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On the road to self-destruction

Cancún of all places… A hostage of its own, the place is trapped in the vicious circle of tourism development, which both feeds it and kills it, no regrets.

The story of the 40 year-old

Just 40 years ago, Kankun (‘nest of snakes’ in Maya) was a thin island in the shape of a number 7, a sleepy fishing village with marshes, mangroves, virgin jungle and untouched beaches. The paradise lasted until 1970, when the government decided it was time for a new Acapulco, as the original one had been degraded and couldn’t serve as a reliable money pot any longer.

Thus a fake paradise was born: white sand was trucked in at the expense of ecosystems elsewhere, almost 400,000 m3of mangroves, crucial for the ecosystem, were dredged to make way for fancy hotels, and an international airport was inaugurated with 2.6 kilometres of runways.

The result – the 22 kilometre-long Hotel Zone – is disturbing, to say the very least. To describe it as ‘obscene’ and ‘heart-breaking’ is probably closer to the truth.

The Hotel Zone through a bus window. Before, this was a mangrove area.

Posh monster hotels, too tall, too heavy and too close to the shore, contribute to the massive beach erosion – so new sand has to be dug out from the seabed, destroying fragile coral reefs in the process. The hotels’ sewage and other waste contaminates the area – the stink from the artificially landlocked lagoon-become-landfill is impossible to miss, provided one leaves the all-inclusive hotel.

The lagoon.

This ecocide is doomed to continue: ‘The future is promising’ is the attitude of Cancún’s tourism officials. They are drawing plans for Puerto Cancún, ‘a huge, deluxe marina with low-impact hotels’, more hotels, golf courses and a major resort for the 131-kilometre Cancún-Tulum tourism corridor – another gift, for those who can afford it, at the cost of fragile ecosystems.

It’s an insult to the Mexican people to choose Cancún for a climate change summit, said Miriam Djeordjian of the Autonomous Feminists Circle. ‘Cancún is a living example of ecological devastation.’

I love my land, but…

People from all over Mexico come to the state of Quintana Roo and its shiny sad pearl Cancún to work, mostly in tourism. The worldwide story of dirty tourism is replicated here: the absolute majority of hotels are foreign-owned – so profits leak overseas, or just north of the border.

A bus driver tells me the Moon Palace, where the COP16 negotiations took place a week ago, has Mexican proprietors – and it’s the most sought-after employer in Cancún’s hotel industry. The reason is simple: they pay decent wages, so workers fight hard to get a job there. They also respect workers’ rights: during low season, employees rotate for holidays, while other hotels fire people as soon as business slows down (they are also allergic to long-term employees).

Traditional Mexican mask.

‘Mexico! I love my land, but it’s fucked up,’ says my companion, let’s call him Manuel (not his real name). He was hired by an international corporation to present their stand at Climate Change Village – and he’s frustrated with the way tourism was developed in the area. ‘Do you know they found 2,500 dead crocodiles when three new resorts were built in Bahía Petempich?’ he asks. ‘A couple of years ago, you could see crocodiles everywhere, but to build the resorts they cut off freshwater streams, and now there aren’t any.’

What’s the minimum wage here, I ask him. ‘’50 pesos a day (US $4).’ And what is the average wage? ‘That is the average wage.’

The official minimum wage in Mexico rose by almost five per cent this year, and is now 54.50 pesos (US$4.40) a day. A room in any of the posh hotels in the Hotel Zone – the main employment zone – costs $300-400 a night or more. An average Mexican worker could afford to stay at their work place after one year of work… provided they don’t eat for the whole year.

View from the Hotel Zone to the beach: take from one, give to another.

Even the public spaces have been adapted against the interests of local people. Manuel says the beaches, public in theory, have in reality been privatized. ‘Playa Delfines is the last public beach.’ It took a protest camp organized by local people to keep it that way, after FONATUR, the agency responsible for tourism development in Mexico, sold the beach to private hands.

FONATUR is accountable to no-one, Manuel says. ‘They can do whatever they like with the land, and nobody can control them.’ Corruption is no secret in Mexico – and especially not in the tourism industry, where big sums of foreign dollars are involved.

The calendar of 2050

Marine biologist Everto Herrera Batista, researcher for Alerta Cambio Climático, shows a calendar of the year 2050: from January to December, each month’s images display hurricanes, floods, droughts, desertification and other extreme weather events, caused and intensified by climate change. It feels like a never-ending heavy hangover from the ecocide fiesta of today.

Mexico is the twelfth most polluting country in the world. But greenhouse gas emissions per capita of the state of Quintana Roo exceed those of France or China – a result of it being a primary tourist destination in the country. ‘Cancún’s economic activities are not diversified,’ says Batista. This industry monopoly is very dangerous, especially given the devastating effects of climate change, which in turn can damage tourism itself, together with everyone depending on it.

Downtown Cancún: a world away from the Fantasyland.

Batista explains that rains have decreased in recent years and the state is suffering droughts and desertification. The number of cyclones has almost doubled in the last 30 years, from 10 in 1980 to 19 this year. The hurricane season, which usually lasts six months, from June to November, is likely to be prolonged to seven, eight months a year – or more. As if that wasn’t enough, the rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of the white sandy beaches which attract tourists in the first place.

There are other ways to do things, Batista says, such as small fish farms, which could provide local people with alternative jobs and wouldn’t be as devastating to the environment as tourism. But if the local authorities can’t even agree on recycling projects, he tells me, how can they be expected to switch to a more sustainable economy?

As a positive example, Batista shows pictures of a house being built using plastic bottles filled with garbage instead of bricks. It will serve as a comedor [a dining room] for poor people, he says proudly. I look at the calendar of 2050 again... Won’t cry in public.

Mangroves in Quintana Roo. Photo by Tristan Ferne on Creative Commons licence.


Cancún, Mexico’s suicide capital, is already facing the consequences of its ‘development’; it is a clinical example of self-destruction. 

We never learn from our mistakes, instead, we make them again. Research shows self-induced climate change may have caused the destruction of the great Maya civilization, and their irresponsible behaviour painfully resembles our times. We’re following the Mayas’ path of self-destruction – are we strong enough to make a U-turn?


Just before leaving Cancún, I hear of a lone local man who is fighting the invasion of Cancún’s beaches by hotel chains. He owns a plot of land and a house on the beach between two monster hotels in the Hotel Zone. He refuses to sell it to either of them: he doesn’t need their money (rumours have it he’d been offered no less than $ 1 million), he just wants to live as he always has. This brave man is going to work in downtown Cancún every day, my storyteller says, and comes back every evening to sleep. The hotels are still trying.

Photos by the author, unless otherwise indicated.

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