Beatriz Barreal, founder of Sustainable Riviera Maya, in this interview, tells us how she went from communications and marketing guru to Mexico’s sustainable tourism development champion. We learn what lead to the founding of the successful NGO and what challenges Sustainable Riviera Maya has faced and still struggles with today. Beatriz Barreal also explains to us the importance of cooperation among stakeholders in order to achieve sustainability at a destination level.
- Where and when Beatriz discovered her passion for sustainability;
- The goal of Sustainable Riviera Maya;
- The main challenges in developing sustainable tourism practices;
- What characterizes a sustainability leader;
- Three books every aspiring sustainable tourism leader should read;
- What she would do differently if she could start over again.
Beatriz, when and where did your sustainable tourism journey begin – when did you discover your passion for sustainability?
Being an entrepreneur in marketing and graphic communication, with a bachelor degree in graphic design and communication, with post-graduate diplomas in marketing, corporate communication and strategic communication, for more than 12 years, something inside of my heart started asking for something more to be achieved with my daily job.
In 1999, I became a board member for Amigos de Sian Ka’an, NGO. From there, I started my immersion in the topic of conservation and the awareness of the needs in the surrounding communities and the urban population within the destination. I continued as a board member for almost 11 years, following the desire of my heart to do something along the lines of the three pillars of sustainability.
In 2001, I set out with a friend to start an NGO, “Toma el control” (take control), for teenagers in high-risk situations. In 2009 I left the Amigos de Sian Ka’an board to start Sustainable Riviera Maya.
I was visualizing an NGO that would be able to join all the efforts in sustainability, in order to give full potential to their strengths and create the needed awareness. When we can see all the efforts together, sustainable tourism becomes an engine for development.
My abilities in communications, and good relationship with the entrepreneurs and authorities in the region, allowed me to be the creator of the first Sustainable Realty Investment Forum in 2011. For the very first time in the Riviera Maya, this forum brought together realtors, developers, United Nations agencies, investors, federal authorities from tourism, energy, environment, education, NGO’s, academics and civil society. Over 3 days we shared ideas and worked towards a Sustainable Riviera Maya.
What was your view of responsible tourism when you first started your professional career?
I was a believer that responsible tourism could become the engine of balanced development, the creator of real opportunities, better cities, protected ecosystems and empowered people.
How has your view of sustainable tourism changed since then?
Now, I see how difficult it is to achieve common visions and goals over personal or selfish interests. My work with global authorities on the topic, federal and local authorities and entrepreneurs allowed me to see that revenue and shortsightedness are often the engines for those decision-makers. On the other hand, there are more and more dreamers that give heart and passion every day to make sustainable tourism a reality.
Beatriz, you are the founder and CEO of Sustainable Riviera Maya, Mexico. What are Sustainable Riviera Maya’s main objectives? When and why did you establish Sustainable Riviera Maya?
Our objectives are aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and we work in different paths to achieve solutions on each of them.
I fell in love with the Riviera Maya region in 1992. I left Mexico City and, with no job or starting point, soon I created a marketing and communication firm, Neographika Inc., with 42 employees.
After 16 years of witnessing how development was being done in the area, in 2009 I started Sustainable Riviera Maya envisioning a large NGO that would combine all sustainability efforts in the region, small or large, and which would unite stakeholders through a shared vision. From there, the goal was to be able as a destination to co-create a new future, under the lights of a global vision towards a sustainable world. I wanted Sustainable Riviera Maya to become a powerful asset for all stakeholders in the region.
What are the main challenges Sustainable Riviera Maya faces today?
To create the financial resources for Sustainable Riviera Maya to be able to pay professionals in sustainable tourism so that the different programs can be led by someone else and not only me.
To be able to bring together all stakeholders, despite the selfishness and shortsightedness of some key players in the history of this destination, and to have all agree on the right priorities for a vital, sustainable destination.
To be able to change the view of tourism as being separate from local development, and to avoid the migration of Mayan Communities by creating local sourcing chains under fair trade principles.
On a national level, a key challenge here in Mexico is to become stewards of our natural capital and to foster the commitment our country has with the UN as a signatory of the natural capital declaration.
What does it mean for Riviera Maya to be listed as one of 14 Early Adopters recognized for their commitment to sustainability by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)? Did you notice increased booking numbers, for instance?
Actually my goal was never to have more bookings, but better bookings, better clients, better entrepreneurs, better citizens, better visitors, better communities.
For Riviera Maya, becoming one of the only 14 EA-D meant being able to bring together all the professional efforts done over years in one platform. And now, with the Council for Sustainability – created and lead by Sustainable Riviera Maya so far –we are making decisions towards the better stewardship of our destination, such as:
- Signing with EarthCheck to start the certification process as a destination, with the important participation of the key stakeholders of the Council
- Improving and fostering the Ambassadors Program – created by Sustainable Riviera Maya – as a tool for better interaction and commitment from key stakeholders
Through this, we achieve the baby steps toward a formal stewardship multi-stakeholder body, with a multi-sector vision and coherent actions regarding sustainability planning.
3 books linked to sustainability and tourism that every tourism professional should read?
La Revolución Generosa (Generous Revolution) by Stefan Klein
Es Posible Otro Turismo? (Another Tourism, is it possible?) Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Costa Rica
EMPODERAMIENTO, Un camino para luchar contra la pobreza. Empowerment, a path to fight against poverty. COSUDE
If you had to start your professional journey all over again knowing what you know now about sustainability, what would you do differently?
Maybe I would start a marketing business but with the three-axis of sustainability in the core of the business, and focusing on corporations committed to sustainable tourism.
But, perhaps, I would have started Sustainable Riviera Maya earlier! Like the very first business of my life!
In your view, what characterizes a sustainability leader in tourism? What kind of personality or skills do you need?
A sustainability leader needs to be:
Generous, visionary, flexible, adaptable, very ambitious on long term changes, with great certainty in life itself, able to work as a team, good communicator and conciliator; adapted to wealth and prosperity, with a long-term vision, and… IN LOVE WITH LIFE! In all its manifestations: people, planet and profit! And a sustainability leader needs to think of everything in terms of sustainability, even specialist search engine… like ecosia.org.
Thank you, Beatriz.
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