Beach in Akumal. Beach in Akumal.

Akumal suffering from unsustainable growth

A plan is required to protect the turtles and support the local community

Can the once sleepy town of Akumal, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum on the Mexican Caribbean, prosper without destroying its main source of income, the sea turtles, and make sure that economic growth contributes to a sustainable future?

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The combination of blue waters, amazing sea turtles, monumental coral reefs, soft white sandy beaches and tranquility has for years defined the tourism product for Akumal. In fact, “Akumal” means “place of the turtle” in Maya.

However, the hotels along Akumal Bay, like most of the development in the Riviera Maya, are the result of an outdated economic model that does not take into account the maintenance of the natural resources that define this once bucolic Caribbean destination or the resulting population growth, not to mention the well-being of the workers who make up the Akumal community or “pueblo.”

Sustainable tourism has been discussed by decision-makers for years, but has had little success in practice. Today, Akumal suffers the pangs of this unsustainable growth. Hotels are adding rooms and a new 400-room hotel is being built on Akumal Bay.

In addition, the 100 hectares of pristine jungle, mangroves, lagoons and underground rivers nestled between Akumal’s Half Moon Bay and the highway has been sold and will bring in more development, with greater pressure on the bays and an already burdened local infrastructure.

Moreover, a development plan for two golf courses and thousands of homes promises to destroy about 900 hectares of jungle and push Akumal to a population of 250,000 by 2030.

What will happen to the sea turtles? Over the past 10 years, the sea grass in Akumal Bay has grown quite a lot due to the changes in the seabed caused by several hurricanes in 2005. This turned the bay into a great feeding ground for the green sea turtles, with more juvenile turtles arriving each year to enjoy the rich sea grass.

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On some days, up to 50 turtles can be seen in the bay. The incredible experience of being able to regularly “swim-with the turtles” so close to shore has brought with it an avaricious market of snorkel tour providers, all trying to cash in on nature’s wonder. Tours are offered by myriad companies, taxis, informal groups and unauthorized individuals.

Unfortunately, many of the turtles are showing signs of stress: the herpestype virus, Fibropapilomatosis, is now present in tumors on at least six of the turtles. Their habitat is unhealthy and they are in trouble. These endangered species generate at least US $3 million in revenue per year for numerous companies, legal and illegal alike.

A federal wildlife agency permit is required to conduct commercial tours to swim with the turtles because they are an endangered species. All the permits have expired. It is now a question of determining who has the right to these snorkel tours.

The older dive shops and hotels are fighting to maintain a monopoly on the snorkel business. The longtime hotel and dive shop owners are also the board members of Centro Ukana I Akumal, Centro Ecológico Akumal or CEA, an environmental organization, which also owns property on the bay.

CEA has even formed its own “cooperative” to compete with the other local operators. They are striving to keep the local people out so they can continue to profit from the sea turtles under the guise of “protecting” them. While attempting to limit the number of snorkelers brought in each day by the local cooperatives, the hotels and dive shops bring in twice that number under the conservation center’s permit.

Likewise, a new hotel has been built and now brings in tours from its other hotel in the Riviera Maya at the expense of the local cooperatives from the community across the highway. One cannot argue, in the name of sea turtle protection, against local operators being allowed to earn a living on snorkel tours, while making millions running the same tours.

Restrictions and regulations need to be established and enforced in order to control the number of tours in the bay each day. Equally critical is the issue of free public beach access guaranteed by the Mexican constitution. The property owners have submitted proposals to limit, control and charge for public access.

This has to be clarified by the proper authorities. Once the official entrance is recognized, order can begin to be established. It is clear that the current situation is not environmentally, economically or socially sustainable.

The question arises: how can there be so much poverty in the local community of workers when there is so much revenue being generated in Akumal? A new economic structure must be put into place, one that gives the local people stewardship of the sea turtles and marine ecosystem while allowing for regulated use.

This can be achieved through the recently decreed Akumal Marine Wildlife Refuge, that provides one set of rules for everyone and ensures economic benefit for the local cooperatives. The official process is still under way, and a management plan must be prepared.

