Ecotourism aims to broaden New Mexico’s appeal

By Sue Major Holmes
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) June 2010

New Mexico wants to join the ecotourism trend, promoting not only the state’s natural beauty but also outdoor adventure, cultural heritage preservation and access to wild places.

New Mexico’s ecotourism venture was launched early last year but the actual pilot programs begin this summer around the Gila Wilderness near Silver City and Taos in northern New Mexico.

Tourism is New Mexico’s No. 2 industry, behind oil and gas production, and brings in an estimated $5.7 billion annually. And if ecotourism can be fairly described as nature-based specialty travel or wilderness experiences that enrich and educate, the state thinks it has something to offer.

Visitors are attracted by “that sense of place we have here in New Mexico,” said Deputy Tourism Secretary Jennifer Hobson, who oversees the initiative. “They want to go someplace where they can learn something, have a story to tell, meet the local people.”

In describing ecotourism, Hobson has adopted the definition of the 25-year-old International Ecotourism Society: responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.

She said New Mexico is ahead of other states in developing a statewide program.

Ecotourism can be hiking and camping with a local guide far into the wilderness, spending a day working on a cattle ranch with a rancher or taking a photography trip on that ranch, or watching a pueblo artist create a pot during a tour with a Native American guide.

Outfitters, guides and others around New Mexico already have been doing ecotourism but “didn’t know there was a name for it,” said Sandy Cunningham of EcoNewMexico, which has a $250,000 contract with the Department of Tourism to develop the program.

Smaller communities will benefit most from the state’s effort, said Arturo Sandoval, president of the 19-year-old Center of Southwest Culture Inc., dedicated to preserving northern New Mexico’s traditional land-based communities.

Sandoval’s organization is in the third year of what he calls “heritage and cultural tourism,” recruiting people to spend a weekend cleaning out irrigation canals - known as acequias - alongside the people who use them to irrigate small farms.

This June’s effort will include a traditional matanza, or feast, a talk by an acequia expert and an evening of New Mexico music.

“Heritage and cultural tourism is tied to the real purpose of trying to help small farmers make a 21st century income in a global economy,” Sandoval said. It brings in tourists in an unobtrusive way “that doesn’t end up with people building resort hotels.”

Cunningham said the state initiative wants to attract tourists to places that need economic development who will hire locals who “love guiding, who love hosting people.”

Currently, the average tourist spends 2.2 days in New Mexico. Cunningham said ecotourism brings in fewer people who stay longer and spend more.

Everyone from organic growers to artists and conservation groups stands to benefit “from a new and different type of traveler” who becomes passionate about something and wants to return, she said.

The program also will promote New Mexico to its residents.

Cunningham is working on a summer trip aimed at New Mexicans - two days rafting in Chama, two days llama trekking near Taos and two days camping in northern New Mexico, with such extras as fishing, mountain biking and catered meals.

The trip will highlight cultural preservation, rivers and wildlife habitat, plus local guides.

“We have the most incredible state and things you can do here, but the guides can really bring it to life,” Cunningham said.

Hobson and Cunningham see ecotourism as broadening the tourism market.

More ranchers, for example, are embracing the idea, Cunningham said. Some already open up their land during hunting season, so adding other programs offers another way to make money.

“They already have wildlife. Whether you’re shooting with a gun or a camera, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

The Silver City and Taos areas were chosen for the pilot projects after workshops that brought together groups ranging from outfitters and guides to ranchers and organic farmers.

While tourists already go to Taos and Silver City and those communities will benefit from the ecotourism pilot project, it emphasizes the rural backcountry - “not what the typical tourist is doing,” Hobson said.

“We hope to be in more rural areas in the future,” she said.

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