The Shelter El Refugio Alternative tourism that uses alternative barter system Zacatlan de las Manzanas, Puebla, Mexico www.elrefugiozacatlan.com
The Shelter is a place for resting and feeling close with nature and for developing personal projects. It was built with biodegradable and recycled materials, and accepts alternative methods of payment such as the bartering of goods or services.
The Shelter was created by an urban family in the mountains of Puebla, Mexico, to:
1) find an alternative model of existence that would allow them a better quality of life,
2) to offer visitors a space distinguished by its location and facilities to rest and develop their personal projects.
With the support of family and friends, the founders of The Shelter bought land in 1999 on which they built huts with biodegradable and recycled materials that serve as a shelter for visitors mainly from Puebla and Mexico cities.
Thanks to government financial support, these facilities have been complemented with:
♣ A hybrid energy system – a wind generator, solar cells and electric current of the Federal Electricity Commission. This combination allows them to save costs and avoid supply failures because the electric current is more stable than the alternative energies and the Commission deducts the surpluses of the latter. It also reduces the environmental impact of the establishment.
♣ An integral range of means for rest and entertainment that make the place more attractive for different types of guests, distinguishing it from other lodges in the region: dining rooms, temazcal, an observatory, squash court, spaces for events (useful for different needs: school trips, human formation courses, weddings, retreats, etc) —they have recently started the construction of a training center for human development.
♣ An orchard and apple trees that contribute, even minimally (approximately 3%), to the food self-sustainability of the place.
Government support was largely all non-recoverable; which, while allowing for creativity and investment in risky ideas, also was a source of pressure. The creators of The Shelter realized that the key to obtaining such financing is to demonstrate convincingly the viability of their ideas and a record of success (credibility), that is, of compliance and effectiveness in taking advantage of previously received support.
Moreover, since such support usually takes a long time to be approved, they have found it important to secure sufficient resources to advance the project while the support is authorized, giving greater certainty that it will be completed as agreed.
The Shelter does not have a down season. This is due, in the opinion of its creator, to its originality, and also to publicity: the recommendations of visitors, TripAdvisor, and Facebook, and the visibility the municipality has gained thanks to its appointment as a ‘magical town’- a program promoted by the Ministry of Tourism and co-managed with government authorities at different levels to places that preserve a rich historical and cultural legacy, to stimulate national tourism — and with it local development.
Regarding web platforms, its creators consider that they are especially useful in giving credibility to the project thanks to their scoring and evaluation system by the visitors (credibility by peers) who are supervised that they are not family and friends, under penalty of punishment if were thus identified by the company. The possible disadvantage, in any case, is that disagreements may occur with visitors and the platforms do not have the capacity to judge without margin of error and therefore may affect them in the long term.
The success of the project has been helped by the practice of re-investing all the profits. It has also served the fact that its promoters accept and encourage, in addition to payment with conventional money, the practice of bartering with customers (who they prefer to call “visitors”). This has allowed them to exchange accommodation for advertising, solar panels, bottles of wine, and even work – all after discussing the convenience of both parties. The barter also allows The Shelter to better fulfill its mission of supporting the personal projects of the visitors, who are of different nature (retired, backpackers, students writing their thesis).
The place is located in a rural region with more than 50% of the population living in poverty and more than 15% in extreme poverty according to figures from 2010. The goal of The Shelter is not to transform the socioeconomic conditions of this place, yet, its creators are aware that it is important to avoid monopolizing the economic opportunities of the area. For this reason, and perhaps also because the business is more profitable, they have not been interested in being completely self-sustainable in food, which they buy from a large number of their neighbors. In this same sense, the project has attempted to collaborate with locals for mutual benefit, offering them access to their clientele to sell their products or services (horseback riding, donuts, etc.), which is also convenient for them (being an attraction for visitors).
Although insecurity does not seem to be a problem in the area, the project has security cameras, locks on the doors and 10 dogs that seek to respond to the concerns expressed by visitors from Mexico City.
As feedback mechanisms, The Shelter takes into account the comments of customers in the aforementioned web platforms, and also has a book of suggestions available in the main room for all visitors.