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Initiative launched to promote sustainable tourism in Mayan region of Central America

Three Washington-based institutions have lent their support to a far-ranging program to spur tourism and sustainable development in the ancestral region of the Mayan people, which includes Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and southern Mexico.

The National Geographic Society, Conservation International, and Counterpart International signed a memorandum of understanding signed today to join the Mundo Maya Alliance at a meeting at the Inter-American Development Bank held to launch the Mundo Maya Sustainable Development Tourism Program.

The Mundo Maya Program will preserve and showcase the Mayan heritage in the 500,000-square-kilometer region where some five million descendents of this ancient people live today. In this area, Mayan languages are still spoken and Mayan artistic and social traditions are preserved. The IDB financed the preparation of the program, which will be carried out by the Mundo Maya Organization, based in Guatemala City.

The memorandum of understanding was signed by the National Geographic Executive Vice President Terry Garcia, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Conservation International Peter Seligmann, and Counterpart International President Lelei Lelaulu; and by tourism ministers Mark Espat, for Belize; Manuel Aviles Morales, for El Salvador; Thierry de Pierrefeu, for Honduras; and Leticia Navarro Ochoa, for Mexico. Also signing was Luis Felipe Miranda, executive director of the Tourism Institute of Guatemala and president of the Mundo Maya Organization.

IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias said that the program will enlist the participation of local communities, in this way "ensuring the sustained management and environmental conservation, the use of low-impact tourism infrastructure, and the development of microenterprises and alternative sources of income.

"It is precisely these aspects of the program that have generated enthusiasm among such world-renowned organizations as Conservation International, Counterpart International, and the National Geographic Society," said Iglesias.

The National Geographic’s Garcia said: "In October 1989, National Geographic Magazine put forth the idea of a route linking great Maya sites. It is gratifying now to help realize that vision by joining the Mundo Maya Alliance. We at the National Geographic Society hope to apply to this program our expertise in archaeology, indigenous cultures, and natural resource conservation, as well as our interest in promoting the practices of sustainable tourism."

"This is a region of the world that is not only rich in cultural diversity but it is also rich in biodiversity, " said Costas Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International. "We believe that the earth's natural heritage must be maintained if future generations are to thrive spiritually, culturally and economically. By joining the Mundo Maya Alliance, Conservation International looks forward to supporting responsible tourism that helps to protect nature and brings tangible benefits to local peoples."

Counterpart International President Lelei LeLaulu said the agreement marked the recognition by the development community of the huge value of tourism as a development and anti-poverty tool. "In coming to pay tribute to the ancient Mayan empire, today’s tourists will be making a contribution to the development of the modern heirs to that glorious heritage."

The National Geographic Society, an institution whose mission is to increase and disseminate geographic knowledge, is best known for its magazine and the exploration and scientific activities it has sponsored. As part of the alliance, the society will disseminate information among professionals and sponsors involved in the Mundo Maya Program, and eventually to the traveling public.

Conservation International works to conserve the earth's natural heritage and biodiversity, and strives to demonstrate that human societies can live harmoniously with nature." In the alliance, CI will offer technical support to strengthen Mundo Maya’s environmental activities, including the consolidation of biological corridors, improving management of protected areas, and combating poverty through ecotourism.

Counterpart International focuses on strengthening the ability of governments, communities and nongovernmental groups to identify and meet their development needs with culturally, environmentally, and economically sustainable methods. CPI will support Mundo Maya activities in the areas of community development, microcredit, technical assistance, and institutional strengthening.

The program will consist of a regional cultural, ecological, and adventure tourism route developed with the participation of local communities. Special efforts will be made to preserve the region’s natural and cultural heritage to ensure regional sustainable development.

An investment plan presented at the IDB meeting includes projects in the areas of planning and regional integration, archaeological restoration, development of parks and protected areas, tourism and social infrastructure, tourist microenterprises, training and streamlining border crossings. The projects represent a total investment of $150 million.

IDB resources for the preparation of the program were provided by the Technical Cooperation Fund for Special Operations, the Japanese Fund, the Swedish Fund, the Norwegian Fund, the Danish Fund, the Korean Fund, and the United Kingdom Fund. New financing to implement the investment plan is currently being negotiated by the Japan Fund.

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