Flyer for Sierra Gorda’s Carbon Offset Program

The GSTC Early Adopter destination Sierra Gorda is a biosphere reserve covering one-third of the state of Querétaro, in north-central México. The Sierra Gorda Reserve is of the most biodiversity-rich protected areas in México, and is a member of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program. Sierra Gorda cuts across five municipalities in Querétaro: Jalpan de Serra, Pinal de Amoles, Landa de Matamoros, Peñamiller, and Arroyo Seco. The destination is spectacularly beautiful and contains a vast array of ecosystems and wildlife.

The GSTC’s Early Adopter assessment of Sierra Gorda took place in December 2013, as part of the pilot test of the GSTC Criteria for Destinations. Sustainable Travel International, on behalf of the GSTC, conducted a 10-day site visit and evaluation, and recommended improvements to destination management policies and practices based on the GSTC Criteria. Stakeholders in Sierra Gorda, in turn, provided feedback on the scope and applicability of the Criteria, to ensure their validity to destinations worldwide.

The NGO, Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (“Grupo Ecológico”), served as Destination Liaison for Sierra Gorda during its participation in the Early Adopter program. Under the dynamic leadership of its Director and founder, Martha (“Pati”) Ruiz Corzo, Grupo Ecológico spearheads community engagement in the Sierra Gorda Reserve, and serves as the founding organization of an alliance between civil society groups and Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (SEMARNAT) in developing community-based pro-poor economic development and environmental education and conservation.

We at the GSTC recently followed up with Grupo Ecológico to find out some of Sierra Gorda’s latest destination stewardship initiatives following the Early Adopter assessment late last year. In this post, we highlight a few of Sierra Gorda’s recent initiatives consistent with the GSTC Criteria.

Economic Benefits for Local Communities

An entire section of the GSTC Criteria for Destinations is dedicated to maximizing the benefits from tourism to the host community—a key tenet of sustainable destination management. This involves optimizing local economic benefits as well as public participation and satisfaction with destination planning and decision-making.

Sierra Gorda is a model for social inclusion. Grupo Ecológico’s innovative programs to build capacity, awareness, and revenue-generating opportunities for micro-enterprises and rural communities in both tourism and conservation-focused entrepreneurship are world-class. The communities within Sierra Gorda, together with Grupo Ecológico, have built a network of micro-tourism operators. Grupo Ecológico has helped them organize into an association, and has provided technical assistance, including improving micro-enterprises’ infrastructure and adding interpretive signage informing visitors of the natural and cultural significance of sites. Grupo Ecológico has also built capacity among community entrepreneurs through training in areas including bookkeeping and other fundamental business skills, and environmental sustainability practices, such as energy efficiency and recycling.

To better incorporate micro-enterprises into the tourism value chain, Grupo Ecológico and the community have worked together to package and promote a network of tourism products, including eco-lodges, a “tasting route” of delicious roadside family-run restaurants, community museums, and artisanal craft workshops (see Sierra Gorda’s tour packages are one-of-a kind experiential offerings that represent sustainable tourism at its best—community ownership and benefit, connection with and awareness about the gorgeous environment, and engagement with the people of Sierra Gorda and their tradition, culture, and—perhaps most notably—their delicious local cuisine.

Today there are 83 micro-enterprises integrated in the project, and Sierra Gorda reports that others are eager to join. The improvements and unified tourism branding of roadside businesses has inspired new micro-entrepreneurs to join the movement. According to Director Martha (“Pati”) Ruiz Corzo, a world-renowned conservation leader and social entrepreneur herself: “This has awakened interest in potential donors who support us in the strengthening the micro tourism businesses with improved infrastructure and training. This encourages not only entrepreneurship in communities facing extreme poverty, but also encourages them to strengthen the value of the spectacular Sierra Gorda.”

Environmental Conservation

Sierra Gorda has made exceptional efforts instilling participatory conservation practices and building a community culture valuing natural resources and services. Grupo Ecológico runs programs to raise awareness and train the many surrounding local communities in soil regeneration, local food production, and forest and biodiversity conservation. Sierra Gorda also has an innovative climate program, in which visitors to Sierra Gorda can purchase carbon offsets tied to carbon capture projects run by forest landowners. Grupo Ecológico trains these local landowners and manages carbon compensation payments for them to remove their cattle from the forest and participate in carbon capture activities instead (See This program tackles climate change the Sierra Gorda way—while benefiting local landowners and literally placing community value on conserving the natural environment.

Sierra Gorda credits the GSTC Criteria regarding attraction protection and visitor management, as well as its involvement in the Early Adopter program, for the destination’s recent ability to control quad bike tourism in the Reserve. “Today, with the support of local law enforcement, the quad bikes have been prohibited from driving through the riverbed,” reports Ruiz Corzo. Additionally, pursuant to the GSTC’s Criteria and destination management recommendations from the Early Adopter assessment, Sierra Gorda has formed a Biosphere Reserve Technical Advisory Council, with a sub-advisory board chaired by Grupo Ecológico, to institutionalize sustainable destination management.


Note: Kathleen Pessolano, GSTC Associate Technical Director, authored this post.


About the GSTC

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is a global initiative dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism efforts around the world. Housed within the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the GSTC works to expand understanding of and access to sustainable tourism practices; helps identify and generate markets for sustainable tourism; and educates about and advocates for a set of universal principles, as defined by the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The Criteria, a set of voluntary principles that provide a framework for the sustainability of tourism businesses and destinations across the globe, is the cornerstone of our initiative. For more information, visit

About the GSTC Destination Criteria

A panel of business owners, academics, government officials, and other experts, who examined the UN World Tourism Organization’s Indicators of Sustainable Development and other such guidelines currently in existence, developed the GSTC’s Destination Criteria. Because the Criteria are intended to describe a globally applicable set of minimum steps needed to approach sustainability, the criteria are seen as a baseline that each destination should add to or adjust as needed.

The GSTC does not aim to certify destinations as sustainable; rather, the Council reviews existing certification standards and acknowledges those that meet its Criteria. However, any destination may use the new Criteria as a guide to improve environmental, cultural, and social practices.