There is no other place in the world that has captured my heart as much as Mexico. I grab every chance I get to spend time there and explore the country poco a poco – bit by bit – and, above all, to take a look behind the scenes of tourism. With this in mind, I visited five small businesses and organisations that have struggled greatly during the pandemic in the last two years. They were very lucky to participate in an innovative programme to get new ideas and motivation. And how they fared and what the result is, you can read here in this blog article.
Every trip to Mexico touches and affects me in a very different way. I have been travelling there regularly since 2011 and even in this short time, a lot has changed. My last pre-pandemic trip to Mexico was in January 2019 – and the first during the pandemic in winter 2021/22. Not only has a lot changed in the more than ten years since my first visit, but the last two years in particular have left hardly a stone unturned.
During this trip along the Caribbean coast on the Yucatán peninsula, I painfully realised through conversations with small family businesses and organisations that it is absolutely not a given to receive public Corona aid, as was the case in Austria. In a country where the minimum wage per month for a 6-day week is around €205¹, and in Yucatán almost every job is directly or indirectly related to tourism, it is a disaster when the country’s borders are closed or entry is severely restricted.
The Tourism Recovery Programme
Still, there was a spark of hope for some small businesses that make their living from tourism alone. The TUI Care Foundation together with enpact have launched a programme to support such businesses in five countries. The Tourism Recovery Programme project is the third programme of the Empowering Entrepreneurship Initiative and is implemented by enpact and the TUI Care Foundation in cooperation with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ).
Mexico was or rather is one of these countries that received support. 105 tourism businesses throughout the country were selected after an application process and went through the programme together.
How do I, as a travel blogger, get involved in such a programme and write about it? The two organisations approached me and were keen for me to visit some of these companies in person and get a first-hand impression. They left it completely up to me which region and which companies I wanted to visit. Since I myself have a strong connection to Yucatán, the choice was quite easy. Because of the long distance and also because I am becoming more and more concerned about my ecological footprint, I did not just spend one week there, but added a workation before and after this assignment. In conversations with friends who have either always lived in this region or have called it home for years, I learned what the last two years have been like for them and how much has actually changed.
Now I’ d like to take you with me and introduce you to five really unique companies, what they do, why you should know them and what their biggest challenges were or are:
Fantasy Travel Experts: Cozumel
Marlone from Fantasy Travel Experts and I spent a whole day together in Cozumel. He is about my age and, together with his sister, already fully active in the family business, which has been around for more than 25 years.
You and I would not have any direct contact with Fantasy Travel Experts, as their focus is on B2B. In other words, they arrange and organise trips in Cozumel for other tour operators. So they are active behind the scenes.
The island of Cozumel is 100% dependent on tourism. Besides the cruise ships, but also the day trippers or those who stay here longer – everything has to do with tourism in some way.
Before the pandemic, Fantasy Travel Experts brought charter flights from other North American countries directly to Cozumel or even to Cancun. This was completely cancelled with the entry regulations and also all other tourist activities.
During the Tourism Recovery Programme, they received input from various international mentors on different topics on how to expand their business and thus open up new markets. This also led to the decision to develop offers for end customers – i.e. directly for tourists. They are still working on these points at full speed. As soon as they have launched them, I will add to this blog article and let you know.
What truly fascinates me about Marlone and his family is the fact that they saw and see these two years as an opportunity to create something new and to develop themselves and their business.
Ruta del Coco: Laguna Guerrero
Another organisation that was supported is the Cooperativa Ruta del Coco in Laguna Guerrero. Not many (international) tourists actually stray here and so this spot in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo is still very untouched and unknown. I didn’t know it before either, and I am really grateful that I ended up here.
Those responsible on site mainly want to develop a sustainable form of tourism. No day visitors or hotel towers, but a deep connection should be built with the turquoise blue lagoon.
The soul of the Cooperativa Ruta del Coco is Ruty Carlos, who works as a teacher in Chetumal during the week and passes on his knowledge to the next generation. A few years ago, he bought a piece of land near Laguna Guerrero. It’s not a particularly idyllic piece of land: It is a lot in the jungle, without electricity or network reception. Here, together with a few other visionaries, he is building a small centre dedicated entirely to coconuts. Soon it will be possible to visit the centre and book various experiences. So far, there is only a Facebook page or I can pass on Ruty Carlos’ number here: +52 1 983 113 4224.
Sujuy Ha: Xul-Ha
I also felt particularly welcome in Sujuy Ha. It may be a little difficult to describe this place – it is definitely a piece of paradise. Located between Chetumal and Bacalar and 15 minutes away from the highway on a dirt road, Sujuy Ha is a well-kept secret. And yet I want to share with you, because it’s a true oasis.
Sujuy Ha is located directly on the lagoon and offers a variety of options for overnight stays: Private rooms, small cabañas (huts) and camping is also permitted here. If you wish to really switch off and let the world pass you by, this is the place to be. In Sujuy Ha there is a simple restaurant, sun loungers directly on the water and kayaks are also available for free use.
The mornings and evenings are particularly magical, when day guests have left again and the sun’s rays move across the jungle and the lagoon.
Of course, I also talked to Gabriela about her experience with the Tourism Recovery Programme. The motivation to apply for the programme in the first place was the fact that it was organised by another country like Mexico. Above all, she wanted to learn and see what she could learn from other cultures in terms of tourism and the hotel industry. And thanks to the programme, she has succeeded in doing so, because more structure has actually moved in at Sujuy-Ha: there is now an inventory management system and the restaurant guests’ orders are no longer placed with paper, but with mobile devices that send the requests immediately to the kitchen.
