“Sustainable Solutions to the Challenges Facing the Tourism Industry” is the theme of the 2nd Sustainable & Social Tourism Summit. Held in Cancun, Mexico on March 14, the three-day event was attended by global leaders and organizations. Located in one of the world’s mega tourist centers, Cancun is only a short distance from Mexico’s most famous beaches: it needs to be asked, can mass tourism be sustainable on the Riviera Maya? What are the implications for similar mass tourism developments worldwide?
This article is the first in a series exploring the environmental implications of uncontrolled development on fragile coastal marine habitats.
The Riviera Maya stretches along the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (from Puerto Morales south to Tulum). This area is a prime example of the good and bad that results from massive tourism development. The Riviera Maya is not alone in experiencing these issues. So we use it as a case study, a vantage point for similar situations occurring around the world. This series will explore diving, shipwrecks, coral reefs, pirates past and present, mangrove destruction, corruption, biodiversity, ecotourism and the sustainability or lack of in the mass tourism along the Riviera Maya. But first a little background would be helpful. (photo – Eternal Mexico – Robert Frerck)
Irresistible Reefs, Beaches and Historic Ruins = Mass Tourism
The coastline of the Riviera Maya is fringed by the world’s second longest barrier reef, only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef exceeds it. Officially named the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS), it is popularly called the Belize Barrier Reef. This ecosystem stretches from Isla Contoy, north of Cancun, to the Bay Islands of Honduras, over 1000 km to the south.
The reef system touches the coastlines of four countries: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
During the peak of the Mayan civilization (200 BC -900 AD) this Yucatan coast had a flourishing maritime trade. The route connected vast Mayan cities throughout southern Mexico and Central America. Large dugout canoes transported jade, obsidian, sea shells, salt and fabrics to destinations throughout the Mayan world and beyond. However, by the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500’s this was all ancient history. Only the silent ruins of sites like Tulum remained as witness to this past glory.
The Riviera Maya also happens to be a location that I am familiar with, having traveled its beaches, bays and byways since the late 70’s. Back then, Cancun was just building its first hotels. The small fishing village of Playa de Carmen was home to less than 1000 (now over 350,000). The road to Tulum was a recently built, single lane, unpaved logging road through the jungle. At Tulum, you slept on the beach. There were no accommodations-no exaggeration, NONE. This changed with the advent of refrigeration, air conditioning and mass tourism.
“Place Of The Turtle”
A lot of our story runs through the beautiful fishing village/resort of Akumal (“place of the turtle” in the Mayan language). This town is just a few miles north of Tulum. Its shallow bay is a perfect sea grass habitat, the primary food source for green sea turtles. The animals bury their eggs in the soft sandy beaches.
In the 1950’s, Akumal was a coconut plantation. Only reachable by boat from Cozumel and Chetumal, its placid lagoon echoed with the crash of waves on the surrounding coral reefs. Centuries ago, these reefs doomed two passing ships. The cultural repercussions proved enormous.
Gonzalo Guerrero, Mayan Warrior = Social Change
In 1511, a Spanish caravel out of Panama headed for the island of Santo Domingo. It shipwrecked on the Yucatan coast. Sixteen members of the crew drifted for two weeks in a lifeboat until brought ashore at Akumal. The local Maya captured and enslaved the crew. The two survivors were Geronimo De Aguilar, a Spanish friar, and the mariner Gonzalo Guerrero. After eight years De Aguilar joined the passing armada of the Hernando Cortez expedition. Speaking fluent Mayan, he became a translator for Cortez on his historic conquest of Motezuma and the Aztec Empire.
Meanwhile, Gonzalo Guerrero, the seaman, became a Mayan warrior. He fought for the local chief Nachan Can, married his daughter Zazil Há and fathered the first mestizo children in Mexico. La Raza, the people of mixed European and indigenous blood is the primary race of today’s Mexico. When forced to choose between the Spanish or his new Mayan community, Guerrero led his Mayan warriors into battle against the Spanish. A bronze statue at Akumal’s entrance commemorates the life of Gonzalo Guerrero. He stands as a him as a Mayan warrior surrounded by his family.
Two hundred years later a second Spanish ship the “Nuestra Senora de los Milagros (Our Lady of Miracles) ran out of miracles on Akumal’s reef.
The ship set sail from Cadiz, Spain packed with trade goods intended for the New World Spanish colonies. On Feb. 22, 1741, the 73-foot long armed merchant ship floundered and sank off the southern tip of Akumal bay.
Why would a ship sail at the mercy of the trade winds, with the treacherous reefs of the Yucatan as a lee shore?
Spain was at war with England and the Caribbean shipping lanes were infested with English privateers based in Jamaica. The Spanish considered these privateers as little better than pirates. Is it possible that Captain Juan Bacaro hoped to avoid English pirates by choosing a more hazardous, less traveled course?
We’ll never know exactly what doomed this ship. But, what we do know more than two centuries after the wreck, makes this story even more interesting.
Salvaging the Matanceros
For centuries, rumors of the wreck and occasional artifacts that washed ashore kept the ship’s memory alive. In 1957, Robert Marx and journalist Clay Blair used hookah dive gear to locate the wreck site. After uncovering thousands of artifacts, they were arrested by Mexican police. The police assumed they were looting gold. No gold was found, and the Americans were released. In 1959, they joined with Mexican divers from CEDAM led by Pablo Bush Romero. They continued the salvage, removing numerous canon and anchors off of what is now known as the “Matanceros.” (photo – Pablo Bush)
For Pablo Bush, a successful businessman from Mexico City, diving on the Matanceros was his first exposure to the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast and its spectacular coral reefs. He instantly fell in love with its beauty and potential.
Bush bought Akumal’s coconut plantation and thousands of surrounding acres. He founded the town of Akumal as a community to support scuba divers and built his home on the rocky point at the bay’s north tip. The walkway that winds around his home is adorned with canons from the Matanceros and passes the casitas built to house visiting divers. (photo – Maya Frerck)
Diving and the Development of the Riviera Maya
Scuba Diving in Mexico began on the coral reefs at Akumal and the nearby Island of Cozumel. Today, Akumal bay has become a marine sanctuary for its famous sea turtles. Read more about this in our upcoming episodes.
These two shipwrecks had historic implications for Mexico. They altered the country’s cultural and racial makeup. They created an environment for the the development of the Riviera Maya as a world-renowned tourism and diving destination.
In this series “Can Mass Tourism Be Sustainable?” we will explore the Riviera Maya as poster child for sustainability issues the global marine tourism industry is facing. We will cover:
- The Yucatan’s unique and challenging geology and cenote diving;
- The sustainability of mega resorts along the coast;
- Corruption and ecotourism in Tulum;
- Coastline and mangrove degradation;
- Recycling and waste removal infrastructure;
- Over-fishing, marine sanctuaries and invasive species like lionfish, and;
- The efforts of local individuals and organizations to create education and coral reef restoration.
Hopefully the hard lessons learned on the Riviera Maya will have applications around the globe.
Please stay tuned to our social sites and page to read more on #SustaintheBlue and the #RivieraMaya.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean.net
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