their expansion, which was promoted by and large by the Mexican government, there began to be increased pressure on local fisheries. That pressure increased even more from the 70s and 80s onwards, when growing problems and conflicts in mainland Mexico precipitated a massive influx of people to the Baja California peninsula to look for new opportunities in fishing. Unfortunately there haven't been any ongoing studies of the relative status of fisheries in Baja California, but there are some indications that certain of the most marketable species have become commercially extinct in some areas. So, because many local fishing families increasingly view fisheries as something that's not really a long-term option, they are looking for other alternatives, one of which is ecotourism--recreational whale watching, in this case. Increasingly, local fishers in both San Ignacio and Magdalena Bay have started to hire themselves out as tour guides in the whale-watching industry.

Q. I can remember, as a kid in the 1960s, going on a short whale-watching tour out of Los Angeles Harbor; so I know that whale watching has been popular for a relatively long time in Southern California. When did the industry get started in Baja California?

Baja whale watching camp
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A. Since the 1960s there have been natural history type tours, mainly out of San Diego, bringing members of different conservation organizations, scientists, and so on, down to the peninsula in boats to count whales. This gradually grew into a more lucrative industry. Companies formed to tap into this new market and started bringing down organized tours, both by boat and overland, where they'd actually set up camps.

Q. These tour companies were primarily American?

A. Absolutely. There's a sports fishing fleet based in San Diego that does tours; there are also two main tourism companies based in San Diego, and there's also an upper-end luxury cruise operation based out of Seattle.

Q. What you're describing sounds like nature-based tourism, but is it doing much to sustain the local environment and local people? In other words, is it really ecotourism?
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A. Well, what you see increasingly is that these companies, based on their own values as well as on outside pressures, have started to do more to put something back into the natural areas that they are benefiting from financially, and also to generate greater economic benefits for local people. So I think their emphasis is shifting towards something that could be called ecotourism instead of nature-based tourism.

Q. It's encouraging to hear that many of these companies are adopting more sustainable practices of their own accord. You also mentioned outside pressures; what kind of pressure do you mean?

A. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, starting in San Ignacio Lagoon, there was a lot of local pressure on the Mexican government to force foreign companies to hire guides locally. The people were saying, "Look, you've recently created this biosphere reserve (1988), and now the regulations say we can't fish during the months when gray whales are present. If we can't fish, you have to give us other economic opportunities--why not gray whale tourism?" There was also some resentment towards foreign companies that were exploiting local natural resources for their own profit while not doing much to benefit the local communities. So, in response to those pressures the Mexican government made a formal requirement that any foreign company operating in San Ignacio lagoon had to hire local tour guides to take their tourists out on skiffs to see the whales.

Q. So the local community in effect forced this change.

A. Yes. Of course, not all the tourism companies have reacted equally well. Some companies have been more committed than others to local redistribution of the benefits from tourism. Some of them have also tried to encourage local people to develop a vested interest in nature protection. One important way to do that has been to give them a financially vested interest in nature protection through greater opportunities and work in tourism, and by supporting programs in environmental education.

Q Environmental education for the local people?

A. Yes. One NGO in particular, called RARE, really got this started. In 1995, with funding from one company as well as outside funding, they started simultaneously teaching English and environmental education to local guides in order to train them to more effectively deal with the kind of nature tourist who wants both to communicate with local people and to find out more about the area in terms of its flora, fauna and natural attractions in general.

Q. So it's really a win-win situation for the local people and for the tour companies, because the tour companies are not only providing jobs for local people, they are providing themselves with well-trained, effective employees.

A. Yes, this program provided a way for the companies to train their guides in a consistent way. They wanted skilled local guides, because otherwise there would be problems in terms of safety issues and also in terms of tourist satisfaction. And of course one obvious thing that previously had been overlooked is that there's a lot of rich local environmental knowledge that can be tapped to teach the tourists about local people, their traditional ways of life, what kinds of hardships they have encountered, how they have used local natural resources, and what they have learned about the local biodiversity and environmental change over time.