Sailing Colibri: Bacalar
My next stop on my little Yucatán road trip was the Bacalar Lagoon. This place is already a star on Instagram and no longer an insider tip. It wasn’t really crowded on my trip there, but I was also travelling in the low season. Insider tip or not, it really is magical here. And one of the top experiences in Bacalar was definitely the sailing tour with Sailing Colibri.
The fact that these tours exist today is due to a chain of coincidences. In 2017, Alex came to Mexico from Romania and bought his first sailboat – without even knowing how to sail. He spent the following two years learning how and also getting to know the Laguna with its special characteristics.
Then Grecia joined the endeavour and the two continued to build and expand Sailing Colibri. In the beginning, their sailboat could only be powered by wind power, but over time – and due to the ever-changing winds – they also had to get a motor. What many people don’t know – and what the two also had to learn – is that there is hardly any wind here in the summer months. However, they did not want to buy a conventional motor that runs on fossil fuels, but an electric motor. These cost a solid three times as much and so the two of them saved for a longer time.
Important to know: There is no regulation for the Laguna regarding sunscreen. For this reason, Grecia and Alex have drawn up their own guidelines if someone wants to go on tour with them. Why is that so important? Sunscreens are not only harmful in the sea and accelerate coral bleaching. Sunscreen also has serious consequences in still waters, such as the lagoon of Bacalar. A thin film forms on the surface, which then no longer or hardly allows sunlight to pass through. This light is essential for the survival of organisms in the water, as otherwise they cannot photosynthesise. The colour of the lagoon also depends on it and is endangered by sunscreen.
Sustainability is a major concern for both of them – not only in terms of the environment, but also in their everyday lives and how they treat their employees. In conversation, Grecia told me the following: Sin turismo sostenible, no hay turismo. Without sustainable tourism, there is no tourism.
They run excursions on their sailing boats several times a day with different emphases. The tours are now well booked and last-minute bookings are usually no longer possible. In order to meet this demand, the goal is to purchase a larger boat for up to 15 guests in the next few years.
Grecia and Alex have developed their knowledge in leadership and delegation thanks to the Tourism Recovery Programme. Through the 1:1 mentoring, they have also found new ways to retain their current employees and to convince new ones of their ideas.
Pepe Dive: Mahahual
Vanesa and Chano are a real power couple. The two Spaniards left their lives behind in Europe a good 10 years ago and emigrated to Mexico. In the small village of Mahahual, they have built up a livelihood with a dive centre and a guesthouse.
Mahahual is more commonly known as the Riviera Maya as a port for international cruise ships. This name is an invention of this very industry. Even though they unload thousands of passengers every day in the little town of 1000 people, there is hardly anything left for the local businesses. Sustainable tourism looks different.
The dive centre Pepe Dive is located in the southern part of Mahahual’s beach promenade. Yet central, but by no means where the cruisers invade immediately. Their aim is to offer a unique diving experience in small groups. Individually tailored to the needs of the divers, so that everyone enjoys it to the fullest.
A few years ago, they bought a larger boat than the other dive shops in order to be able to offer real comfort on board. But also because they are one of the few who have the authorisation to go to Banco Chinchorro, which is a good two hours away by boat. For me, it is still a dream to go diving there, because it is supposed to be just incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately, the wind was too strong during my visit, but I will definitely be there again soon to explore this dive site.
I know a bit or two about the diving industry in Mexico, having done my divemaster in Playa del Carmen a few years ago and having worked as one on Cozumel. Most of the dive guides and instructors are not employed on a permanent basis, but are more or less freelancers. In other words, if there is work, then they get paid, but if the weather is bad or it’s low season and there are no divers, then they don’t get paid. This is something that Vanesa and Chano do differently. All their staff are employed and receive a set salary. If there is more work to be done, then there is an extra bonus. They were one of the few dive centres in the area to keep their staff during the pandemic and not lay them off. What is taken for granted in Europe is an exception in Mexico.
Vanesa repeatedly emphasised to me how difficult it is to find qualified local staff. Before the pandemic, about 1400 people lived in Mahahual, now only 1000. And there is hardly any growth, because there are no real supermarkets, no bank, no good schools and only one small gas station. For all errands you have to go to Chetumal, which is about 2 hours away by car. Mentoring in the Tourism Recovery Programme has given her new ideas and she is currently testing them out.
This trip showed me a very different side of Mexico and I got a deeper understanding of how things work here. Thanks to the Tourism Recovery Programme, I got an insight that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise as a normal traveller. Through this article, I hope to give you a different approach as well. I would like to repeat Grecia’s words: Sin turismo sostenible, no hay turismo. Because without sustainable tourism, there is none. On this note, I would like to encourage and inspire you to support especially smaller businesses and give them a push forward again.
Travel blogger Dan was travelling in Mexico’s capital and described his post-pandemic learnings in a detailed and exciting blog article. Margherita and Nick were also on the road in Mexico – specifically in Bajito (the region in central Mexico). On their blog, they have published a blog article with an itinerary including sustainable tips.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the TUI Care Foundation and enpact for organising this trip. I will think back to this special trip for a long time to come and visit the people I met there again soon. Muchísimas gracias!