By Sophie Horn-Mellish, Global Co-op
What could be more attractive than an all-inclusive resort in Mexico for spring break? Beautiful ocean views, warm sun to interrupt freezing Boston, and all-you-can-drink margaritas. The flights there aren’t too expensive either, and the whole country is generally affordable; more so than Florida, which is another popular spring break destination.
What most people do not know is how destructive mass tourism is to the Mexican economy, environment, and culture. During the research I conducted at my last co-op, I discovered that in Quintana Roo, the newest state in Mexico, the enormous amount of tourism is damaging. Quintana Roo is the state where popular tourism destinations like Playa del Carmen and Cancun are located, and its biggest problem is the sheer volume of people pouring into these cities all year round. As a newly recognized state within a developing country, Quintana Roo simply does not have the infrastructure to handle the amount of people pouring in.
Additionally, upon discovering the appeal of gorgeous Mexican beaches, friendly citizens, and year-round lovely weather, western corporations quickly began building huge resorts and sending cruise ships. Because these resorts bring in money and the government has problems with corruption, these resorts have not been held responsible for upholding law the way that they should. Waste is often dumped onto land or directly into the ocean. Many of the beaches smell awful, people frequently emerge from the ocean with rashes, and the coral in the region is almost entirely dead.
Another contributing factor to the ocean pollution is chemicals that tourists bring in. Chemicals in sunscreen, hairsprays, and other common western products have been shown in controlled research scenarios to damage water and cause cancer in ocean mammals. While they are not damaging on a small scale, the huge number of tourist depositing these damaging chemicals into the water is not only killing coral, but causing the mass death of sea turtles.
This environmental degradation is also destroying non-tourism economies in Quintana Roo. Inland villages that previously depended on agriculture for personal and commercial production are struggling to grow anything due to the damaged water and soil. This forces younger generations to leave their villages and go to the coast to make a living. Without the young workforce, the economies of inland villages fall apart. Additionally, the popularity of tourism in Mexico is at risk once people begin to discover how dirty the water has become. New destinations will develop as tourists abandon Quintana Roo, and if non-tourism economies have been destroyed, the Mexican people will struggle to find a new way of life.
Conversely, another argument is that now that the Mexican economy in Quintana Roo has become dependent on tourism, ceasing tourism is no longer an option. In this case, there are ways to reduce the negative impact, the biggest being to avoid American-owned resorts. Instead, tourists should opt for smaller, locally-owned bungalows, which require more research and planning but provide a more authentic experience. The other is to also make sure that you patronize places with proper sanitation processing rather than restaurants and stores that are illegally dumping. Traveling as a tourist sustainably does take more work, but it is essential to ensure the protection of the environment not only in Mexico, but globally.