Mesoamerican Reef

Partnering with Hotels and Developers to Promote Sustainable Tourism

The Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

On the northeastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, between Cancun and Tulum, lies the idyllic Riviera Maya, with more than 70,000 hotel rooms spread along its beaches. Developers continue to build new resorts, homes, and condos there, and because of the way those projects are sited and built, they often pose significant threats to nearby reefs and coastal ecosystems.

The Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) has helped more than 130 hotels and resorts on the Riviera Maya to implement sustainable tourism practices that reduce the negative impacts of their operations and make them more socially responsible.

MARTI targeted the biggest resorts and tour operators first, which helped the initiative achieve impressive results. About 32,000 hotel rooms have participated, representing 41% of the total in the destination. Those businesses have taken steps to improve their energy and water efficiency, wastewater treatment, solid waste management, ecosystem conservation and other aspects of their operations. Ultimately, the expectation is for them to reduce their collective carbon footprint and help protect the MAR.

Sowing Sustainability

When MARTI began in 2006, nobody was talking about these issues. We started by knocking on doors, but now the hotels call us,” said Adriana del Angel, who helps hotels and resorts implement sustainable tourism practices for the Riviera Maya Hotel Association, which manages MARTI’s hotel component.

MARTI hotels

MARTI has worked with 130 hotels in the Riviera Maya to implement more sustainable practices.

Del Angel explained that MARTI has shown hotel managers that sustainable tourism can improve their bottom line while making their properties more attractive to environmentally conscious vacationers. In a sample of 20 hotels, MARTI found that they reduced, on average, their water consumption by 17%, energy consumption by 13%, and the use of gas by almost 8% thanks to the implementation of the program’s best practices.

Bahia Principe Hotels and Resorts, one of the first hotels to join the MARTI program, has replaced its lighting and cooling and heating systems with more efficient energy systems and reduced its waste while increasing recycling and composting. It now plans to replace 100% of the gasoline-powered carts used to transport tourists with a fleet of electric vehicles.

At Azul Beach House, part of the Karisma Group, 100% of its non-pool wastewater is treated and used for irrigation and cleaning. This reduced the amount of wastewater that could infiltrate groundwater and damage the reef, and also lowered the high costs of using potable water. By replacing air conditioning and refrigeration systems and using LED lighting, Azul Beach also reduced its electricity consumption from 40 to 30 kilowatt hours per guest.

Manuel Paredes

Manuel Paredes.

Manuel Paredes, Executive Director of the Riviera Maya Hotel Association, explained that while some of the smaller hotels were unable to make all the changes required to “graduate” from the program, 108 of them implemented environmental management systems and complied with at least 80% of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) for hotels. At least 43 of those hotels have since been certified or verified by globally recognized sustainable tourism programs; and 15 of them are engaged with MARTI on a second phase which includes a climate change component with steps to further reduce their carbon emissions, offset remaining emissions, and adapt to climate change.

“MARTI has become a model on the state and federal level,” said Paredes, who explained that while helping the tourism industry adopt voluntary environmental standards, MARTI’s member organizations have participated in public consultations aimed at improving tourism policy in the state.

“I think that one of MARTI’s greatest contributions has been its participation in a process that is resulting in the institutionalization of many of the environmental standards that it promotes,” he said. Paredes added that MARTI has also trained an army of specialists in environmental management. Most of the 108 hotels that graduated from MARTI’s program have hired sustainability managers who, in turn, train other staff in environmental policies and practices. More than 26,000 hotel personnel have received training in sustainable practices and environmental issues since MARTI was launched. Many of them transfer the good practices and awareness to their homes and communities, which is especially important given the region’s burgeoning population.

Guiding Developers

Mangrove lagoons once populated the area of Cancún.

In an effort to change the prevailing model of tourism infrastructure design, siting, and construction, MARTI member Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK) worked closely with the Quintana Roo state Tourism Ministry (SEDTUR) in the production of the Guide for Sustainable Planning, Design and Construction in the Mexican Caribbean intended for developers, architects, and construction companies. Melisa Mendoza, who coordinated the project for ASK, explained that MARTI and SETUR have promoted the Guide at tourism fairs, conferences, and international events. ASK has also held workshops for government officials and members of the local professional associations of architects, engineers, notaries (who register land sales), and real estate agents. ASK and the Hotel Association have participated in public consultations for the development of a voluntary regulatory framework that complements the guide and hotel standards.

MARTI’s efforts to get developers to do the right thing is complemented by the work of the Mexican Environmental Law Center (CEMDA), which investigates and reports environmental abuses such as illegal roads or the destruction of mangroves. ASK and CEMDA collaborated on a study of mangrove distribution that determined that 55% of the region’s mangrove forests have been destroyed in the past 25 years – making it all the more critical to protect the resources that remain.

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