Uncontrolled Tourism and the Effect on Mexico’s Ecology
With its pristine beaches, stunning ancient ruins, colorful culture, and close proximity to the United States, it’s no surprise that Mexico ranks in the top ten most popular tourist destinations in the world. It’s even featured twice on Tripadvisor’s highest-rated, most-loved destinations for 2022. While vacationers often eat-up these accolades during their search for the perfect destination, many are oblivious to the sacrifice these prestigious titles bring to the very landscapes that capture the world’s attention.
Tourism in Mexico
A CNN Travel article listed Mexico as the world’s seventh most popular tourist destination in 2019, generating an income of $25 billion from 45 million international visitors. The tourism industry provides more than 4.5 million jobs across Mexico and makes up more than 8% of the country’s GDP. Coastal tourism is the huge moneymaker, as a vast majority of these visitors flock to world-renowned beach destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Cabo San Lucas.
The development of Los Cabos from the 1960s to 2012, courtesy of oldcabo.com
Negative Effects of Tourism on Mexico’s Ecology
While many celebrate Mexico’s relatively recent tourism boom and development of luxurious, swanky hotels in what was deserted coastal lands just a few decades ago, the build-it-quick strategy has resulted in severe damage to Mexico’s incredible biodiversity.
Instead of addressing an infrastructure that’s come to a breaking point of overwhelm and overcapacity at the expense of the nation’s landscapes, the Mexican government continues to allow unregulated expansion and development of these incredibly special natural regions. The country is home to over 10% of the world’s species, and ranks second in reptile diversity and third in mammal diversity. The Baja California peninsula, which includes tourism hotspot Cabo San Lucas, borders the Gulf of California, home to an astounding 39% of the world's marine mammal species.
A lack of action
In 2012, Mexico passed a law in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. But a lack of policy or plans to actually achieve this goal led environmental issues to worsen. As international pressures mounted, Mexico has since pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22% by 2030, a feat experts say is relatively impossible under the current administration’s actions.
The tourism sector in the Mexican Caribbean generates 400 tons of waste per day, largely plastic waste, and makes up about one third of the entire region’s total amount of waste. The lack of infrastructure and improper waste disposal methods leads to a plethora of waste entering and endangering the rich, diverse sea life and marine ecosystems, all of which can get sick or injured from plastic or sewage waste.
Over in Los Cabos, the region home to tourist hotspot Cabos San Lucas, authorities are struggling to keep up with the waste generated by a 13% growth in visitors during the first few months of 2022, peaking at 325,000 tourists in the month of March. The region even hosted a competition called La Nueva Pesca, in which local fishermen cast their nests in efforts to collect as much trash as possible. The event resulted in more than 2.3 tons (4,600 pounds) of trash collected from the beaches and shallow waters. One of the main offenders? Cigarette butts. A single filter takes several years to decompose, contaminates up to 10 litres of sea water, and is incredibly harmful to marine life that ingest them.
According to The Nature Conservancy, an alarming eighty percent of coral along Mexico’s Caribbean coast has died or suffered damages since the 1980s, due to pollution, disease, overfishing and violent storms. With the reef as the main attraction, 12 million visitors spend around $9 billion a year here, but a 2018 report stated that 50% of Mexico’s reefs were in poor or critical condition.
In good news, a thriving coral reef in Cabo Pulmo National Park located in Mexico’s Baja California Sur, was recently saved from developmental plans to build a massive tourism and real estate complex called Cabo Cortes.
Aside from tourism income they generate, coral reefs are an essential part of marine ecosystems and coastal communities. They are home to a quarter of the world’s fish species, and their ability to absorb up to 97% of energy generated by incoming waves prevents shorelines from catastrophic flooding and beach erosion. This poses a huge threat for Mexico’s lucrative coastal developments.
Seven of the world’s eight sea turtles species nest on the beaches of Mexico, but their nesting beaches are disappearing rapidly due to climate change and development.
While erosion is a natural occurrence, Mexico’s continued development of an already overburdened and overworked landscape, coupled with global climate change, exacerbates the erosion issue. Erosion can cause female sea turtles to experience difficulties in nesting, and leave eggs exposed or flooded. Light pollution from hotels and other developments disturb the nesting females, who come ashore to lay their eggs under the cover of night. Artificial light can dangerously alter where they nest, how they find their way back to the sea, and how their hatchlings find their way to the open sea.
These issues are impacting sea turtles all around the world. Find out how EPI is working to combat these issues on the beaches of Costa Rica, and how you can support sea turtle conservation.
Responsible Mexican Tourism
While tourism can have negative effects on the Mexican environment, that does not mean people should never visit Mexico. In fact, Mexico has several beautiful destinations that are worth visiting. Many Americans may be unaware of the negative effects of tourism in Mexico. If you ever find yourself visiting Mexico, here are some tips to make sure that you are responsibly traveling and keeping Mexican ecology in mind:
Eco Tours: Do your research and choose tourism attractions that are eco-friendly and socially sustainable. Sites like Responsible Travel can help you find tours and activities that focus on the local culture and people, and support wildlife conservation.
Ecolodges: To be considered true eco lodging, accommodations must meet a variety of criteria that respects and sustains the local community and environment. Sites like Ecobnb and World Nomads can help travelers make trusted accommodation decisions.
Shop local whenever possible, to ensure you are supporting the local economy, and local goods and services.
If possible, choose carbon free transportation or offset your carbon footprint on sites like terrapass.
Travel in the off season. Visit more popular destinations when they aren’t overwhelmed by the busy tourism season. You’ll likely benefit from smaller crowds, cheaper prices, and a better glimpse into local life.
Known as The World’s Aquarium, the Gulf of California is home to incredibly rich biodiversity. This sea supports Mexico's most important fishery and the coastline is a vital habitat for migrating species of birds. But the communities of Baja, much like the desert that surrounds them, are particularly susceptible to environmental degradation. Demands on freshwater, unbridled touristic development, and other issues threaten the delicate balance of these systems.
In Baja, EPI addresses these issues at their root, by engaging young people in educational programming and activities that focus on science, conservation, and sustainability. Youth in EPI’s programs are leading their communities in these areas through beach cleanups, educational workshops and other community events.
You can support these efforts by donating to EPI’s Baja program.