Cancun Then and Now: Has Tourism Ruined Paradise?

By Brian McGee

The Mexican beach resort of Cancun, with its white-sand beaches, coral reefs and nightlife, attracts more than 3 million tourists a year.

The area’s transformation in the 1970s from a small Caribbean fishing village into a strip of nightclubs and high-rise hotels has reduced biodiversity and polluted water resources as infrastructure struggles to keep up, critics say.

Furthermore, the loss of mangrove swamps, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes, to make way for hotels and other buildings has increased the risk when natural disasters strike, according to environmentalists.

In the high season from about December to early April, tourists from the United States, Europe and further afield crowd the resort to swim and snorkel off usually pristine white beaches, party in the resort’s many nightclubs and play golf. Cancun is also popular with Mexicans.

“Tourism is now one of the major drivers of the country’s economic growth,” Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid Cordero said last month at a travel fair in Cancun.

Related: How to Eat Like a Local in Mexico City

Mexico will attract 30 million visitors this year, generating more than $17 billion in revenue, the government says. Top resorts include Cancun, the nearby Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast.

Following the hotel building boom, Cancun’s population expanded too, reaching more than 600,000 by 2010.

Mass tourism has changed the landscape. Mexico has already lost 65 percent of its mangroves, according to environmental group Greenpeace, and more are disappearing with each passing year.

Fewer mangroves lead both to coastal erosion and greater risk of damage when hurricanes do strike, according to CEMDA, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.

“Tourists don’t come to Cancun just for the hotel buildings,” Alejandra Serrano, an environmental lawyer and coordinator of CEMDA’s Cancun office, told Reuters by telephone. “They come because of the sea and the beach.”


Beach-goers have had another environmental challenge to contend with recently. Tons of brown seaweed have choked beaches in resorts throughout the Caribbean including Cancun this season, prompting local authorities to launch a large-scale clean-up operation. The Sargassum algae releases a pungent smell as it decomposes and even before then contains biting sand fleas.

Related: Caribbean Clogged: Seaweed Invasion Takes Over Beaches

Theories vary as to the cause of the seaweed in such quantities, from rising sea temperatures to a change in currents. Tourists in Cancun were heard complaining of how the seaweed hampered their access to the sea, and some even talked of cutting short their stay because of it.

Forty years after the first tourism developments, building continues in Cancun. Current projects include Malecon Tajamar Cancun, a 170-acre beachside site containing offices and more than 2,500 homes, according to a promotional video on YouTube.

Mexico is among countries likely to see tourism playing a larger role in the economy in the next decade, the World Travel and Tourism Council says. Reconciling that with environmental concerns is part of the challenge faced by resorts such as Cancun. Bodies including the United Nations World Tourism Organization are prodding countries including Mexico in that direction.

“Cancun can be an attractive destination,” CEMDA’s Serrano says. “What we need is lower impact tourism.”

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