Every year as the temperatures in the northern latitudes begin to drop, millions of tourists descend on the white sand beaches of eastern Mexico for a few days of sunshine, turquoise waters and palm trees. Forty years ago, Cancun was a fishing village of about 100 people; today, it is one of the fastest-growing tourist sites in the world. Yet it is precisely the Mexican Caribbean region’s role as a premier vacation destination that threatens the long-term viability of its coastal ecosystems.
Cruise ships and hotel high-rises are not usually synonymous with conservation, but thanks to the efforts of the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), these businesses are proving the power of large-scale tourism to redefine conservation in the Mexican Caribbean.
"This initiative is a really great example of building a green economy from top to bottom, left to right. MARTI is providing the skills, expertise and capacity that business and government leaders need to make this transition towards more sustainable tourism."
Tourism in the Mexican Caribbean: A Blessing and a Curse
Flanking the eastern coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is the second-largest reef in the world — home to more than 60 types of coral and at least 500 species of fish. This abundance of marine life has helped to bring visitors from far and wide to Cancun, the Mexican island of Cozumel and the surrounding coasts; currently 90 percent of the local economy depends on tourism.
Despite the importance of tourism for local livelihoods, the influx of thousands of visitors — and the migration of local people for the service industry jobs that follow — has taken a toll on the natural landscape. Coastal development has decimated most of the mangroves and sand dunes that previously acted as storm buffers, causing the region’s iconic beaches to wash away more frequently. Waste management is also a concern, with growing trash dumps encroaching on the surrounding rainforest.
Improving environmental practices here is not only essential for preserving ecosystems — it’s also critical for maintaining the economy that sustains the lives of thousands of local people.
Cross-sectoral Support for Sustainable Practices
Begun in 2006, MARTI is a collaboration of six organizations (including Conservation International, or CI) working to create more sustainable practices across the tourism industry in the Riviera Maya, Cancun and Cozumel. By engaging leaders from the government, nongovernmental organizations, hotels, tour operators and cruise lines, MARTI provides a forum for these stakeholders to work across the tourism supply chain and integrate their efforts.
- Hotels: Three MARTI partners — Asociación de Hoteles de la Riviera Maya, Asociación Amigos de Sian Ka’an and the Rainforest Alliance — have already promoted more efficient design and resource management across half the hotel rooms (around 22,000 rooms) in the Mexican Caribbean. Through MARTI’s certification program, MARTI employees evaluate each hotel’s current practices and make recommendations on issues like energy use, waste management and water efficiency.
- Marine recreation operators: MARTI is engaging local tour operators to implement the Coral Reef Alliance’s voluntary standards for recreation activities such as diving, snorkeling and boating. This adoption of “best practices” includes reducing the number of tourists per guide for diving and snorkeling groups, minimizing waste generation and using mooring buoys rather than anchors — all of which will lessen the impact on the ecosystems tourists visit. So far, 100 percent of operators with cruise line contracts have adopted these standards, and 80 percent of other operators on Cozumel.
- Cruise industry: CI and the Grupo Intersectorial de Cozumel — a local stewardship council representing many of Cozumel’s business leaders — are working with cruise lines to minimize their environmental footprint, with activities ranging from environmental education for passengers to staff training in trash separation. MARTI is also helping ships to minimize environmental damage through wastewater discharge; CI scientists are mapping out especially sensitive ecosystems where dumping should be avoided. The cruise industry giant Royal Caribbean recently committed to ensuring that 50 percent of their land- and marine-based tours are third-party certified by 2015 — an effort which, given the size of the company, will dramatically reduce the tourism footprint in the area.
Building a Green Economy
The Mesoamerican Reef region’s entire economy is built upon tourism, and tourism requires a healthy natural environment. In order to ensure a sustainable future for local people, conservation must be hard-wired into the activities of all sectors of the economy. By 2016, MARTI aims to integrate sustainable environmental practices at all scales throughout the region.
“This initiative is a really great example of building a green economy from top to bottom, left to right,” said Stephen Edwards of CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), which played a significant role in the formation of MARTI. “MARTI is providing the skills, expertise and capacity that business and government leaders need to make this transition towards more sustainable tourism.”
Next year, MARTI hopes to expand its presence in other Central American countries, including Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.
MARTI is a collaboration between CI, Asociación de Hoteles de la Riviera Maya, Asociación Amigos de Sian Ka’an, the Rainforest Alliance, the Coral Reef Alliance and the Grupo Intersectorial de Cozumel.