Sustainable Eco-Tourism: An Epic Fail

by Asher Jay, Creative Conservationist and National Geographic Explorer

Moments after arriving at my alleged "eco resort" it had become apparent to me that I had made a terrible mistake. XCaret located near Cancun, in the Riviera Maya, is self-described as an ecologically sustainable resort where "cultural heritage and love the environment await you." To be honest, I had very little time to investigate their liberal use of the terms "sustainable development" and "eco-tourism," and there were absolutely no obvious negative reviews to be found on this place. Even an extensive search performed in hindsight only turned up succinct excerpts from publications and scientifically sound environmental forums. Yet, it was instantly clear when I disembarked from my shuttle that this entire place had been built at the cost of nature and was in no rush to pay off its debt to the earth.

Maybe it was the dead squirrel in the middle of the main driveway, maybe it was the macaws with clipped wings that tipped me off or maybe, it was the two trees that were ominously suspended at the entrance, like gibbeted pirates, issuing a dire warning to any defiant wild that dared escape persecution in this so-called "green" haven. As a conservationist, a certain internal monologue that involved screaming at the top of my lungs at several red flags began at check-in and persisted until check-out. From being served hot beverages in polystyrene foam cups, which even the barista knew were hazardous to both humans and the environment, to being accidentally fogged in the face with insecticide on a nature trail, the evidence quickly began mounting against XCaret. This place was about as natural and untouched as contestants in a Trump-sponsored beauty pageant. The true cost at which this site found expression painted a grim picture for any Earth steward as it rose from a highly destructive footprint. With the violent use of jackhammers and dynamite to terraform the landscape and recontour its underground river system, the founders of this resort went to great lengths to convert a thriving ecosystem into a bottom-line driven theme park.

XCaret is a conservation crime, from the colossal hotel it contains (Grand Flamenco Occidental), to the curated Xplore Riviera Maya caves and zoological "EcoPark". For every square inch of this vacationland is carefully designed to keep ignorant tourists amused at the cost of local heritage and irreplaceable natural resources. This establishment is just one of many resorts on the Yucatan, masquerading under the "eco" banner, hoodwinking the public into believing that such extractive economic growth is in the best interest of both local communities and wilderness areas. The Xplore caves for instance, where countless tourists dive and snorkel, have been bombed, carved into and appended with false stalactites to make underwater cave exploration accessible to the masses. Cenotes continue to be opened up to let people in, exposing complex and fragile systems that thrive in solitude, in the shadows to spectators and sunlight. Having traveled the world and stayed in various lodgings, I know better than to single out just XCaret. It is merely a case study of how the tourism industry, when allowed to burgeon unregulated by policy, legislation and hard science, devastates indigenous ecological networks, decentralized economies, and socio-cultural narratives. It plainly underscores the need for the urgent implementation of Sustainable Development Goals that deliver on a three-prong approach - prosperity, people and planet.

"It was not always this way," recounts Guillermo De Anda, Director of Special Projects for Subaquatic Archaeology at Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and fellow National Geographic Explorer.

"Thirty years ago, it took us a two hour off-road drive and a 500 meter walk with all our equipment on to get to Dos Ojos. Now, you can take a taxi right to the cavern's entrance, which has been modified to enable easy access. No one saw this tourism boom coming, from vast resorts coming up along our delicate mangrove coastline, to subterranean aquifers becoming the next big international attraction. Those of us who knew the significance of these places - scientists, conservationists, cave divers and archaeologists - were just not prepared for this scale of development. We also did not anticipate local farmers, ejidatarios, coalescing their land holdings, ejido, to profit out of the cenotes discovered in their pooled together plots."

A quick conversation with Guillermo and his aptly named protégé, Dante Garcia, furnished me with some compelling insights into the flourishing tourism industry in the Yucatan peninsula and the price the locals and the land were paying for it due to a lack of awareness. It is the usual story of modern progress eclipsing micro economies that were originally inextricably tethered to native ecology. However, unregulated and uninformed sightseer demand quickly corrupted the environmental supply, severing all tangible ties between inherited wild and individual wealth. This resulted in the overexploitation of these commoditized commons at the cost of the very resource that future earnings for these landowners are dependent on. What started out as a sustainable, community-based revenue model quickly became sullied by myopic greed. Dante adds,

"There used to be hard limits on how many people could be brought in on a given day into a particular cenote, but now these tours bring in 3 or 4 times the originally assessed capacity of foot traffic. They have also shortened the duration of each tour, from 2 hours, to just 45 minutes within the actual cave system. This means tourists only have enough time to click photo ops in lieu of actually learning something about them. People not knowing about the cenotes, is why it is so hard to protect them."

