MEXICO: An Ugly
Fight at Pretty Site
Developers join environmentalists to oppose a cruise-ship pier on
Mexico's Great Maya Reef. A glut of tourists endangers the area.
Copyright 2003, LA
Date: January 20, 2003
Byline: Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
XCARET, Mexico -- Swim
with the dolphins. Feed the fish. Touch baby turtles. Watch quail
eggs hatch on cue, ahead of closing time at the aquatic theme park
here that is the Maya Riviera's most popular commercial attraction.
Communing with nature has long been the big draw for many of the 3
million tourists who visit this coast each year to vacation on
alabaster beaches lapped by aquamarine waters along the Great Maya
So many get so close to the fragile flora and fauna on the
Caribbean shore, which is now encrusted with resorts from Cancun
to the overrun ruins at Tulum, that the natural jewels are at risk
of destruction. The coral is dwindling and the turtles are dying
That is why the latest large-scale tourism venture proposed for
this trampled playground -- a pier for cruise ships that would
bring additional day-trippers by the thousands -- has incited an
unlikely alliance of opponents. They include environmentalists,
Maya rights activists and early-bird entrepreneurs eager to
protect the part of paradise they have already tamed for the
"Our entire ecology has been 'concessionized,' " said
Aniseto Caamal Colon of the indigenous-rights group Yuxcuxtal,
which means "green life" in Mayan. The group sees the
pier project as a threat to the sea life, land and lifestyles.
"The indigenous people who are supposed to benefit from
development are being left along the wayside. We can't even go to
the beaches anymore because the only access is from private
Environmentalists and business interests are opposed to the
project not so much for its ecological shortcomings as for its
contribution to the cumulative risks posed to the 220-mile coral
reef, the second largest after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Although no one development is blamed for the dwindling coral and
sea life, tourism and the facilities built to accommodate the
throngs are cited in environmental impact reviews and studies
detailing the damage, such as one conducted late last year by the
Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
"The government usually grants permission for a project on
condition that the environmental problems are resolved, but not
one project in this area conforms to those laws and conditions,"
said Araceli Dominguez, who runs a small, eco-friendly hotel in
the nearby town of Playa del Carmen. "All we can do is say,
'No more.' "
Dominguez is spearheading resistance to the pier project, leading
the region's first broad-based effort to put an environmental foot
down after 30 years of resort construction. She is confident of
winning because of support from Cancun's business leaders, who are
using their considerable resources to push the federal
environmental agency for another review. They also have influence
with the local municipality, where a pending building permit is
the remaining obstacle to the start of construction.
"It's quite funny to see these developers we are usually
fighting against bringing out refreshments and helping us put up
loudspeakers at demonstrations," Dominguez said.
The battle is against Puerta Cancun-Xcaret, also known as Home
Port, a joint venture between the theme park's owners and Carnival
Cruise Lines, the biggest player in the luxury cruise industry
that combined deploys half its global fleet to the Caribbean.
Once in full operation by 2007, the pier and terminal would be a
home port offering departures for cruise ships four times a week
and day visits for more than two dozen others. That is expected to
bring 800,000 more tourists a year to the already-bustling shores
of Quintana Roo state, the eastern flank of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Home Port's promoters argue that cruise ships will be visiting
anyway and that failure to build a departure base will only serve
to reduce Mexico's share of the fastest-growing sector of the
tourism market. A few cruise ships already make day visits,
docking at a gravel port a few hundred yards south of the proposed
Miguel Quintana is majority owner of the Xcaret theme park and
holds a 70% share of the Mexican half-stake in the Home Port
project, which would put cruise ship passengers within walking
distance of his current investment. While park attendance would
surely benefit from its proximity to the cruise ships, Quintana
said the pier is needed to make Mexico a player, not just a
"Cruise ships have been visiting the same 12 Caribbean
islands for more than 50 years," he said in defending a new
route. "This is very attractive for Spanish-speaking
Europeans, and as the only home port that is not in the United
States, passengers won't need U.S. visas, and that opens the
The project will benefit the Maya Riviera communities, Quintana
said, because Carnival has promised a share of its disembarkation
fees to the local government to invest in education, public works
and health care. Most towns along the coast are slums screened off
from the luxury resorts by landscaping and fences.
