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Tequila Trail: visiting the Mexican soul

Mariano Ceja Velasco is a familiar face for tourists visiting Tequila, a town known for its distilleries and agave farms, in the central part of Mexico’s Jalisco state. Velasco transports visitors in a yellow bus shaped as a tequila bottle.

Tourists can visit Tequila's distilleries in a bus shaped as a tequila bottle.
(Photo by Yves Lesenfants)

“Tequila is much more than (the drink) tequila,’’ said Ceja, who has worked for the past 20 years as tourist guide in the region. “We have natural resources that were not being explored. We have the culture of Tequila which nobody was talking about. And finally, we also needed attractive resources. That is why we came up with proper designs for our vehicles.”

Ceja is part of a growing number of micro and small entrepreneurs in five municipalities in Jalisco that have benefitted from a sustainable tourism project financed by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), an affiliate of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Fundación José Cuervo.

The MIF, which provides grants to companies to improve their competitiveness, has been investing in sustainable tourism projects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as a tool to promote local development. These projects help small companies build viable businesses around tourism while allowing local communities preserve their local culture and environment.

Borrowing from famed wine routes in California and Europe, the project created a route —known as Tequila Trail— for tourists interested in learning not only about the drink but also about the region’s natural resources, culture and historical sites.  The project also provided training for small businesses to improve the quality of their services.

The project has brought more tourists into the region, creating more businesses and jobs, and it has helped the local population preserve its culture and environment, according to Federico de Arteaga, team leader for the project at the IDB.

The Trail

Jalisco, Mexico’s fourth most populous state, is home of the Mariachis and Charros, the traditional Mexican cowboys.  It has an inactive volcano and ruins of an ancient civilization, known as Los Guachimontones. Its rich volcanic soil is ideal for the blue agave, the main ingredient in tequila, a drink that has been produced in the region since the 16th century.

The route was inaugurated in April and covers five municipalities —Tequila, Arenal, Magdalena, Amatitlán and Teuchitlán— an area that UNESCO declares a “World Heritage Site.”

The Tequila Trail
(Photo by Yves Lesenfants)

“The project puts together several elements of the Mexican culture and landscape, allowing small local businesses, and not only the large groups in the region, to benefit from tourism,’’ Arteaga said.

The Tequila Regulatory Board (CRT), a non-profit group representing the tequila industry, has been implementing the plan.

The project provided free training for micro and small businesses in the region. Firms learn everything from organizing their work schedule to making beds and educating tourists to prevent littering and promote recycling.

After the training, Ceja doubled the number of tourists transported in his buses because he learned how to better manage his business.

Business Network

The courses also teach how to work in group, by forming a network of tourism companies to market each other’s products and the region’s natural, cultural and historical attractions to tourists.

Businesses that met the standards set by project were awarded a quality seal, known as Tequila Turístico. To join the program and obtain the seal, small companies have to develop a business plan that respects the environment, the culture and traditions of the region; and participate in training sessions.

So far 40 businesses have received the seal and another 260 are expected to do so by the end of the project, Arteaga said. About 1,400 people will be trained by the end of the project.

“We used to be very individualistic. But now, thanks to the project, we learned to work in teams,’’ said María de Jesus Landero Rivera, the owner of a small hotel in Tequila, who received the Tequila Turístico seal after participating in the training program.  “I have the confidence now to make recommendations to my customer because I know they will get the same level of service I am offering.”

New Investment

Since last year, the inflow of tourists into the region has grown five-fold as word about the trail began to spread before its official inauguration. Average spending per tourist also rose to 550 pesos daily, a 38 percent increase from a year earlier, according to Martha Venegas, coordinator of the Tequila Trail project at CTR.

Many restaurants in the town of Tequila serve the region's traditional dishes.
(Photo by Yves Lesenfants)

Better prospects have prompted local entrepreneurs such as Alberto Rosario Muñoz, a furniture wholesaler, to venture into a new business. Muñoz opened a restaurant in Tequila serving the region’s traditional plates, such as shrimp cooked in tequila and chili stuffed with meat, spices and fruit.

“We saw the great potential of the project and we decided to make an important investment,’’ said Muñoz, whose restaurant also has received the quality seal. “The training taught us how to treat a customer and even serve a plate.”

Another businessman, Jorge Torres, tripled the number of chairs to 150 in his family’s restaurant in the municipality of Arenal after the project began.

For Rivera, the owner of a hotel in Tequila, the project brought financial stability. She gave up a second job because the increase in the number of tourists made her 8-room hotel profitable. Demand has been so strong that Rivera recently built nine more rooms and hired three employees to help her run the business.

The project helps the poor in the region improve the quality of their products, Venegas said. For example, the project is working with artisans -to improve packaging and production conditions.

Under the four-year plan approved in 2006, the MIF and Fundación José Cuervo will invest together more than $3 million to develop the trail, create services and train businesses. The project has also attracted amore than $4 million in public and private investments to create new infrastructure in the region and new businesses.