Cenotes near Tulum are a prime tourism draw, but tests show pollutants ranging from pesticides to amphetamines have reached the underground karst water sources that connect them. (Photo by Laura Tillman)
The Mexican state of Quintana Roo is drawing ever-growing legions of international tourists attracted to its aquamarine waters and white-sand beaches—the ideal antidote, in their view, to the cold and congestion of home cities ranging from Beijing, China to Manchester, England.
But scientists and green-advocacy groups warn that these assets are being threatened by environmentally destructive development patterns driving growth of the state’s coastal resort communities, the best-known of which is Cancún. They point to such signs as untreated wastewater flowing into wildlife habitats and diesel generators powering hotels in so-called “eco” destinations like Tulum, a growing beachside town that serves as a jumping off point for visits to Mayan archaeological sites.
The very attributes that draw visitors to the region are being undermined, often in ways initially invisible to the naked eye, these critics say. “I have little hope for the future of Quintana Roo, given the environmental threats it’s up against,” says Darío Ferreira Piña, an environmental biotechnical engineer who works for the Mexican conservation group Razonatura.
For the short-term visitor, the scale of the problem is hard to gauge; but for those who monitor the region’s land-use trends, the speed and extent of the impacts have been staggering.
Experts say Mexican mangrove-protection efforts have shown encouraging results in recent years, but Quintana Roo has lost large swaths of its original mangrove habitat, according to Amigos de Sian Ka’an, a leading conservation group in the state. The organization points out that a significant portion of wastewater from the state’s coastal communities still goes untreated and that stretches of jungle have become open dump sites. This has caused water pollution on land as well as in coastal waters, adding to environmental pressures at work on the nearby Mesoamerican Reef, one of the largest coral reef systems in the world. (See "Coral gains spur hope for Caribbean reef" —EcoAméricas, February 2018.)
In many ways, Tulum embodies the contrast between eco-friendly image and unsustainable reality. Once a sleepy hippy town, it was known as a backpacking destination where visitors practiced yoga on the beach and slept under mosquito nets in cabanas with no air conditioning. Today, Tulum comprises a dense strip of boutique hotels, only a handful of which are making serious efforts to preserve the environment, according to critics.
Though tourists bike rather than drive along the two-lane main road, they often must make way for trucks delivering diesel fuel for the generators that power hotels. And while there’s small-batch kombucha to be had at so-called rustic properties, developers continue to disturb mangrove stands and build on sand dunes.
Meanwhile, opportunities to work at one of the ever-more-numerous hotels and resorts have spurred unregulated growth, causing increased flows of untreated wastewater and more open-air dump sites. Pollutants from these sources, in turn, have leached into caves that abound beneath the local karst terrain, contaminating water sources and moving so far and fast—including to the sea—that their origins are hard to pinpoint.
On occasion, authorities push back. In May, for instance, five new hotel projects in different phases of construction were ordered suspended by Mexico’s Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa) after they were found to violate environmental regulations. The violations ranged from disturbance of a mangrove stand to the illegal filling of a wetland.
Such regulatory action, however, has not been consistent and intense enough to safeguard the state’s coastal landscape and ecosystems. Carlos Meade, director of Yaxché Árbol de la Vida, a Quintana Roo nonprofit that advocates for Mayan communities, recalls when the region’s main highway resembled a green tunnel, with the vegetation so dense that the forest canopy connected above the road. “There were beaches where you didn’t see another person for kilometers,” he says. “The beauty and peace were amazing.”
The municipality that includes Cancún, which now has a population of three-quarters of a million and attracts some six million visitors a year, was home to fewer than 90,000 people in 1970, with only 30,000 of those in Cancún itself. Playa del Carmen has mushroomed, too, and the convergence of money and population growth has drawn narco-violence to the region.
Razonatura’s Ferreira forecasts that starting with Tulum, towns farther south on the coast will follow suit: “I see Tulum becoming like Cancún, and then Bacalar.”
Meade of Yaxché Árbol de la Vida says that of the approximately 100 hotels along Tulum’s main strip he can count on one hand the number that he would consider to be trying to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner. “We are compromising the future for a reward in the very short term,” he says.
Warning signs abound. A study of Quintana Roo water quality by UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, found evidence of domestic sewage contamination of some of the state’s karst system. That system connects to the cenotes prized by snorkelers for their translucent water and brilliantly colored tropical fish. The study found cocaine metabolites and amphetamines in the water, along with traces of pesticides, caffeine and ibuprofen.
Chris Metcalfe, an environment professor at Canada’s Trent University and one of the study’s authors, says contamination easily permeates the limestone structures underground, presenting a water-pollution hazard to both animals and humans.
“The geology in the area is like Swiss cheese—it’s very porous, so pesticides or anything on the surface makes it into the underground rivers,” he says. The practice of injecting wastewater below the freshwater aquifer poses another threat, he says: “The problem is, freshwater is not saltwater, it’s lighter and percolates back up.”
Just how serious and widespread such pollution has become remains unclear. The UN report asserts that pollution data on the region is scant, and little in the way of personnel and equipment has been devoted to collecting it. Many agree that only a paradigm shift in tourism practice could prevent an escalation of risks to the coastal ecosystem.
