The proposed development of eco-tourism projects in Cozumel, including next to Cozumel Reef National Park, is alarming environmentalists. Experts are raising concerns over the potential impact that the projects will have on the delicate biomes on and off the island of Cozumel. The government of Mexico is examining the proposals and may take steps to mitigate the impact, which could have a huge affect on Cozumel’s largest industry, tourism. The decisions made by the authorities to protect the endangered flora and fauna could also affect the growth of the cruise ship industry in the Mexican-Caribbean region. The country is attempting to strike a delicate balance between short-term socio-economic growth and long-term damage to the ecosystems of Cozumel.
The Cruise Ship Industry is Poised for Major Growth
The incredible natural beauty of Cozumel and its surrounding seas is attracting tourists in a big way. Research conducted by the General Coordination of Ports and the Merchant Marine has revealed that 2,603 cruise ships visited Cozumel in 2018, bringing more than 4.2 million cruise ship passengers to the island. On average, each passenger will likely spend $67 USD, with the total amount spent being just under $500 million. In 2019, experts expect to see close to 45 million total tourists arriving in Cozumel. The two main ports of Mexico are Mahahual and Cozumel and they are the hub for 69% of the country’s cruise ship industry. The first half of 2019 noted a 10.3% increase in the number of tourists arriving in Quintana Roo.
Manager at the travel website, Despegar, Francisco Ceballos, spoke to Mexico News Daily saying,
“Cozumel has positioned itself at a worldwide level as one of the most important ports for cruise ship tourism ahead of international destinations like Nassau [Bahamas] and San Juan [Puerto Rico].”
Growing Tourism Needs a Well-Developed Infrastructure
Private sector entities are proposing a commercial project located at the apex of the Palancar Beach pier in Cozumel. In addition to promoting endemic mammals and other flora and fauna as attractions, the new tourism complex will include several facilities for vacationers. Essential amusement activities such as a zip line, beach club, restaurant and café, a museum showcasing ethnic cultures, and various other options will also be offered.
Activists concerned about the cost to the environment point toward the existing problems on Cozumel that will only be accentuated by the new complex. Some of the most cited issues include the deteriorating quality of water, unsustainable developments along the coastline, and increased sedimentation. Scientists have also identified the damage to the fragile ecosystems of the seas off the island with a special focus on the coral reef marine park.
Cozumel is as Yet Underdeveloped as a Tourist Destination
Cozumel is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations in the tourism circuits for the precise reason that it is largely pristine. The largest island of Mexico has the casual, laid-back ambiance of a sleepy little town where crime is almost unknown and life proceeds at a relaxed pace. However, the island could benefit from development programs that tackle some of the main downsides like lack of potable drinking water and the fact that most hotels and accommodations need maintenance and upgrading.
While new tourist complexes and state-of-the-art amenities and facilities could attract more tourists, it could also take away from the tranquility and untouched beauty of the beaches and other natural attractions. Several coastal towns across the globe are struggling with the fallout of excessive tourism such as Maya Bay in Thailand, Bali in Indonesia, Machu Picchu in Peru, Cinque Terre in Italy, and Pig Beach in the Bahamas. Not only have the authorities of these destinations initiated massive clean-up drives to clear away the accumulation of trash and debris, but a few have had to close down to allow the coral reefs to revive and rejuvenate.
Diseased Coral Colonies are a Serious Crisis
Researchers have noted the presence of the Stony Coral Tissue Loss (SCTL), a bacterial infection that is rapidly killing colonies of coral. First discovered in the Florida Keys in the years 1977 and 1995, the outbreak has now reached the Caribbean. Whether or not the infestation has arrived from Florida is as yet unclear. The alarming fact is that SCTL can destroy 400-year old reefs in a short span of just 40 days. Considering that coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans, their destruction can have a severe impact on related industries such as fishing and tourism.
The proposal of the vacation resort could not have come at a more inopportune time for environmentalists. The reefs are struggling with damage from rising temperatures because of global warming and the worsening water quality off the shores. Additional woes plaguing sea creatures include non-existent sewage treatment facilities, destruction of mangrove forests, dumping organic and inorganic refuse, foul-smelling sargassum seaweed, and blatant disregard for government regulations.
Mexican Authorities are Concerned About the Damage Wreaked by the Cruise Shipping Industry
Cruise ships stopping at Cozumel ports add to the damage in a big way and have displayed appalling neglect of eco-friendly rules and practices. Miami Herald reports on the hundreds of violations committed by cruise companies. A good example is Carnival Corporation. The company has been found guilty of releasing half a million gallons of gray water, oil and food trash, treated sewage, and combusted heavy fuel oil in the coastal water off various ports across the world. Although the company has agreed to 5 years’ probation and a $40 million fine, the instance is only one of many more.
Cozumeleños or the Supporters of Cozumel are Dedicated to its Conservation
Residents and supporters of Cozumel are well aware of the economic impact of the development proposals. Adam Duffy is the co-owner of ScubaTony, a company that takes tourists and underwater enthusiasts on scuba diving expeditions around Cozumel. As Adam says,
“We welcome guests and visitors from across the world to experience the wonders of our seas and appreciate their unique bounty. While we’re aware of the benefits of tourism for the economy, as the people of Cozumel, we are also keen on preserving the fascinating flora and fauna of the coral reefs. The seas are not just a source of livelihood for the present, but they’re the legacy we will be leaving for the generations that follow us.”
Most Cozumeleños are supporting the Mexican government in its steps to protect the environment. They have clearly indicated that long term economic growth relies on the conservation and sustainability of the island.