If only an average day meant that you had the opportunity to wade into a vast expanse of azure-colored sea, or take a moment to admire a beautiful fresco on the wall of an ancient hidden Mayan Temple in the mangrove swamp . In a World Heritage site just two hours from bustling Cancún, Mexico, this is reality, making it little wonder why the Mayans named this place Sian Ka’an, or ‘Where the sky was born.’
Located on the eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve comprises more than 1.3 million acres of tropical ecosystem. Sian Ka’an is home to thousands of species, including more than 300 varieties of birds, over 800 species of plants and other exotic and endangered creatures from jaguars to manatees. Sian Ka’an also comprises the largest protected natural marine area in all of Mexico. Animal habitats span throughout the lush biosphere reserve and can be found in the coral reef, on beaches and dunes, in wetlands, savannas, mangroves, lagoons, and tropical forests, making the reserve – from ocean to forest – a series of biologically diverse and invaluable ecosystems.
Yet many challenges threaten this beautiful paradise and its delicate environment and also limit opportunities for the local population, including coastal development, over-fishing, and damage to the coral reefs and the sedimentation of coral areas. Furthermore, in spite of the massive increase in tourism to the area over the past decade, the local people – overwhelmingly Mayan – have not directly benefited.
Local tourism enterprises are
attempting to address these problems by linking the creation
of a tourism infrastructure with income-generating opportunities
for local people and biodiversity conservation. For instance,
travelers can take a snorkeling tour or bird-watching
trip with Community
Tours Sian Ka’an, and Mayan guides will lead
you to some of the most remote and unexplored corners
of Sian Ka’an, gaining valuable income for their
community, while giving back a percentage of revenues
to conservation work in the reserve.
Sustainable management practices and the participation of Mayan community members in local tourism operations have helped to not only safeguard the future of Sian Ka’an’s incredible wildlife and unexplored archaeological remains, but have also produced real benefits for the local community by providing sustainable livelihoods that do not degrade the environment. Tourism can help generate more income for the community and help ensure that community residents have a stake in preserving the beauty and diversity of the reserve for all to experience and enjoy.