Q. Meanwhile, how were things developing in Magdalena Bay?
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Magdalena Bay whale festival
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A. I think it's becoming much more of a mass tourism market in Magdalena Bay, both because it's much more easily accessible and because the Mexican government over the past few years has actively promoted gray whale tourism in the area. For example, they now have an annual gray whale festival to kick off the season. Initially they promoted the expansion of gray whale tourism in Magdalena Bay through ads on Mexican TV stations. There was a threefold increase in the number of tourists visiting Magdalena Bay from one year to the next, largely in response to that kind of advertising. But, at least initially, there wasn't any on-the-ground follow-up to increase the infrastructure to support this increase in visitors. So there were problems of inadequate garbage and sewage disposal, not enough hotel rooms, and camps being set up -- on the barrier islands of the Bay as well as on the peninsula itself -- with only sporadic presence of field personnel to ensure that these operations were doing everything possible to minimize their impact on fragile dune habitat.

Q. How about the tour companies involved in this boom--have they also been more predominantly Mexican-based?

A. In Magdalena Bay a local whale-watching cooperative formed in the late 1980's, comprised of local fishermen that wanted both to avert growing local tensions over competition for tourist business and to tap into the growing ecotourism market in a more organized and effective manner. Another union formed more recently for the same purpose; each of these groups has about 35 members. Another man has formed a small, locally based company with a few people who help him out. There's also a Mexican-based company in La Paz; it runs a tour camp in Magdalena Bay. But you still have a large number of foreign outfitters that come and operate out of Magdalena Bay, and their numbers are increasing because whale-watching has become even more popular.

Q. It sounds as though all of the Mexican groups you referred to were started locally, through individual initiative. Is the government taking steps to try to promote these local groups?

Tourist skiffs
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A. As it happens, in 1994 there were growing tensions between these local guides and foreign companies. The local guides threatened to close the Bay to all foreign outfitters if the Mexican government didn't respond by forcing them to hire locally. So, following suit on what they did in San Ignacio Lagoon, the Mexican government brought all these different parties together and brokered an agreement that foreign outfitters would start to hire local guides in their local operations. Some foreign companies actually did so, while others have just flouted the regulations. To the best of my knowledge, that's how it stands now. There are some companies that are more responsible and more responsive to these kinds of regulations than others.

Q. At this point, then, the burden is really on tourists to investigate the practices of any tour company they are thinking of signing up with.

A. Yes, that's one way tourists themselves can help encourage companies to be more responsive to local needs.

Q. Getting back to the question of increased tourism in Magdalena Bay, what has been done to respond to the problem of lack of infrastructure?

whale and skiff
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A. Well, that's interesting. Last summer, during work on another pilot research project, I went back to visit Puerto Lopez Mateos, my original field site. It's in the northern, narrowest part of the Bay. That's where the brunt of tourism takes place, because it only takes 10 or 15 minutes to get out to where you can see the whales up close. Anyway, I noticed that they had moved the whole operation for tourism to a dock that they'd constructed in an area where it's easier both to receive, and to regulate the movements of, lots of tourists. They had also built a much larger bathroom facility and put up signs; that's about it at this point.

