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Tourism growth in Mexico wreaks havoc on Tulum beaches

It’s 2 in the afternoon in Tulum, and the club Hotel Ikal beach prepares for her “ecstatic dance” session.

A sweaty crowd dances to a folktronica track played by a DJ whose next stop is Berlin. A few wide stone steps below, a group of athletic 30-somethings hit volleyballs on a beach that smells of seaweed and sunscreen. The room in the “Tree House” costs $800 a night, and a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine is $110.

just a decade ago, Tulum was a sleepy fishing village that served as a gateway to nearby Mayan ruins. Today, it is part of the global party circuit and is marketed as a paradise in the middle of the jungle with an intense night life.

The city’s beach strip is lined with upscale restaurants, designer clothing boutiques and billboards advertising handpoke tattoos and yoga classes. With their clubs, models dressed in linen and ample supplies of marijuana, ayahuasca and cocaineit’s the kind of place where “hippies become millionaires and millionaires become hippies,” says tour guide Hervé Pech.

Tulum and its older cousin cancun, two hours up the coast by car, are in the midst of a boom. Tourism is 6 percent above 2019, and airlines have scheduled this year a 20 percent more seats on flights from the US than before the pandemic.

The arrivals at Cancun International Airport exceeded 22 million last year, 82 percent more than in 2020. In the last two years, more than 16,000 new hotel rooms have been built in the state of Quintana Roo, that includes Cancun and Tulum.

The expansion is evidence, and momentum, of Mexico’s rise up the world tourism charts. In 2019 the country was the seventh most visited destination; today it’s No. 1 or 2, depending on who you listen to. That’s largely because, unlike most other places, Mexico never really shut down. Even as European capitals demanded COVID passports and PCR tests, and the United States barred entry to travelers from dozens of countries, Mexico rushed to open its doors, no questions asked, no tests needed.

The government argued that tourism was such an important engine of the economy, that Mexico could not afford to close its borders. At the start of the pandemic, poverty in Quintana Roo increased and the state lost 97 thousand jobs, but by June 2020 the hotels were already reopening. In December, the governor tweeted that people should keep a healthy distance to stop the spread of COVID while boasting that Cancun had returned to 500 flights a day.

For workers who have to wait tables, scrub bathrooms and drive buses or taxis for all those visitors, the blessing has been mixed. Mexico’s most popular beach destinations faded in and out of the news as they suffered coronavirus spikes, presumably sparked by tourists.

Roger Martín Moreno says he believes he contracted the virus while handing out drinks and coffee on a tour bus. “I started the same way, a week with a fever, with a fever, and then, little by little, I started short of breath until I could only breathe lying down,” says the 32-year-old, who adds that at least two drivers from his agency they died from covid.

They fear for the sustainability of Tulum

The growing volume of visitors threatens freshwater caves characteristics of the area, called cenotes, as well as the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Some fear Tulum could go the way of Acapulco, which in the mid-20th century became a glittering destination where Frank Sinatra escaped for a secret birthday, Elizabeth Taylor celebrated her third wedding, and the family of the Shah of Iran took refuge after the revolution. . But the city suffered from an explosive growth of unplanned and, later, crime generated by drug cartels. Today it is one of the most dangerous places in a dangerous country.

“When the very strong violence began, which had to do with drug trafficking, international tourists fled,” says David Espino, author of Acapulco Killer: Chronicles from Paradise Lost.

Cancun was meant to be the anti-Acapulco. In the 1960s, the government designated the pristine stretch of sandy beach on the Caribbean coast as its next big tourist destination, with designated areas for hotels, houses, and an international airport.

Large tracts of land were set aside for conservation, streets and parks were laid out, and modern electrical and sewage systems were installed by contractors. But the outskirts of the city, what is known as Mayan Rivierawhich stretches to Tulum and beyond, did not receive the same attention.

A sewer line, which means that tons of untreated waste ends up seeping into groundwaterfouling beaches and killing the reef.

Many hotels have not been connected to the electricity grid, forcing them to use diesel generators. Construction workers from other states often build squatter camps on undeveloped land. A train line along the coast planned to open next year, as well as a local airport expected in 2024, will only add to the crowds.

“It is entering a bit of a crisis. It is a very fast growth”, says Gonzalo Merediz, head of a sustainable development and environmental conservation organization.

Although the state government assures that it aims at responsible development, the divers say that the cenotes are sometimes covered with dirt from nearby settlements and the sun creams that tourists use. That puts guides in a bind: risking the health of the local environment and the long-term economic benefits it offers, or being denied tips from angry patrons when they’re told they can’t get in the water.

“The cenotes, I do see that they are already very polluted, I think it will not be worth it,” says diving instructor Alan Chuc. However, many visitors come for easy access to drugswhich creates another set of problems.

Drug cartels are involved in a turf war in the area that has fueled the rise in crimesuch as protection extortion, known as cobro de piso, which affects everyone from hotel owners to beach vendors.

Since October, the Repeated shootings in the area have left suspected criminals and at least two tourists dead.. In January, two Canadians were killed in nearby Playa del Carmen. In February, a couple of alleged traffickers were shot dead in a luxury restaurant in Tulum, and just a few days ago, in May, a tourist died during a failed robbery attempt in a cenote, while a shooting in Cancun left one dead. and six wounded.

Locals say police clean up quickly after shootings to keep tourists from freaking out, but not always quickly enough. After a shooting in Tulum, a nearby guest immediately left in the middle of the night, recalls Samantha Raga, a former manager of a luxury hotel. “She came in a horrible crisis, she said she didn’t care if she lost her deposit,” says Raga. She “she grabbed her bags and left.”

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