Targeting Your Niche: Ecotourism

Mexico's efforts highlight global push by destinations to cater to growing number of adventure travelers

By: Maribeth Mellin

Adventure travel is one-of the fastest growing tourism sectors in Mexico, with the number of tour companies specializing in active vacations increasing about 15 percent annually.

Approximately 450 companies across the country now offer scuba diving, whale watching, hiking, mountain biking and other sporting-oriented tours to an increasing number of active travelers.

The developments in Mexico highlight the growing efforts of destinations around the globe to cater to the increasing number of travelers seeking more adventurous or ecological tours.

Efforts in Mexico, as well as elsewhere, offer agents a burgeoning variety of options to sell to this niche travel market.

Last year for the first time, federal and local government agencies in Mexico invested $3.3 million in the development and promotion of ecotourism and adventure travel. Six national government organizations also began coordinating professional standards for adventure tourism businesses.

More than 49 workshops were held in 19 states to train local guides, and several areas around the country were targeted for infrastructure improvements.

“We’ve just started this effort,” Secretary of Tourism Leticia Navarro Ochoa said last month at the Ecotourism Forum held at Mexico City’s World Trade Center. “We are creating the image of Mexico as an ecotourism destination.”

The forum, held in conjunction with Mexico’s fifth annual Ecotourism Expo, brought together federal and state tourism representatives, private-sector tour operators and tourism students.

How to reach North American tourists and agents is a key issue.

“Until last year, few people outside the country knew about adventure and ecotourism travel in Mexico,” said Rodolfo Olmedo, the president of AMTAVE, the Mexican Association of Adventure Tour Operators.

“We know that travelers will not come if they don’t know what is available in Mexico,” Olmedo said. “This is our biggest challenge.”

Certain adventures and sports already are well-established in Mexico and are a part of traditional vacation itineraries.

Visitors to Cancun and Cozumel snorkel or scuba dive in the clear Caribbean Sea. Migrating gray whales attract naturalists to Baja California’s lagoons.

When Olmedo started seeing demand grow for adventure tourism in the early 1990s he established Ecco Sports, now one of the largest companies offering rafting trips on the rivers of Veracruz.

Around the same time, Kenneth Johnson began offering hiking and biking tours around Cancun with his company, Eco Colors.

In 1994, Olmedo, Johnson and a few other operators organized AMTAVE. Adventure/ecotourism is continuing to grow so much that the organization now has 55 members offering mountain biking trips along trails in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, mountain climbing expeditions up Pico de Orizaba, and rock climbing in the Copper Canyon.

Many tours now combine culture and adventure in natural settings.

“Archeological sites are beautiful, but if you add natural adventures they are absolutely wonderful,” says archeologist Yolanda Ruanova, whose company EcoAventuras offers camping trips to remote archeological sites in Chiapas.

These types of tours have become immensely popular with national and foreign tourists, especially at resort destinations.

Johnson says the bulk of his clients come from the U.S., everywhere from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Many incorporate a few adventures in their Cancun vacations, while others visit the region specifically for biking and camping tours.

Barbara MacKinnon works with birdwatching tours in Yucatan, and receives many clients through Elderhostel and established birdwatching companies.

But many companies offering trips in less familiar areas are small and have little marketing money to reach agents.

AMTAVE operates a Web site with links to its members and acts as a referral service for potential clients.

Still, the organization and most of its members does not have international toll-free numbers or English-speaking operators.

Most also do not accept credit card deposits and ask clients to wire payments directly to banks.

These operators can offer up to 20 percent commission to foreign travel agents. Enter San Diego based Outdoor Travel Adventures, which recently established marketing relationships with AMTAVE and several adventure tour operators in Mexico.

“There’s really no way for the average consumer looking on the Internet to differentiate between good and bad companies,” says OTA’s president Roseann Iovine. “We spend a lot of time researching the companies.”

OTA books tours for many AMTAVE members and other Mexican adventure tour operators.

The company offers between 8 and 12 percent commission to travel agents and handles all arrangements, including deposits.

“We find that agents who have clients that are adventure-oriented are happy to book those tours through us,” Iovine says. “They know their clients are going to get a quality trip.”