Totonal Viajes: Pioneers of Responsible Tourism in Mexico
To introduce our latest local partner, Totonal Viajes que Iluminan, and our exciting Deepest Mexico Tour, we interviewed Totonal’s Director and Founder, Marisol Herrera. Totonal are a pioneer of responsible tourism in Mexico, and we are proud to have partnered with them to design a 15 day tour that enables inquisitive travellers to experience a little known side of the country that’s overflowing with charm, stunning scenery, fascinating ancestral culture, delicious gastronomy, and magical towns.
This interview follows the same format as our last post with Costa Rica’s ACTUAR, and we hope to bring you more blogposts highlighting the great work and innovative approaches of our many local partners over the coming months. In this interview, Marisol shares with us her love for Mexican cultural heritage, the role she thinks responsible tourism can play in empowering communities, and what travellers can expect to experience during the Deepest Mexico Tour.
How did the organisation come about?
At the age of 28 I quit my job at the Ministry of Economic Development in the State of Veracruz, Mexico, and decided to follow my dreams. I have long been fascinated by indigenous arts and crafts, and I started by taking Nahuatl lessons (indigenous language) in order to gain a better understanding of my prehispanic roots. I then received a scholarship to take a Masters Degree in Cultural Tourism Management at La Sorbonne in Paris.
I was convinced of the great potential of the tourism industry in Mexico, and knew there were gaps in the market to offer the right product based on Mexico’s cultural and natural heritage, with a sustainable vision. And more importantly, I was aware of the potential impact that the right travel proposals would have on the local communities, empowering them to improve their livelihoods.
In 2011 I founded Totonal, a tour operator committed to sustainable tourism. The initial idea was to highlight the authentic culture of Mexico, but I came to realise that cultural heritage is very much linked with the natural heritage of the land. I visited over 30 rural cooperatives in different regions of Mexico and worked with the Popolucas, Nahua, Maya, Otomi, Totonac, Huastec, Zapotec and Lacandon communities. These communities are the guardians of our ancestral heritage and culture, and make our country a rich and beautiful land. Moreover, these local initiatives create jobs in rural areas and help preserve our forests, jungles and mountains. However, these same communities suffer high levels of poverty, and also a high percentage of migration, as they do not have stable and well-paid sources of employment. After each of these trips, I felt an increasingly strong conviction that our work could support these communities to prosper. I believe responsible tourism can play an important role in achieving this.
In 2016 we are a small team of 7 people, all of us very committed to responsible tourism, and thankfully, sharing the same goal to improve the lives of the communities that welcome us into their homes.
And what is Totonal’s mission?
To build bridges to prosperity for rural communities through responsible tourism.
How do you go about achieving this mission?
- By creating attractive experiences: We create trips that integrate rural cooperatives and cultural initiatives for travellers that are interested in living authentic experiences in Mexico. The Deepest Mexico Tour is a perfect example. We have combined beautiful regions that are less known in Mexico, and highlighted wonderful local initiatives that maintain ancestral customs. The traveller will have the chance to interact with the local community, who are happy to open their doors to us and proudly show us their history and culture. Artisans, rituals, gastronomy, amazing nature, and good dose of warmth, are the main characteristics of this experience. Travellers will be able to gain an understanding of the authentic and varied culture of Mexico from the different regions visited, and the great spirituality of its inhabitants.
- By contributing to the local economy: We promote the consumption of local produce, and always buy food from local producers as far as possible (N.B. please see Sumak’s recent blogpost on the importance of local food). Our hosts are leaders and guides from the communities and we work very closely with women’s cooperatives. We also provide advice and support so that these communities and cooperatives can structure and promote their offer online (through a website, Facebook page, etc), in order to reach a wider tourist base and not be dependent on Totonal.
- By encouraging environmental protection: We provide awareness raising activities for travellers, as well as training for those involved in tourism management and for local hosts. We train them in order to foster tourism activities that are as equitable and fair as possible, including environmental management. We also use Green Marketing techniques to promote companies and destinations that are committed to sustainability, helping them reach “green” tourists and position themselves in those markets that want to travel more responsibly.
What makes Totonal stand out from the crowd as a tour operator?
Totonal Viajes que Iluminan wants to shed light on the little known natural and cultural wealth of Mexico. A warm, responsible light, which promotes the tangible and intangible beauty of our country under a sustainable tourism philosophy.
We change the word “trip” for “experience”. We offer holistic experiences, where we bear in mind the person’s needs and desires (physical, mental and spiritual) to create a sensory experience for the traveller. Our travel experiences create emotions, and that is the main feature that makes us stand out. We achieve this through our warmth, friendliness and small details; as well as our professional service and our innovative products in the region.
Can you talk us through a couple of your main achievements in terms of impact?
- We have successfully integrated 25 rural cooperatives into the diverse tourism products we’ve created for travellers.
- We provided training courses to indigenous cooperatives in The Tuxtlas and Totonacapan regions in Veracruz with the aim of developing a cultural tourism product. This successful project was then scaled-up to include other regions of Mexico, such as Chiapas, San Luis Potosí, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca and Puebla.
- In cooperation with the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People, we were involved in the development of ecotourism projects with indigenous communities, giving them advice on the coordination of several cooperatives of the Southern part of the Veracruz State, in order to give visibility to the cultural and natural resources of the region.
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Please stay tuned for the launch of our next destinations: Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. Please also engage with us on social media and let us know what you think. You can find us on both Facebook and Twitter.