Margarita Romanovich examines the negative impacts of rapidly rising Tourism in Cancún, Mexico
How did Cancún’s most famous high-rise hotel strip look back in the 1970s? Have a look for yourself.
The small Caribbean fishing village was transformed into a 21st Century tourism mecca in just 45 years and now looks something like that. It is fascinating what human beings are capable of, isn’t it?
People from all around the world are drawn to Cancún’s sugar white beaches, turquoise sea, ludicrous all-inclusive hotel bargains and booming nightlife. With a record of five million visitors last year, the average hotel’s occupancy rates reaching an all-time high of 86%, airport expansion and Expedia announcing the resort top for package bookings it’s no wonder that the tourism industry in Cancún is booming and is predicted to continue growing. However, the challenges that the mass tourism has brought to the area, including environmental degradation and economic inequality, are usually neglected and underestimated in terms of their negative impacts.
Environmental degradation has evolved in many forms and continues to intensify further. According to Greenpeace, Mexico has already lost 65% of its mangroves and more are disappearing with each passing year. Mangrove systems not only provide nursery habitat for many wildlife species and improve coastal water quality but also, most importantly, serve as a natural barrier against hurricanes. The high-rise hotels on Cancún’s strip, especially, are at a greater risk when disaster strikes. During my trip to Cancún, I noticed that this 14-mile hotel zone is exceedingly exposed to the sea with its extremely harsh waves. Swimming there requires extra caution and substantial physical effort.
The crispy white-sand beaches are occasionally choked with tons of brown seaweed that not only releases a pungent smell as it decomposes but also contains biting sand fleas. It is believed to be caused by the rising sea temperatures and polluted water as the waste from the hotels is being released in the sea. This is an obvious call for action!
Cancún is a city of contrasts. On one side, there is a paradise with 5 star palaces that each operate as a self-contained mini city and, on the other side, there is an uncontrolled mega urban sprawl, where in some cases the government failed to provide water supply and basic sanitation facilities. Job opportunities created by tourism industry have attracted people to move to Cancún from all the corners of the World, causing dramatic change over a relatively short period of time.
In the 1970s its population was about 120 people and now it’s peaking at 700,000 people. From a snake-infested jungle in one of the poorest regions of an emerging nation it has been transformed into a “money-making factory”, that now contributes an estimated $4.86 billion to the local economy or around 20.8% of the total nation’s tourism income. But how much of this income actually stays within the country? Resorts in Cancún are almost entirely owned by international developers with most of them from Spain and the US and just 5 or 6 owners are from Mexico. Being more specific, only 5 big hotel operators control 80% of all tourism in Cancún. Meanwhile, locals involved in tourism industry on average earn about 5 dollars per day and even though it is more than the national average people in Cancún are hugely reliant on tipping.
Destinations that become over reliant on tourism industry are likely to overexploit their natural and human resources. And, unfortunately, Cancún’s story is nothing new, as development of mass-market tourist destinations tends to replicate itself across the globe. And this is where the vicious circle happens: hotel and tourism operators, by acting unsustainably, deteriorate the attractiveness of the wider surroundings that tourists were drawn to in the first place, and, consequently, harm themselves in the long-run.
Featured Image: Safa @ Wikimedia Commons
Other Image: Laura Winfree