by Allen Cox
When a mangrove falls and there's no one there to hear, does it make a splash? You'd think the answer would be a resounding “yes.” But when nearly an entire coastline of mangroves fell along the Mexican Caribbean from north of Cancun to Tulum, business interests turned a deaf ear and environmentalists wept.
Of course, the trees didn't fall all at once with a single tsunami-inducing splash. Instead, it was one little splash after another over the course of four decades. One tree after another. Splash. One grove after another. These mangroves, as well as the dune plants and the jungle beyond, were standing in the way of progress. Now, they are not standing at all.
Bienvenidos a La Riviera Maya, a turista playground where authenticity is largely staged, where the coastline has been stripped and left vulnerable to hurricane devastation, and where people from all over Mexico and the world flock for opportunity. I have been traveling to Mexico's Caribbean coast for 40 years. I harbor wistful memories when I compare what was to what is, and today I can't drive down Highway 307 through the Riviera Maya without a pang in my soul.
In the 1960s, Cancun consisted of a coconut plantation, dunes and mangroves ruled by mosquitoes and crocodiles. The delightfully undiscovered fishing village of Playa del Carmen had a population of a few thousand when I first walked its sand streets. Traveling the dirt road south to Tulum required resolve that you were going to eat some dust and rough it in a hammock. The master-planned megaresorts existed only on the drafting tables and calculators of government officials and investors who were having dreams about a strong ROI.
Most vacationers who descend on Cancun and the Riviera Maya today seem to assume the all-inclusive resorts have always existed on the spot. Mangroves are odd trees they see on an eco-tour, reminding them how grateful they are for that air conditioned suite back at the Moon Palace. (I pick on Moon Palace, but substitute any one of the megaresorts up and down the coast.)
Shoddy attempts at regulation have surfaced now and then. An ordinance limiting building height in Playa del Carmen did nothing to abate sprawl and environmental decimation. Playa's misguided ordinance was designed to retain a facsimile of village ambiance that people like me remember from the old days. Sadly, its authors were not intending to conserve the natural environment, but the man-made environment instead. Splash. There goes another grove of mangroves.
The main draw along the Riviera Maya is the white sugary beach. The ultimate irony? Development and the greed that motivated it are destroying that very beach; geotubes and sandbags line the coast to prevent further sand erosion, a near-futile endeavor. Sustainable tourism treads lightly on the environment and on local cultures. It is the antithesis of this orgy of development known as the Riviera Maya – Mexico's most heavily visited tourist destination – where, today, excavation and construction continue at the expense of the ecosystem while tour operators peddle “eco-tours” and staged theme parks such as Xcaret.
Situated on a long strip of white sand between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is Puerto Morelos. With the sea to the east and a deep network of mangroves to the west – one of the few remaining mangrove forests on the Riviera Maya – the pueblo has managed to remain small with fishing village vibes. The most prominent structure in town is the Cozumel vehicle ferry dock. A few boutique hotels and villas have popped up, but nothing on a mammoth scale. This seems miraculous, as if the saints of environmental stewardship and sustainability have been watching over the pueblo.
Developers have been eyeing Puerto Morelos for some time, and in recent years have been trying to sell the town on the idea of replacing the nasty old mangrove swamps (which serve as floodplains when hurricanes hammer the coast) with a new village for the service employees of the new megaresorts they would build.
Life, as the people of Puerto Morelos know it, sits in the balance. Developers have made “progress” and, in early 2009, concocted a plan that would explode the population from 10,000 to 100,000, but is missing provisions for an infrastructure to support such a population of workers. The inevitable result will be a shantytown prone to flooding. The people of Puerto Morelos like their fishing village just the way it is, but the issues transcend mere ambiance. All they have to do is look up and down the beach at the neighboring resort cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen to see the condition of their sandbagged beaches, which tell far more than the story of a devastating hurricane storm surge. These eroded beaches reveal the environmental interdependencies between the natural zones of this coast – beach, mangroves, jungle, and the cenote system beneath it all.
South of Tulum, the Riviera Maya ends. Strict environmental controls rule the vast Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, and development has long been restricted. It’s an all or nothing world on this coast: unchecked development or zero development. So what is the cost of progress? Does the price have to be paid in endless hectares of jungle and mangrove swamps, or in beach erosion? Is there another way?
The state capital, Chetumal, is already home to a population of nearly 150,000. Its mangrove-rich coastline at the southern tip of Quintana Roo – a crucial habitat for manatees – is an up-and-coming eco-tourism hotspot. Today, it’s able to sustain its relatively small volume of visitors, but as eyes turn southward from the Riviera Maya it finds itself at a junction, one route leading toward sustainable tourism and the other toward unfettered development and a dying coastline. Will developers squander the delicate Chetumal ecosystem for profit or have they learned from their mistakes 200 miles to the north? Chetumal is Mexico's next big test.
Environmental watchdogs are fighting for sustainable solutions up and down the coast. At places such as Puerto Morelos and Chetumal, it's not too late. With their influence, well-designed, science-based regulations can and will allow tourism – even profitable tourism – and environmental sustainability to coexist. Regulatory measures such as restricting the location of building sites, limiting the size and height of structures, and constructing sensible infrastructures will make all the difference. Let’s hope the decision-makers have learned that Nature’s answer to excess is in kind.
As travelers to the Yucatan coast – or any other place where overdevelopment is threatening the ecosystem and the culture – we can do more than shake our heads and mourn the losses. A good rule to live by? If a hotel sits where a mangrove forest once grew, offers more than, say, 20 rooms, and requires an entire town of service workers, don’t spend a single peso there. Instead, seek out and support small-scale properties that do more than pay lip service to sustainable tourism. They're out there, waiting for your business.
Allen Cox writes about travel, recreation, the outdoors, food and wine, and the arts from his home outside Seattle. His new book, Best Easy Day Hikes – Seattle, was released in July 2009. For more information about Allen and his work, visit www.allencox.org.