Reviving Tourism in a Border Town: Boquillas, Mexico

Ernesto Hernandez and I walked along a dusty trail that ran alongside the Rio Grande River as it continued to carve out the border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend National Park. As we walked, we heard a single, soaring voice that bounced off the sheer cliff walls of the river canyon and broke the silence that surrounded us: “Ay, ay, ay, ay,
 canta y no llores,
 Porque cantando se alegran, 
Cielito lindo, los corazones,” which literally translated means “My dear, sing and don’t cry because singing warms the heart.”

Across the river, standing on the Mexican shoreline, stood our troubadour. His name was Victor, and he came from the local community of Boquillas del Carmen located just across the river from Big Bend Park. Victor was singing “Cielito Lindo”, a favorite Mexican ballad, to us and other hikers in hopes that we’d put a few dollars underneath a rock on our side of the river. At the end of a long day of serenading, Victor would paddle a small boat over to collect the donations in order to help support his family and others back in Boquillas.

For years, Boquillas was a must-do day trip for anyone visiting Big Bend. To get there, you had to go through Victor. He was the boatman who picked up tourists from the U.S. side of the Rio Grande and poled them across the river to Mexico. There, tourists could rent a donkey for the short trip up to town to enjoy some Tex Mex and cold beers at the local restaurant. Making the pilgrimage to Boquillas was a long-standing tradition for many of the 350,000 people who visit Big Bend every year, especially Texan residents who make up most of that visitation.

But the world changed after the attacks of 9/11. The informal border crossing was seen as a threat to homeland security, and on a spring morning in 2002, a U.S. government official showed up to tell Victor he could no longer bring tourists to Boquillas. The Boquillas border crossing has been closed ever since.

For the last decade, Boquillas has struggled, along with many of the other small Mexican communities along the Rio Grande that used to enjoy freedom of movement between our two countries. In Boquillas, the community of 100 families dwindled down to only 30. Many packed up and sought new opportunities in bigger Mexican towns further south.

Those that stayed behind did anything they could with the resources they had to make ends meet. A failed government project to bring electricity to Boquillas left behind hundreds of spools of copper wire, which local artisans commandeered to begin making small intricate figurines of scorpions and birds. Walking sticks were carved out of the local “sotole” plant, which quickly grows back after being cut.

Since tourists could no longer come to Boquillas, and local residents couldn’t legally sell their wares in the national park, the artisans had to get creative. They would (illegally) cross the river early in the morning or at night and lay out their crafts on large flat rocks at park trailheads or scenic overlooks where tourists would stop their cars and get out. A torn piece of paper would have prices listed (with most items costing less than $10) and a can would be set up with words written on it like “Donations Accepted, School Kids, Boquillas Mexico”. The dollars placed in these cans helped the remaining community members of Boquillas survive, but it has been a struggle.

It’s no secret that news coverage of the US/Mexico border region has been overwhelmingly negative for as long as most can remember. Yet the region surrounding Big Bend National Park is considered the most remote and undeveloped area in the contiguous United States (just look up a the night sky to believe it!). Due in part to this isolation, Big Bend has been spared much of the violence and illegal activities that plague other parts of the border region.

Recognizing the unique situation of this region, U.S. and Mexico representatives announced plans to reopen the Boquillas border crossing. A multi-million dollar, unmanned, state-of-the-art border facility was constructed, and is expected to open in 2013 to allow for the return of visitors to Boquillas. And this is where Solimar comes in. Working alongside the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), and partnering with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), Solimar will work with the community of Boquillas to develop sustainable tourism products and prepare the area for the return of visitors.

Solimar’s work has already included an initial tourism assessment to identify both supply and demand of potential tourism products in the region. We have also developed a business plan for the formation of a community-owned enterprise that will manage tourism operations in Boquillas. Short-term tourism opportunities include interpretive guided tours – from canoe and hiking trips to sand boarding adventures – as well as an artisan market, food services, and local festivals to highlight the regions cultural and culinary traditions. Long-term opportunities include safari-style tent lodging and spa services built around a nearby hot springs, as well as mountain biking and backcountry trekking tours.

Solimar has become a leader in directly linking sustainable tourism development to biodiversity conservation in the areas where we work, an effort guided by the development of our Tourism Conservation Toolkit that documents 16 unique strategies to link tourism, conservation, and communities.

In Boquillas, Solimar will work closely with protected area managers to integrate many of these strategies into Boquillas’ tourism development plans. For example, in order to combat an increase in trash as more people arrive, “best practices” will be developed and taught to local service providers on how to better manage organic and inorganic waste. A “Code of Conduct” will be implemented and messaged through signage to remind visitors of ways in which they can reduce their impact to the environmental and to the local culture.

Poorly managed livestock have wrecked havoc on the surrounding fragile desert and river ecosystems. The Boquillas tourism project will begin to look at ways that cattle can be repurposed in more sustainable ways. Strategies include the local production of leather crafts and merchandise, community BBQ festivals, and even a tourism package where visitors can become a cowboy for a day to help round up cattle.

As a hopeful community awaits the opening of a vital border crossing that will bring the return of visitors and opportunity, Solimar will continue to work with local partners to ensure that tourism in Boquillas develops in a way that celebrates and supports the unique ecosystems and heritage of the region.

Ay, ay, ay, ay,
canta y no llores, 
Porque cantando se alegran, 
Cielito lindo, los corazones”.

“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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