Among those who appear to be taking such warnings to heart is James Greenfield, owner of Casa de las Olas, a small, Platinum LEED-certified eco-hotel whose sustainable features include solar power, water recycling, biodegradable cleaning products and no air conditioning. Greenfield says he has lived in Tulum since he moved there from the United States 2003, seeking a change in lifestyle. “Back then it was really pure and beautiful,” he says. “And the more beautiful something is, the more fragile it is.”
Greenfield says that because he had the financial resources to do so, he cut no corners when it came to green-friendly design. “I wanted to craft a business that fit that [sustainable] model, and that didn’t go against my values,” he says.
Even as the tourist industry has flourished, Greenfield says, Casa de las Olas still draws a particular type of visitor due to a series of “hurdles” he puts in the path of prospective guests. For example, many travelers headed on a beach vacation would not be interested in staying at a hotel with no air conditioning.
“Ninety-five percent of the people who come here support what we do because they took time to do the research, and we fit what they’re looking for,” he says. He describes his clientele as “forward-thinking eco-travelers with disposable income.” Indeed, space at Casa de las Olas does not come cheap, ranging in price from US$245 to $900 per night depending on the room and the season.
As growth in the region continues apace, neither scientists nor activists are optimistic that genuinely green-friendly approaches will prevail in the broader tourism market anytime soon.
“The place is going to hell in a handbasket,” Metcalfe says. “You can smell the sewage. Swimmers will start getting eye infections, more ear infections. The situation will continue to decline.”
Patricia Beddows, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University in the United States and a co-author of the UN report, is placing more sensors in the natural karst watercourses to monitor pollution levels. Beddows calls it striking that such pollution is occurring in a place that until recently had a very small population.
She says there already is evidence that coastal waters are seeing significant eutrophication, or excess nutrients and oxygen depletion. This may explain the large quantities of sargazo seaweed washing onto beaches and damaging the Mesoamerican Reef, not to mention making swimming unpleasant for tourists.
“The Mesoamerican reef system is expiring,” Beddows says. “It is dying. Part [of the problem] is over-fishing, part of it is eutrophication. There’s a cascade of human-sourced nutrients that are moving through the groundwater and discharging into the reef.”
Greenfield says the lack of long-term thinking stems in part from local land disputes, which can make hotel owners worry whether they might one day find themselves in a legal battle to hold onto their property. A prime contributor to this confusion is Mexico’s ejido system of communal land ownership, under which some land is difficult or impossible to sell to foreigners, and those who purchase such properties can never be sure they won’t face a claim from a member of the ejido community in the future.
“I think because most properties aren’t titled and [buyers] aren’t sure the things they do will be there tomorrow, they look for immediate gratification,” says Greenfield. That, he adds, prevents them from making deep investments in projects that would pay off over time, such as the installation of solar panels or complex water-recycling systems.
Against this backdrop, critics of current development practices say, common buzzwords such as “green,” “eco” and “sustainable” are used mostly as sales tools that do not reflect a meaningful commitment to environmental protection.
Gonzalo Merediz, the executive director of Amigos de Sian Ka’an, sees some reason for hope, however. He says that some of the current conditions—for instance, the lack of an electrical grid in Tulum—are helping to prevent growth from becoming even more accelerated. For hotels that genuinely want to manage their environmental impact, Merediz says, there are plenty of ways to reduce their environmental footprint. His organization and others are helping to promote specific measures that meet this objective—such as the transition to solar power and the recycling of gray water—while at the same time saving resorts money.
Merediz acknowledges that while it would be better for the coastal ecosystem if there weren’t so many hotels, the tourism industry has brought real benefits to Quintana Roo. “The social situation would be worse if there weren’t so many job opportunities at hotels,” he says. “I’m more pragmatic about what we can do. We’re working with different sectors to reduce the impact,” he says. “I don’t believe that development and conservation have to be antagonistic.”
Ferreira argues that tourists hold the key because they can vote with their dollars. He says that before booking a hotel, visitors should ask whether the property uses alternative power, such as solar, instead of relying on generators; how the hotel disposes of wastewater and whether it has preserved natural corridors for local fauna.
Some hotels can be written off immediately, Ferreira says, simply by looking at where they’re located—for example, on national parkland or in a former mangrove stand. Razonatura is working to develop a list of sustainable hotels to facilitate tourism due-diligence. For his part, Meade says more hotels ought to participate in international green-certification programs.
Greenfield agrees, adding that some developers are beginning to recognize that making projects green-friendly could bring financial rewards. Says Greenfield: “Is it to help with marketing and capturing a market they want to sell to? Sure. Are they doing it to be altruistic? I don’t think so. But some of the biggest players, I think, are thinking about environmental practices.”
That doesn’t appear to provide immediate reassurance to Ferreira and Meade, who say that for the time being, they have largely given up swimming in the cenote and coastal waters that tourists travel thousands of miles to visit.
For his part, Merediz remains hopeful that with time, collective efforts to change Mexico’s coastal-development model will pay off. “There’s definitely an impact on the environment, and we’re in a fight to do things differently, but it’s a fight that, little by little, we are winning.”
- Laura Tillman
Index photo: Once a low-key refuge for backpackers, Tulum has become a target for increasingly intensive beachside hotel development and the environmental impacts that go with it. (Shutterstock.com/Irina Klyuchnikova)