TULUM, Mexico – The Yucatán Peninsula, nestled in the southern reaches of the Gulf from which the country derives its name, stands as Mexico’s foremost tourist attraction. In 2022, more than twenty million visitors found respite in its hotels, drawn by the ancient Mayan vestiges of Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Uxmal, or Ek Balam, and the inviting Caribbean sands of Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Cancún. However, another hidden gem beckons explorers from around the world – the cenotes.
These open-air freshwater pools, numbering approximately 2,400 across the entire peninsula, are not only breathtaking natural wonders but also crucial resources for the small communities residing inland. They depend entirely on cenote water for bathing, laundry, and even drinking, especially in the more remote villages.
Alan de la O, one of the founders of the Bejil-Ha cooperative, which is dedicated to preserving over 50 cenotes in the Chemuyil community, underscores the significance of these natural oases: “We rely entirely on cenote water: we bathe with it, wash our clothes and kitchen utensils with it, and in the most remote communities, even drink it.”
With a commitment to showcasing this beauty to visitors through highly restricted and ecosystem-friendly tours, the Bejil-Ha cooperative has earned the moniker ‘the guardians of Chemuyil.’ Their mission extends to raising awareness within the community and among tourists about the vital importance of cenote and cave conservation in Quintana Roo.
This commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the Spanish hotel company, Iberostar, has chosen to support this community-based tourism initiative. Iberostar is part of ‘Leaders with Purpose,’ a consortium of companies that govern themselves according to their corporate purpose. This alliance aligns with Iberostar’s corporate purpose, which includes contributing to the social and economic development of local communities near their properties.
To that end, Iberostar has recently entered into a partnership with Planeterra, a non-profit organization focused on community-based tourism. The objective is to launch 36 community-based tourism projects benefiting over 955,000 potential travelers, engaging 35 local communities, and improving the lives of more than 13,000 people by 2030. Bejil-Ha is one of the pioneers in this venture.
Alejandro Borrás, Director of the Iberostar Foundation, is excited about this partnership: “In Planeterra, we’ve found the perfect partner. They’ve been using tourism as a tool for community development for two decades, and we love their approach. Typically, local communities are left out of the organization of tourist circuits, but they’ve recognized that by integrating them, the social, economic, and environmental impact is far more significant.”
While Planeterra has partnered with tour operators on numerous projects to highlight and support local associations and cooperatives, this is the first time they’ve collaborated with a hotel chain. Jamie Sweeting, President of the Planeterra Foundation, commends this partnership: “This association with Iberostar is a shining example that inspires the entire tourism sector and the hotel industry. While major hotel chains have yet to fully embrace the integration of local communities, this project stands out for its real impact. With the potential to replicate this model in 16 countries and across more than 100 hotel properties, Iberostar has the power to transform countless communities.”
In 2022, the global tourism industry generated nearly 600 billion euros, according to Mobility Market Outlook. However, local communities and small businesses, which bear the brunt of tourism’s pressure, rarely see a fraction of that amount. Planeterra’s work revolves around supporting and strengthening community-based tourism to break this trend, protect these destinations, and enhance local economies.
Iberostar is innovating to ensure that guests actively contribute to local communities. The typical “all-inclusive” setup often means that guests rarely venture beyond the hotel’s confines, resulting in minimal benefits for local communities. However, as part of their commitment to making a positive impact through responsible tourism, Iberostar aims to involve local communities actively in the tourism offerings. This approach not only contributes to improving the living conditions of community members but also enriches the experiences of their guests.
The first three projects from the Iberostar and Planeterra collaboration are already underway, one in Mexico and two in the Dominican Republic. In Mexico, the cooperative Bejil-Ha organizes tours that encourage hotel guests to explore the Chemuyil cenotes, which are off the beaten tourist path. According to Alejandro Borrás, these experiences offer an authentic model and have succeeded in the market.
In the Dominican Republic, local communities approach the Iberostar Costa Dorada Hotel to offer immersive experiences. For instance, guests have the opportunity to learn about cocoa cultivation and chocolate production through the El Chocal cooperative, benefiting more than 200 families in Altamira, Puerto Plata. Additionally, the Association of Petrified Wood Artisans from the Imbert community, also in Puerto Plata, allows guests to learn about local wood carving techniques and purchase their products, supporting more than 250 families.
These three pilot programs, in operation for only a few months, serve as testing grounds for the effectiveness of the 33 projects to come. “With Planeterra, we’ve identified two priority destinations, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, where we have the most properties,” says Alejandro Borrás. “But we’ll go wherever we have hotels. Also in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) region, where we’ve started a project in Agadir, Morocco, following the Dominican Republic model, with a cooperative of women working with argan oil.”
The idea remains the same in all cases: boost the local economy, create jobs, combat depopulation, foster respect for nature, preserve traditions, and encourage the opening of new businesses. Iberostar aims to provide its guests with authentic experiences that wouldn’t be accessible any other way, whether it’s swimming in cenotes like Ta’akbi-ha, K’oox Baal, or Xunaan Ha after a jungle hike, or concluding the adventure with a traditional gastronomic experience offered by the women of Chemuyil.
Marvin Heb, a member of the Bejil-Ha cooperative, shares his personal connection with the cenotes: “I grew up eating the same food with Mayan influences and bathing in these cenotes. The same paths we now guide our guests through were the ones we roamed in search of doves when we were kids.”
Marvin reflects on how he and his childhood friends stopped visiting the cenotes as they grew older. However, when they returned in their twenties and witnessed their deteriorating condition, they decided to create Bejil-Ha, a Mayan term meaning ‘water path,’ to restore and transform them into a sustainable tourist attraction that benefits the entire community.
Every day, while some cooperative members stand guard at the entrance of Chemuyil’s main cenotes to regulate the number of visitors and ensure they admire and enjoy these underground ecosystems without causing harm or contamination, others organize tours to introduce tourists, like those staying at Iberostar hotels, to these unique and sustainable experiences. Marvin Heb explains their commitment: “It’s our promise to the communities of Chemuyil and Akumal; our small contribution to preserving this way of life and this peace.”