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?
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However, the hotels along Akumal Bay, like most of the development in the Riviera Maya, are the result of an outdated economic model that does not take into account the maintenance of the natural resources that define this once bucolic Caribbean destination or the resulting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.
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 herpes‐type 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.