Sea turtles have been coming to the beaches along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan for thousands of years. These soft sandy beaches are perfect for building turtle nests and sheltering hatchlings; and the beaches could not be more perfect than in Akumal Bay. So why has Akumal’s peaceful paradise, been ground zero for the Riviera Maya’s Turtle Wars?

akumal bay sea turtle riviera maya's turtle wars can tourism be sustainableWe began our series “Can Mass Tourism Be Sustainable?” by describing the early history of Akumal which in Mayan means “Place of the Turtles.”

In this episode, we return to Akumal to check on how the endangered green sea turtles are faring surrounded by the mass tourism of the Riviera Maya.


Tumultuous Events

The last five or six years have been tumultuous for Akumal, caused by the clash between mass tourism and turtles. You see, Akumal’s broad, sheltered bay is fertile ground for the sea grass that turtles love and on a good day you might have fifty sightings of the giant, gentle beasts lazily swimming in the shallow waters.

 riviera maya's turtle wars, akumal turtle sanctuary green sea turtle, mass tourism, bay, turtle wars, sustainability ecotourism

And that’s what drew the tourists, thousands of them, brought in by the bus load to snorkel with turtles. Everyone was making a lot of money: the hotels whose guests crowded the beach, the local dive shops that were renting equipment and the small snorkel vendors that set up shop in tiny kiosks that lined the single road funneling everyone into Akumal. For a tourist exiting a bus on the highway it was like running a gauntlet past the dive shacks, each hawking their prices and promising the best chance to “swim with the turtles.”


The “Pirates”

akumal crowded snorkelers riviera maya's turtle wars green sea turtles endangeredThese small off-beach operators rather proudly adopted the term “Pirates” to identify themselves from the larger beach hotel and dive operations. On a “good day” (really a bad day for the turtles) thousands of snorkelers and divers would be herded into the water, flap around a bit and be herded back up the beach to make room for more.

They might even have been lucky and glimpsed a sea turtle in the churned up, cloudy water, but it was certainly not the promised “experience of a life time”.

An impact study reportedly determined the sustainable number of divers should not exceed two hundred and fifty snorkelers a day, and yet individual beach-based operators were bringing in many times that number of snorkelers. The situation was clearly getting out of hand.  Most importantly, this free-for-all was definitely not good for the turtles.

akumal sea turtles israel gonzalez cropped riviera maya's turtle wars green sea turtle endangered reserve mpa

“They were showing signs of stress, with herpes type virus Fibropapillomatosis present in a number of the turtles,” said a longtime resident of Akumal. There can be many environmental factors that contribute to turtle disease, however stress can certainly be one of them and it might not be the quantity of snorkelers but the quality of the experience that is stressing turtles. It can come down to snorkeler etiquette. If snorkelers get too close or try to touch the turtles that can cause stress.


Fueling the Turtle Wars

Rivalry and animosity was growing between the pirates, the dive shops, Akumal’s hotels and the Centro Ecologico Akumal as they all wanted a piece of the action. (photo – Israel Gonzalez)

The Pirates resorted to erecting stone barricades across Akumal’s single road into town, turning back tourists, threatening residents and cutting off supplies (like food and water) to the resort’s restaurants and hotels. The conflict escalated to a point where few people could get in (including hotel workers, and guests with hotel reservations). Departing tourists left comparing Akumal to a war zone.


A Turtle Refuge is Finally Declared!

Nearly ten years before, the government had been petitioned to make Akumal a turtle refuge and finally on March 7, 2016 Akumal Bay was officially declared a marine refuge. Swimming with the turtles was temporarily suspended. Marines moved in (some wearing SWAT gear) to restore order and fence off access to the beach.  Traffic began moving again, along Akumal’s main road.

akumal bay sea turtles snorkeling suspension, riviera maya's turtle warsIt took time to determine what this new Marine Refuge status meant and to create guidelines to determine how many snorkelers were allowed, where they could swim and who received a license to bring them in.

These are decisions that needed to be resolved between all stakeholders including Akumal’s hotels and dive operators, CEA (Centro Ecologico Akumal) and the small local snorkel vendors, all overseen by the government. And herein lies the rub: Who are the “Pirates?”

