Spring break travel to Cancun usually conjures up visions of hordes of American college students, partying at one of the many bars along the strip. But the UN Foundation has been working for the last four years to try and change that by promoting sustainable tourism along the Mayan Riviera. So, Erika Harms, Director of the UN Foundation-led World Heritage Alliance, and I have travelled down here to take a look at several community projects in the area, meet with our travel industry partners and tour two of the area’s five World Heritage sites.

We are also travelling with the crew from Designing Spaces, a show on The Learning Channel. Designing Spaces will air a segment in June on sustainable tourism.

Today we started filming the show and as part of the experience, we’ve really gotten to know two members of the World Heritage Alliance really well. Both Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya and Fairmont Mayacoba have established powerful relationships with the local Mayan communities and are working to better educate travellers about what is available to them to experience aside from bar-side pools, karaoke contests and hamburgers.

Mandarin Oriental, for example, has built a unique resort that is grounded in traditional Mayan culture. From the locally harvested honey you get in the morning, to the Mayan-inspired art around the property, to the staff biologist who helps them preserve local plants and animals (including the alligators who live in the seyote), the whole team works together to make sure guests are aware of the environment around them.

Fairmont helps support communities in the area, too, especially through their commitment to locally sourced food including local lobsters, vegetables and fruit. Their biologist, Lyn Santos, helped advise the architects about everything related to the site and is a huge champion of the WHA. Everywhere you go on the Fairmont property you can find information about the World Heritage Alliance and sustainable travel. They have also created a line of special products in their main gift shop that are produced by local Mayan communities. The artisan crafts are stunning and make much better souvenirs than magnets made in China.

While both of these hotels are doing interesting and inspiring work, there is still more to be done. Throughout the area, I am struck by the need help tourists better understand that they can actually have fun while travelling sustainably. (At one of the properties, a group of tourists was much more interested in the shopping tour than the Mayan-led boat tour.)

So tomorrow we’re travelling to the heart of the Mayan Riveria – Sian Ka’an bioreserve. At that site, and along the way, we’re going to see the different ways in which tourists who want to do more than relax along the beach – and there is nothing wrong with that – can learn about Mayan culture. The hope is that by sharing these stories and ideas we can inspire people to seek out new adventures.

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