The environmental impact of the tourism industry on a destination area was formerly easily evaluated as bad or good under the dichotomy of "mass tourism" and "ecotourism". However, new approaches and effective marketing have birthed ambiguous terms such as "eco mass tourism" and "mass ecotourism". The former being less sustainable than the latter, making it possible for places like XCaret to take root. The premise is simple: increased infrastructure leads to increased capacity, which inversely and adversely affects the immediate natural landscape on which these efforts are supported.

A positive example of sustainable, community-led ecotourism can be found in Peru at the Tambopata National Reserve as of January 2016. But just by telling you this, I might be destroying said reserve. For with continued exposure, this destination's popularity is likely to rise. If this occurs unchecked by legislation, law enforcement and conscientious management, it will result in a paradigm just as detrimental as the one in the Yucatan.

"Wherever you walk on the Yucatan peninsula, you have water beneath you," Dante laments. To which, Guillermo adds,

"That's probably why the Maya understood the connection between these sacred underground pools and life on earth. We uncover a lot of incredible archaeological finds when we comb the cenotes, from ceremonial wares to entire temple ruins. So truly these submerged caves are cultural legacy sites for Mexico. The government needs to be protecting our history and heritage. When recreational cave divers go in unmonitored, it also results in the looting and improper documentation of our past."

It seems obvious enough. To not preserve this concealed network of fresh water capillaries in the Yucatan will only spell the inevitable loss of all the life sustained by this system on the surface. Yet even well intended solutions seem poorly planned. A good example of this is the policy of having visitors shower before they enter the cave system, which many cenote tours now enforce. The intention of this is to prevent the repellants, deodorants, sunscreens, soaps and shampoos with which tropical tourists coat themselves, from entering these pristine subterranean waters. However, as Dante explains to me, due to a flawed design, which fails to account for the porosity of the native limestone, the wash infrastructure is not appropriately insulated to channel the drainage of these chemicals away from the aquifers. Consequently, all this 'solution' accomplishes is the concentrated release of aforementioned chemicals into the aquifers; cumulatively compounding the toxic cocktail's impact on every downstream habitat it in contact with.

"The water has a distinct odor in these places, and the presence of large algae blooms serves as a clear indicator of an unhealthy system."

So how does one cast a light on a system that exists in shadows without punching a hole in the ground? Guillermo enthusiastically responds,

"By inspiring the next generation of Mexicans to take pride in and care for this incredibly rare and priceless asset, through youth outreach and education! We have already begun assembling a team of students and professionals to better document our cenotes, so we can tell people exactly why it is important to conserve them and develop responsibly around them. Right now they are being misappropriated, misused, treated as landfills and filled in for parking lots. If we alert enough people locally, we can stop this from being the story."

The influence naive globetrotters have on a given country's ability to meet its sustainable development goals can be tremendously negative as portrayed by XCaret. We each vote with our wallets daily, and we have impact no matter what we do. It is thus essential we each grow conscious of the ecological footprint our actively engaged wallets have on promoting or demoting ecologically unviable mass consumer choices. This is why I wanted to place a spotlight on this dynamic sector, as tourism can just as easily become a catalyst for positive change and sustainably profitable businesses. While I wanted to use my recent visit as an illustrative case to highlight the problems of short term oriented growth, I also want to propose a better way forward. No business or NGO model is truly viable until it can self sustain monetarily, so profit is a critical motive, but the bottom-line needs to reflect ecological costs, particularly in its annual PNL. It needs to account for the resources it draws, and proactively address its negative imprint on both planet and people. Even in places where we have seen a lot of loss in the natural world and local culture, there is still hope, because it is never too late to educate people to do better, and life has a tendency to rebound when given a chance. From mobilizing recreational cave divers to be heritage divers who do citizen science on their trips out, to running public awareness campaigns, we can encourage every mind and wallet to preserve and enhance what remains...starting now! And change can begin with something as modest as asserting a list of dos and don'ts to foreigners who come to experience the Yucatan's homegrown flavors and finds.

This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation leading up to the 2016 Youth Assembly at the United Nations, a unique platform created to foster dialogue and generate partnerships between youth, private sector, civil society and the United Nations. The winter session will focus on the role of youth in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To see all posts in the series, click here.

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