It seems that about half are snorkel vendors from the local community living in the pueblo of Akumal and the other half are not locals, but outside operators that bring tourists from other areas of the Riviera Maya as far as Cancun. Clearly lines needed to be drawn keeping the “insiders” in and the “outside operators” out.


Conflicting Interests Fuel Passions

Another complication is written into the Mexican constitution. All the country’s beaches are public and the constitution enshrines every Mexican’s right to use the beaches. The problem arises when access to the beach requires crossing private property. This is a big issue in Akumal where some of the hotels have closed off the public beach access, ostensibly to protect the turtles. The local snorkel vendors claim that this gives the hotels a monopoly on the commercial use of the beach. Consequently the issue of exactly where public access can and should be available must be one of the first orders of business.


Who Is a Local?

A related and deeper issue is in the very fabric of the rapidly growing population of the Riviera Maya. The original indigenous Mayan population has been dwarfed by the migrant labor brought in from other areas of Mexico. There are approximately 50,000 hotel rooms on the Riviera Maya and it is estimated that 18 migrants are brought in for each of those rooms. The majority of migrant workers are in construction and hospitality, hired by outsourcing companies with short-term contracts that prevent the laborers from forming unions and demanding worker’s rights. They often live in squalid, temporary housing without waste management infrastructure on the periphery of the area’s towns and cities. But these workers are here to stay due to the work opportunities. This issue comes to a head in Akumal where debate is focused on who is a “local”: Is it someone that has lived in Akumal for years, for a year or for several weeks?


Things are Looking Up!

akumal sea turtle by israel gonzalez green sea turtle riviera maya's turtle wars endangered reserve sanctuary mpaHaving just returned from Akumal we can personally report that for now peace has been restored to its’ beautiful beaches. Important guidelines have been established as to who can bring in snorkelers, how many and where they can swim. Buoys were installed that delimit the areas where commercial snorkeling tours can operate, keeping them separate from guide-free swimming areas and boating lanes. Two months of the year, in February and during the summer nesting season, swimming in turtle areas is curtailed. (photo – Israel Gonzalez)

Other aspects of the relationships between stakeholders continue to evolve, especially the role that the local pueblo and their snorkel vendors play in determining who shares in the financial benefits derived from Akumal’s turtle tourism. It’s hoped that some of the hard lessons learned in Akumal will be remembered by those who are creating marine protected areas around the world: Make the local community part of the equation, because it doesn’t work without them.


Sin Popote

Some important advances are more modest, such as the size of fins used while diving in Akumal Bay and a ban on plastic straws used in restaurants along the beach. Sin Popote “without straw” is now the rule in these locations. Introducing biodegradable take-out containers to replace styrofoam is happening in some of the local restaurants. however success has been mixed with a consistent supply reportedly a problem, and high tariffs on importing products into Mexico can be cost prohibitive; problems that are slowing down the switch from plastic to sustainable. Herein lies an opportunity for a supply chain that supports tourism in the Yucatan.


Pirates and Potholes

I always wondered why the “Pirates” needed barricades when they always had the enormous potholes on the main road. This year in addition to finding some paths towards a resolution of the Riviera Maya’s turtle wars, the town is filling in the potholes and paving the main road. The disappearance of potholes is a sign that there is progress being made to better handle the tourists who want to experience the turtles of Akumal.  And yet those potholes were a sign of an off-the-beaten track, sleepy little beach town and a part of Akumal’s very Mexican legacy that I am almost sad to see disappear.

Make sure to see the next episode in our series “Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable – The Riviera Maya” where we will explore recycling; is it done, who does it and what happens when it is not done correctly? We’ll also take you on a tour of one man’s solution to recycling, “build your own plastic island!”

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See These Related Stories on Sustainable Tourism:

Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 3, The Riviera Maya: Marine Protected Areas
Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 2, The Riviera Maya: Geology and Pollution
Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Riviera Maya Part 1, Beginnings
World’s Largest Underwater Cave gives up Amazing Secrets!
Nov. 29 – Dec. 1: Sustainable Ocean Summit
Update: New Marine Protected Areas Created in Brazil:
International Year of Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable Tourism in Palau
UN Ocean Conference dives into “Life Below Water” with Sustainable Development Goal #14
Marine Protected Areas: Good News, Bad News


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