Quintana acknowledges that outside the 200-acre Xcaret theme park,
the 1,300 jobs it provides have done little to raise living
standards for the local population, which is 80% Maya. In fact,
argue indigenous-rights activists, the park and other huge
construction projects serve only to attract unskilled jobless to
the region, making it more populous and poorer.
While greater Cancun grew over more than 30 years from a fishing
village to a city of 700,000, the Maya Riviera stretching south
has sprung up in little more than a decade. Xcaret and the
adjacent town of Solidaridad together had fewer than 15,000
residents before the park opened in 1990. Now their combined
population is 150,000.
The park is an undeniable economic success, drawing 800,000
visitors a year despite the hefty day-pass fee of nearly $50. But
activists contend it is a veritable monument to the subjugation of
nature to satisfy the fickle tastes of tourists.
The park is built along the Caribbean's natural coves and beaches
and stretches inland to accommodate sprawling displays of
re-created Maya village life, traditional sports and cultural
shows, and tanks and aquariums holding creatures in the aquatic
equivalent of a petting zoo. Many Yuxcuxtal activists and
defenders of sea life protest the presentations as artificial and
Much of the wildlife at Xcaret gets a helping hand from human
keepers. Turtle eggs laid along the beaches are collected and kept
at 12 seaside nurseries, with some of the offspring conscripted to
stock the lagoons and tanks at the park and others freed to the
sea once they reach 1 year old. Dolphins are lured to befriend
swimmers by regular feedings, as are multitudes of fish that crowd
around the sea stairs built to assist visitors.
The purveyors contend that they are supplying what visitors want
and that the attractions are in harmony with the regional beauty
that is their stage.
Macaws, which are the park's greeting committee as they perch in
primary-colored plumage alongside flamingos at the entrance, are
raised in captivity from eggs found abandoned in the wild, said
park publicity director Ana Aguilera.
"Macaws are bad mothers," Aguilera said. "They run
off and leave their eggs at the slightest noise or disruption."
Likewise, she said, the region's turtle population would have died
out by now if the park's wildlife experts weren't collecting and
protecting the eggs that would be vulnerable to predators if left
on the beach.
Opponents of the pier project accuse the developers of endangering
not just the environment but the economy as well.
Abelardo Vara, president of the Hotel Assn. of Quintana Roo,
argues that travelers destined for the cruise ships will cut into
the capacity of Cancun's airport, taking up airline seats and
landing slots. That, he argues, will reduce the number of visitors
who can get to the region's 46,000 hotel rooms.
With 80% of the local economy dependent on tourism, any drop in
occupancy could mean a loss of jobs, spreading misery through the
region, which generates 40% of Mexico's tourism revenue, Vara
"Cruise ships don't have locally based employees, so they
don't pay the same taxes we do, and that will hurt community
development budgets throughout the country," he said.
"Cruise ship passengers don't stay in hotels, they stay in
their staterooms. When they come ashore, they might buy a beer or
a T-shirt, but for the most part they spend their time and their
money on board."
Fernando Garcia, head of a hotel chain and chief market analyst
for the Cancun tourism industry, is as armed with figures proving
Home Port would cause economic doom as Quintana is equipped to
show its potential to enrich the region.
"They say it's only 30 boats per week, but that's 30 times
1,000 floating hotel rooms competing with the 46,000 we can't even
fill now," Garcia said.
With a glance toward the half-empty Cancun behemoths and the
possibility that Playa del Carmen might be building itself out of
the get-away-from-it-all market, another local businessman worries
that Maya Riviera residents already have killed the goose that
lays their golden eggs.
"What do we do in 20 years when we have no more coral and no
more turtles and no more fish?" asked Alberto Leonard, who
rents diving gear. "What will happen is that no one will want
to come here anymore and the tourism industry will simply move on
Originally posted at: Developers join environmentalists to
oppose a cruise-ship pier on Mexico's Great Maya Reef. A glut of
tourists endangers the area.