Q. No new restaurants or hotels have been built?

A. No, it's still relatively small-scale, and that of course brings me back to another important point. Hiring local guides is a good first step toward increasing local economic well-being, but it's not enough. In terms of ecotourism and its benefits right now, I did some calculations for the 1993-1995 period, looking at actual economic returns from ecotourism at the local level. In 1994, approximately $3.3 million US was spent by tourists visiting San Ignacio Lagoon through package whale-watching tours with outside-based tourism companies. Only about 1.2 percent of this money was spent on salaries and supplies purchased at the Lagoon itself. At Magdalena Bay, of the approximately $5 million that outside-based companies grossed from package tours, less than 1 percent was spent on local hotels, restaurants and supplies. This isn't to say that the money isn't spent in Mexico -- in fact between 50 and 65 percent of the direct operating costs involved in this kind of industry are spent in Mexico -- but it isn't being spent locally. Now, I'm not arguing that, say, 25 percent of that $5 million should be spent locally -- but less than 1 percent of that money going to the local level is pretty extreme. Part of the problem is that there simply aren't the local structures to capture that money. Not only that, if you look at opportunities for employment in this kind of industry, they are very narrow. You can be a whale guide or you can have a restaurant or hotel -- and there are very few of those in either place. Otherwise it's difficult to capture the benefits locally.

Q. Clearly, for the local development aspect of ecotourism in these areas to be sustainable in the long term, a lot more needs to be done to develop local infrastructure. Do you see that as being possible?
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A. It's possible, but of course that's the double-edged sword, because once you start increasing the infrastructure you're mimicking some of the problems that people have with more traditional tourist development. You build more hotels and restaurants to capture this growing tourist market, and that in turn involves greater modifications of local habitat, bringing more and more tourists and causing more and more pressure on local resources. Ultimately, the area may decline or be destroyed both as a natural and as a tourist attraction, because the very things that attracted people there in the first place are no longer there. So it's really difficult.

On the other hand, I think you can seek to diversify employment opportunities in tourism, through things like building a local interpretive center and staffing it with local people; or by encouraging the expansion of some kinds of local tourist facilities, but building them in such a way as to maximize on their being small-scale. That is something that has been done in San Ignacio Lagoon. One local enterprise has built a very small palapa-style restaurant; it has its own camp with tents that can be taken down at the end of the season. They have really attempted to make it a small-scale operation that brings in nice returns.

Q. What you are saying, then, is that the benefits of ecotourism, just by the very nature of its goals of linking local development with resource conservation, are always going to be limited to some extent.

A. Exactly. I would definitely agree with that, and I think the key is to realize that ecotourism is not the panacea for all local environmental and economic problems. What you really need to do is identify and develop a variety of activities that are potentially more sustainable in both economic and environmental terms, and that's really difficult. And I think there's going to be a lot of trial and error, a lot of muddling through, before we really are able to figure out in any local setting what the best courses of action are. On the other hand, I don't know what else you do.

Q. Yes, you have to start somewhere, but it's a complicated process. What do you think is the best way to decide whether potential ecotourism projects are viable or not? Who needs to be involved in evaluating and designing potential such projects?

A. You have to try to bring in all stakeholders. Of course you have to involve local communities. You also need to involve government agencies charged with regulating use of natural resources, as well as tourism departments and other agencies concerned with local economic development. You have to involve the tourism industry, and you should involve environmental organizations if there are any with interest in the area. I think environmental organizations are important to bring on board, because they generally have a vested interest in conservation, and many of them have increasingly focused their attention on how to promote conservation in a socially viable way. And so anybody with some kind of interest in local resources should be brought on board.

Q. Once you have the stakeholders together, are there specific things they could do to develop ecotourism projects in such a way as to minimize their negative impacts?
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A. Yes. For instance, I think there are some very important things the government can do to see that some of the revenues generated from ecotourism go back to the local community. They could, for instance, require tourist companies to collect some sort of fee per head from tourists and deposit those fees into a local program for nature protection. For instance, in the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve and San Ignacio Lagoon, a trust fund set could be set up to receive such funds from the different tour companies. The tour companies could in turn market their participation in such a fund to the tourists. The revenues from such a trust fund might also be used for things like paying for interpretive signs or helping to cover the cost of building an interpretive center that would help raise the environmental awareness both of tourists and of local people.

