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A rocky road for the Ruta Maya.

A great idea for developing community-based tourism gets off to a rough start

Just as 2000 came to a close, Mexico was ready to launch an innovative plan for tourism: In southern Quintana Roo, the government would simultaneously open a cruise-ship terminal in Majahual and also open the Chacchoben ruins, located 34 miles inland. Tourism in the southern region would take a new track--it was to be sustainable, involve community micro-enterprises and little new infrastructure. In Chacchoben, cruise-ship passengers would ride horses, bicycle along nature trails, swim in the lagoon, and visit a rubber-extraction camp from the early 1920s. (See "Return of the Maya," Special Edition, 2000).

The government was seeking financing from the Mundo Maya Organization (MMO), which had a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to design eco-archaeological projects that contribute to the consolidation of tourist circuits throughout the Maya region," according to Andres Navia, project director.

The opening of the Chacchoben ruins would provide sector businesses with more options to offer their cruise-ship passengers in Majahual, while at the same time attracting people from the already world-renowned Riviera Maya given its location just off the Cancun-Chetumal highway. As such, a new circuit would be created in the Ruta Maya--a term popularized by National Geographic magazine in 1989.

According to the IDB, projects should "contribute to the preservation of the environment and culture," and "provide employment and income to improve local inhabitants' living conditions." So it came as no surprise that in November the MMO tentatively approved Mexico's proposal.

In late December, the Majahual cruise-ship terminal was supposed to have received 900 passengers who would visit Chacchoben, participate in local eco-tourism activities, dive at the Chinchorro atoll, or go sightseeing in the capital of Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo.

But then the project hit choppy waters. The state and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) had not finished negotiating the expropriation of the site (under Mexican law the INAH has control over all archaeological sites in Mexico, but not the land they are on) from the ejido landowners. In fact, the parties had been haggling over the price since 1998. Back then, the National Appraisal Commission said that "INAH should pay 1,000 pesos (US$100) per hectare for the land, and an additional 1,000 pesos per hectare of land with infrastructure," says Manuel Villalobos, ejido president.

"Appraisals are usually very low, but we are not authorized to pay more," says Adriana Velasquez director of INAH, Quintana Roo. "Land prices are much higher here, making archaeological sites more expensive than in other areas."

The ejido calculates that up to 50 buses may visit the ruins per day, providing significant spillover. And in 2002, according to the state Tourism Secretariat, 459,374 cruise-ship passengers will arrive--providing even more candidates to visit Chacchoben.

In December, however, StateTourism Secretary Carlos Aranda announced that the ejido's proposals were "simply unacceptable" and suspended negotiations. To make matters worse, the news broke that the first cruise ship would not arrive as scheduled on December 27 because the terminal was not complete.

The Regal Empress cruise ship did not dock until February 22, and did so with only 680 passengers, less than half of whom opted to join local tours. And no tours were offered to Chacchoben, the closest ruins, as they were still closed to the public.

In early March, the talks began again, and the state agreed to provide funds to pay the ejido a higher expropriation price. At the same time, the INAH agreed to grant the ejido a one-hectare concession for a restaurant, parking lot and a community museum.

Now, the only catch is for how long. The ejidatarios say they will only sign the agreement if they are given a 25-year permit with the option to renew. Yet the INAH "has never reached an agreement of this kind," says Velasquez.

So, as the parties hammer out the final agreement, Chacchoben authorities will temporarily open the site, but further complications could hinder future financing possibilities.

Naomi Adelson is a freelance writer living in Quintana Roo.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico A.C.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Mexico's tourism plans
Author:Adelson, Naomi
Publication:Business Mexico
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:Tourism gets serious.
Next Article:Eco-challenge.

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