This is the last article in our series: Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable?
This series explores what has made Mexico’s Riviera Maya a desirable tourism destination. What is the environmental legacy of rapid development on the area? This article Corruption and Greenwashing on the Riviera Maya looks at the sinister downside of Mass Tourism.
Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Puerto Adventuras, the towns along this stunningly beautiful Caribbean coast have all seen rapid growth. It is the resort town of Tulum, 130 kilometers south of Cancun, that is at the epicenter of an ongoing debate over the links between big money, corruption and sustainable tourism. (photo – Puc Na Tulum)
The Mayan Side of Tulum
The famous Mayan temples perched on the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean are world famous and vivid testimony to the indigenous population that inhabited this area for over five centuries.(photo – Robert Frerck)
Today, eco-chic resorts dot the coast south of the ancient ruins. They are crowded with sunbathers on a spectacular beach where once only sea turtles visited.
The Dark Side of Tulum
The town of Tulum, just inland from the beach strip, has grown nearly 25% annually over the last decade. The beach resorts have become world famous as “eco-chic destinations.” Tourists can choose the beach, yoga, gourmet vegan meals or shopping in the fashionable boutiques. These resorts are billed as eco-conscious, but do they really live up to the name?
The history of sustainability in Tulum is murky. Originally many of the resorts were small family-run enterprises that started ten or twenty years ago. The nearby town of Tulum did not exist in the 1970’s-80’s. But as cheap and easy air travel became available, mass tourism exploded. Cancun, Cozumel and then Playa Del Carmen grew rapidly as mass tourism spread southward along the coast of the Riviera Maya. Tulum is now where “the buck stops,” literally.
A Cornucopia of Goodies
With increased tourism comes increased income and, in this case, increased corruption. The Riviera Maya and Tulum is a cornucopia overflowing with goodies that have proved irresistible to local politicians. Money, dinero, pesos, muchos pesos, mucho mucho pesos have fueled this contemporary gold rush and along with the money has come the inevitable headlines. Politicians promise change and to clean out the swamp, but once in power quickly succumb to the lure of the lira, franc and euro as international dollars flood in.
The headlines would be quite funny if they were not so sad. For example, take the story of Edith Mendoza Pino, the ex-mayor of Tulum. She was arrested in 2012 while sitting in her locked SUV, refusing to get out. The police eventually towed the mayor, still in her SUV, to the police station. They had to pry open its doors with a “jaws of life” (not what that tool was originally envisioned to be used for). Once in the car, they discovered a valise stuffed full of cash sitting next to the mayor. It has been estimated that Mendoza Pino embezzled 42 million+ pesos from public funds! Money that could have been used for improving Tulum’s sewage system. (photo – noticaribe)
Just months ago the new mayor of Tulum was implicated in forced evictions of longtime hoteliers and landowners along the shore supposedly at the behest of large developers attempting to carve out prime, waterfront, real estate for mega-resorts.
Of course, corruption is not limited to Tulum.
Recently, the mayor of Playa del Carmen was arrested for embezzlement of millions of pesos and “irregularities.” Along the Riviera Maya corruption seems all too regular.
The higher up the political ladder, the more money you can expect to embezzle. The governor of the state of Quintana Roo from 2011 to 2016, Robert Borge Angulo, fled the country and went into hiding rather than face charges of corruption and illegally selling public land. After hanging out in Panama he was arrested while getting on a flight to Paris (after inadvertently posting his whereabouts on social media). He was extradited back to Mexico and now faces criminal charges of embezzling 900 million pesos.
The latest news is that Borge is suing the Federal Government for human rights abuse because he has lost weight in jail! Apparently, he can’t maintain his original rotundity on a prison diet.
5-Star Hotels, 2-Star Government
As Paul Sanchez Navarro, past director of Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) says pessimistically, “the only thing we have accomplished is to increase the value of the bribes charged.” For example, if you want to cut down mangrove forests to build a new resort, it requires a bigger bribe.
Exposing Corruption Is Risky!
As was described in Newsweek, reporting on this corruption is a job with inherent danger. In 2009, a local journalist and owner of the newspaper Expresiones de Tulum, José Velázquez López, was shot and killed while driving through Tulum. Velazquez had accused local authorities of corruption. Three years later, Álvaro López Joers, a lawyer representing some of Tulum’s evicted hoteliers, was shot dead in his office. Of course, neither crime has been solved.
Environmentalists have been threatened and thrown in jail. Recently the municipal police in Tulum were caught red-handed stealing endangered, sea turtle eggs on the beach. They were identified, but there is no recourse to allow charges to be brought. It seems the best strategy is just to let them know that you know what they are doing.
The Tulum Boom
As tourists discovered the spectacular beaches of Tulum, developers discovered the potential for tourism dollars, bringing in huge amounts of money from New York, Berlin and Paris.
An example of such inflated spending is this dining experience: Rene Redzepi, the chef of the world famous restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, opened a new restaurant in the jungle near Tulum where guests are served meals for $750 per person! That of course, includes drinks (and bananas). (photo – New York Times)
Fortunately, Noma’s new restaurant is not on the beach where raw sewage from the town flows into the sea. Tulum does have a water treatment facility. However, less than 30% of houses are connected. Locals often complain of stomach aches and diarrhea. “I’ve seen a 30 percent increase in gastrointestinal diseases in the last year alone,” says Jose Gabriel Lopez of Tulum’s Red Cross. “The health system here is still very deficient. The city just lacks infrastructure.”
This lack of infrastructure and vastly over-extended waste management has serious environmental implications for the health of the inter-connected fresh water aquifers beneath Tulum. Read about this in part 2 of this series: Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable; Riviera Maya, Geology.
What the Future Holds?
But Corruption and Greenwashing on the Riviera Maya does not need to be! There is hope and some things have improved. The resorts along the shore are now connected to the town’s power system, no longer needing individual generators. Evictions have stopped for the moment, maybe because of press coverage. Tulum town built a new dump sufficient for the next five years (although it is rumored that it is already overfilled). Most importantly, there are dedicated organizations like Razo Natura and Centinelas (keepers) de agua, that are doing their best to prevent ecological damage and limit the excesses of over-development.
And in contrast to the mega developers, there are smaller players that have a different vision for Tulum’s future and want to do the right thing. One standout exception is The Papaya Playa Project, a hotel and restaurant with a compelling mission that is the antithesis of mega resorts:
“Papaya Playa Project, together with Design Hotels™, has set out to discover a new form of hospitality, merging local culture, and sustainability to set the stage for original and aspirational hospitality experiences. Most importantly the Project is a cornerstone in the manifestation of our vision of a sustainable and responsible Tulum that can be an example of hospitality development around the world.” (photo – The Papaya Playa Project)
When booking a holiday to places like this in the Riviera Maya and similar destinations, consider how your tourism dollars could be spent. Staying at a hotel like the Papaya Playa Project elevates your impact on the community and environment from negative to neutral or in many cases, net positive! We encourage you to think this way and will be bringing you many options for your sustainable holiday destinations in future features. In the meantime, use this example as a starting point for your research, and be sure to let us know what you find!
Returning to a Place Always Changing
Having explored Tulum for forty years, since a time when it was just beach, jungle, turtles and ancient ruins, I have watched the changes taking place with chagrin and horror. I still have hope that there will be a part of the Riviera Maya and Tulum that will remain and continue to draw me back with all the others that have fallen in love with this stretch of paradise.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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