Incidentally, I don't mean to say that in a condescending way; of course the local people already know a lot about their environment. But, for example, few people placed a great value on gray whales until they were understood to be a source of income; from that, people started feeling pride in the idea that they live in one of the few places where the whales come to mate and bear their young; then, more broadly, they started to value things such as the presence of a lot of migratory birds that don't go elsewhere; of dolphins and other marine wildlife that you don't see elsewhere; of one of the few remaining relatively undisturbed coastal wetlands in either of the Californias--things like that.

Finally, getting back to the idea of fees gathered from tourists, the government could also use such fees to help fund local environmental education programs, guide training programs, and maybe job training not just in ecotourism but in other kinds of activities that might be parallel to some of the objectives of the biosphere reserves.

In terms of tourist companies, I think collecting fees for a trust fund would be one big thing. I also think that they could really do a lot more to ensure that local communities benefit economically from their operations. They could also do a lot more to raise tourists' awareness of the areas they are visiting--not just in terms of whales but in terms of awareness of the local habitats, and the way of life that has evolved there; a greater appreciation for the local people and the problems that they are encountering; an awareness of how local development problems tie in to broader problems of conservation; and an understanding of some of the things that tourists, as part of the global community, can do during their travels in order to grapple with those issues.

Q. This would go a long way towards making ecotourism more of a two-way street, which sounds like a great idea to me.

A. Yes, because I think a lot of tourists want to give something back to the places they visit, but they just don't know how.

Q. Now that you've touched on the possible role of governments, the tourist industry, and tourists themselves in developing viable ecotourism projects, what about the role of research institutions?

A. I think that's a really good question. In terms of my own research, I always want to give back what I find, so I've not only given all my findings to the people that we work with directly, but have also distributed them widely to government agencies in Mexico. The report we did for the US Marine Mammal Commission is also available on the World Wide Web. Also, in 1995 our findings came out in Newsweek, and I did some interviews with national newspapers in Mexico, to raise awareness of the potential pros and cons of this kind of tourist development in Baja and elsewhere. I also think researchers can also act to publicize issues that might have an impact on particular ecotourism projects.

Q. You've certainly done a good job of outlining the role of researchers as educators and distributors of information. What about research topics--are there any that you see as being particularly important in the ecotourism field right now?

A. I think there should be ongoing studies to determine what the medium- and long-term impacts, both economic and biological, of this kind of project are. There have been very few such studies to date. People have done initial assessments, but given the relative newness of the industry in some areas, there haven't been longer-term studies. I think, too, that it's important to look at the potential environmental impacts and the potential socio-economic impacts as a whole, in an integrated fashion.

Q. Are there any fundamental ways in which you see ecotourism in drylands as being different from ecotourism in other, wetter regions?
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A. Yes, I think so. The most fundamental difference is that tourism in drylands is not as immediately dramatic as tourism in many other areas. For example, you go to the tropical rainforest and see incredibly lush biodiversity that's immediately recognizable as exotic and different. When you go to a desert landscape, say an arid coastal wetland, often it's really the subtleties that you have to learn to appreciate. There's a danger of becoming fixated on just seeing one thing because the diversity is easy to overlook. In this case, for example, you have tourists going to Baja to see only the whales, forgetting or not even realizing that there are also flocks of birds, lush mangrove colonies, fragile dune habitats with unique flora...all these other natural resources that remain underappreciated or invisible to the untutored eye. That narrow focus on the whales creates a real problem because it creates a great deal of pressure on that resource. It's not unusual in the high tourist season to see 12 boats around one whale, and if that pressure causes the number of whales in the bay to diminish, obviously the pressure on the remaining whales increases. That's an incredible problem, particularly when we don't know what the medium- and long-term impacts on the whales are from this kind of tourist pressure. The whales are coming to mate and give birth to their young; obviously those activities could easily be disrupted by overly invasive or aggressive activities on the part of people.

