Mesoamerican Reef

Turning Mass Tourism into a Conservation Ally

Cruise ship in Riviera Maya

The Yucatan Peninsula attracts millions of cruise passengers a year.

The same tropical climate and clear water that facilitated the development of the Mesoamerican Reef over the course of millennia have helped make the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations in a matter of decades. Ivory beaches, turquoise sea, and multicolored marine life draw close to ten million visitors to Cancún and the nearby Riviera Maya every year, and have made the island of Cozumel one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean.

The construction of resorts and other tourism infrastructure and the steady migration of people from other parts of Mexico to work in the industry have transformed this once idyllic corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and placed growing pressure on the MAR and coastal ecosystems.

Effluents from hotels and coastal communities increase the amount of nutrients in the ocean, which can boost the growth of algae that compete with coral and alter the reef’s structure. Increased boat traffic and dive tourism have damaged corals and other marine life. Poorly planned coastal development has also destroyed mangroves estuaries, which serve as valuable nurseries for many marine species, or closed their lifeline connections to the sea. And unbridled growth and insufficient sewage treatment threaten the unique underground river system.

To help reverse the direction of mass tourism, the Summit Foundation supports the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), a collaboration of NGOs, the tourism sector, and the state government of Quintana Roo that promotes sustainable tourism practices and reduction of the industry’s overall footprint on the environment. MARTI’s members include Sustainable Travel International (which serves as secretariat), Riviera Maya Hotel Association, Coral Reef Alliance, Amigos de Sian Ka’an, Rainforest Alliance, Grupo Intersectorial de Cozumel, and Quintana Roo State Tourism Ministry. MARTI also works closely with Mexico’s premier environmental law group, Mexican Center for Environmental Law, and other local NGOs and government agencies.

MARTI uses a three-pronged approach for mitigating tourism’s negative impacts on the MAR, with programs focused on engaging hotels and resorts, marine recreation operators, and cruise lines. More than 130 hotels and 80 marine tourism companies have joined the initiative, taking an array of steps to reduce the negative impacts of their operations and become more environmentally and socially responsible.

A local guide's boat on the beach in Puerto Morelos, Mexico.

A local guide’s boat provides marine tourism services in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. Credit: Jason Houston/iLCP.

All hotels participating in the MARTI program are making efforts to save energy by replacing lighting, heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration equipment with energy efficient models. Ten hotels will expand efforts by voluntarily pledging to reduce their carbon footprints 3-5% by 2017. This will represent a reduction of more than 5,800 tons of CO2, equivalent to the annual emission of 969 cars.

MARTI emphasizes the business advantages of sustainable tourism and the importance of protecting the reef, one of the region’s main attractions, for the future of tourism in Quintana Roo. In just five years, the number of hotel rooms in the area has increased by 40%, which makes engaging developers as critical as working with existing hotels. MARTI consequently collaborated with the state Ministry of Tourism to produce and a promote a Guide for Sustainable Planning, Design, and Construction in the Mexican Caribbean, aimed at developers, architects, and construction companies.

“This guide provides a complete and easy way to understand the legislation and all the aspects that one needs to know when developing a real estate project. But, for me, even more valuable is that it helped integrate the environmental part that previously had been viewed as something totally separate from the urban development sector,” said Sergio Vasquez, Director of Urban Tourism Studies for the government of Quintana Roo.

Cruise passengers prepare to dive.

Cruise passengers prepare for a Cozumel dive tour.

To counter the threats posed by marine tourism, MARTI promotes the adoption of voluntary standards by scuba diving, snorkeling, and recreational boating companies through workshops and walkthrough assessments that result in suggestions for improving their operations. More than 1,300 snorkeling guides, boat captains, and other tourism workers have completed the course, and over 80 businesses have completed an environmental walkthrough.

One of MARTI’s goals has been to get the cruise lines that visit the region to give preference to marine tourism operators that have improved their environmental practices. MARTI is working with Sustainable Travel International to engage the cruise lines, tour operators, government agencies, and the tourism sector as a whole on the island of Cozumel in a cooperative effort to improve the impact and quality of tourism there. This comprehensive destination approach involves a broad group of stakeholders that is defining a common vision and an action plan that could serve as a model for other cruise destinations along the MAR and the greater Caribbean.

Improving water management and sewage treatment in the region is another priority because water-borne nutrients and other pollutants constitute a major threat to the coral reefs. In the Caribbean, 85% of wastewater is discharged untreated into the sea. MARTI’s members work with local authorities, community groups, and tourism businesses to reduce the amount of untreated wastewater that ends up on the MAR. Tactics include connecting more households to water treatment plants, promoting water conservation awareness, and mapping important underground aquifers to argue for their protection.

MARTI has created a model of cross-sector cooperation among NGOs, industry, and government that has made major progress in turning mass tourism into a conservation ally.

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