Until now, economic benefit has been defined as hotels providing jobs and managing all the tours, while giving charity to limited social development projects among the poor. The current feudal-like system must be abandoned if coastal tourism in the Mexican Caribbean is to reach sustainability.

The local operators could manage all the snorkel tours, directly providing a service for Akumal’s hotel guests. A percentage of the funds earned by the local companies can be put into a trust that is managed by a local, transparent, accountable, legally established committee. The local people should decide how these funds should be distributed in order to improve their town, rather than depending on charity from the hotels.

 To get Akumal on the path to a sustainable future, the following steps must be taken:

Federal government re-establishes official public entrance to the beach;

Federal government declares the Sea Turtle Refuge with a management plan where local cooperatives and dive shops manage tours, through a local committee made up of hotels, dive shops, cooperatives and other stakeholders, with government oversight;

Control of snorkel tours administered through state land at the entrance by a locally managed tourist visitor center, through which all snorkel tours must pass for a brief orientation;

Local committee legally established to oversee social projects;

Unauthorized businesses must be prohibited from operating along the entrance road to Akumal and in other areas. Achieving these goals will help guarantee the environmental, economic and social prosperity of Akumal.

The writer is director of the Mexican Organization for Environmental Conservation.

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  • zihuarob

    This is what you get when you mix corrupt and short-sighted politicians, greedy developers and a tropical paradise. We’re fighting the same thing here in Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa. Allowing the natural areas that have always been the great attraction to be developed, imitating places like Acapulco. What’s left when they win is low-budget tourists, criminal gangs, water shortages, infrastructure failure, ecological disasters, noise, and pollution.

    • Herradura Plata

      All this is agreed. But it is fit to remember that rapcious tourist development is driven by rapacious consumer demand; in this context, read “gringo” demand. These are tourist folks whose consumerist lives are defined by imagery; a full-page photo of sunrise over a torquoise sea in glossy mags like Vogue or Esquire beats out aesthetic/ecological concerns every day.

      • Mark

        I was thinking el mismo Herradura. This is all being driven by tourist demand. Built it and they will come and they won’t stop building until the tourists stop coming. However, I don’t see this occurring anytime soon given the power of the internet and positive reviews in places like TripAdvisor that keep singing the praises of the Mayan Riviera.

        There needs to be a moratorium on new resorts in this area until a proper impact assessment of all this development is done.

        How long before resort development starts down in Punta Allen? Seems inevitable.

  • [email protected]

    A large resort is being built just north of the Grand Palladium, which is just north of Akumal. This is on a formerly deserted stretch of beach that used to have lots of turtles nesting on it. This area should have been protected as well but Mexico and Quintana Roo clearly are more concerned about money from tourists that anything else.

    We have been going to the Mayan Riviera each year for several years but that will soon be stopping I think. What a shame that this has been allowed to happen.

    • Yes saw this destruction first hand in Dec. They cleared the mangroves and the buildings are quite close to the beach…the privates property north of this New Hard Rock where the turtle biologist lived is still for sale.. I have walked this beach many nights with the staff of the Campaento Tortuguero from the Grand Palladium during turtle season… The Palladium has sincere commitment to the environment…I wish other hotels would follow their lead and try to preserve and protect what is there naturally.

  • Paxton

    What is happening with Caleta Yal Ku? It is one of my favorite places to visit and snorkel.

  • Dominic Vara

    Sea Turtles are amazing creatures. We live in Juno Beach Florida which is home to the Loggerhead Marine Life Center; one of the worlds leaders in Sea Turtle research, habitat and rehabilitation. The job that they do educating the public about sea turtles is amazing. It is absurd that untrained-unlicensed locals take tourists swimming and touching the turtles in Mexico. They should be admired from a distance and sequestered from the public bathing areas.

  • mgb gt

    My wife and I love Akumal we have been going for over 10 years, we have a great relationship with the Akumal people and understand what the hotels are doing to the rightful owners of the beach which are the people who live in the old town, and many of them have families who fish and swim in the bay, but for the hotels to fence them out is wrong.

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