Of course, you also have to carefully assess the impacts of more broadly focused tourism on dune and desert vegetation. There again, there has to be a serious effort to carefully plan tourist activities, and to minimize their impact-- say by creating a limited number of pathways into certain areas, or by setting aside certain areas only for camping. This is particularly important in drylands areas, because they often take a long time to recover once they are impacted.

To sum up, I'd say that, due both to the fragility and subtlety of drylands biodiversity and ecosystems, you need to work especially hard to make ecotourism in drylands as diverse as possible. If you can do that, you will help ensure that the tourists don't miss out on all the interesting subtleties of drylands, while at the same time helping to ensure that their presence doesn't destroy the very areas they are appreciating.

Q. Any additional comments?

A. I think in one way or another I've addressed everything I wanted to touch on. I hope it's all there.


(1) Serge Dedina also completed his Ph.D. in geography at the University of Texas at Austin. He currently works as Northwest Mexico Project Manager at The Nature Conservancy.
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Author Information

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Dr. Emily Young can be contacted at the following address:

The University of Arizona
Department of Geography and Regional Development
Harvill Building, Box 2
Tucson, AZ 85721
Tel: +1 (520) 626-4096
Fax: +1 (520) 621-2889

Additional web resources

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Baja California

Conservation and Development in the Gray Whale Lagoons of Baja California Sur, Mexico
Written by Serge Dedina and Emily Young, this is the report referred to in the interview text above, which was produced for the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. The entire report is online; file size is approximately 220K.

A Conservation Guide to... Baja California's Friendly Whales
Focusing on San Ignacio Lagoon, this site is a well-designed resource. Not only does it contain specific information about local tourist arrangements and about gray whales in general; its various sections also include extensive educational materials on environmental issues facing the area, annotated links to other pertinent sites, and suggestions on how overland tourists can travel more responsibly.

Mexico's Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, in which San Ignacio Lagoon is located, is part of a worldwide network of Biosphere Reserves coordinated as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme. Such reserves represent a major tool for implementing the concerns of Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international agreements. This web site provides information about MAB in general, and the various Biosphere Reserves in particular, in English, French, or Spanish.


Ecotravels in Mexico
This web site maintained by environmental journalist Ron Mader is an excellent and extensive resource (in fact, most of the specific resources cited below are housed on this web site). Those interested in drylands ecotourism will find the section titled "Northern Border/La Frontera Norte" of particular interest, with links to information on such attractions as the gypsum dunes and desert lakes of Cuatro Cienegas, in the Chihuahuan Desert ( The rest of the site's contents deserve careful examination, as well.

Estrategía Nacional de Ecoturismo/Mexico's National Ecotourism Strategy
WEB: (
GOPHER: gopher://csf.Colorado.EDU:70/00/environment/orgs/El_Planeta_Platica/Ecotourism/mexico_ecoturismo

This Spanish-language document, written in 1994 by Hector Ceballos Lascurain, outlines the ecotourism policy being developed by Mexico's Tourism Secretariat (SECTUR). The Web version currently includes only the first three sections of the document; the gopher version contains the complete text.

Programa de Ecoturismo en Areas Naturales Protegidas de México/Ecotourism Program in Mexico's Protected Areas
WEB: (
GOPHER: (gopher://csf.Colorado.EDU:70/11/environment/orgs/El_Planeta_Platica/Mexico/97_Ecotourism_Program)

This Spanish-language document, written in 1997 by Daniel Ruiz Sandoval, outlines Mexico's official policy for ecotourism development in the country's protected areas. The final section of the report concerns the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve.

Parks and Progress: Protected Areas and Economic development in Latin America and the Caribbean
This online book, published in 1993 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Interamerican Development Bank (IADB), grew out of the IV World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas, held in Caracas, Venezuela, February 10-21, 1992. It contains a synopsis of each of the Congress's workshops, followed by more detailed chapters from the consultants' reports concerning the expansion and financing of protected areas in the region. While not specifically focused on Mexico, the book contains much information pertinent to protected areas in that country.

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