Greg Custer | April 19, 2016 1:00 PM ET
Quintana Roo's Quandary
Everyone knows the Mexican Caribbean – it’s the fastest growing, most popular and most photographed vacationland in the Western Hemisphere. Seductive turquoise waters, powdered sugar white sand and Mayan ruins have seeped into our collective beach resort imagination.
However, a region can only hold its pinnacle as paradise for so long. Born as a state just 40 years ago (1974), Quintana Roo State is entering middle age. A look outside the walls of the all-inclusive mega-resorts (so popular with American tourists) reveals a region facing an array of ecological, political and social pressures. Some would call these conflicts inevitable, given the state’s mono-culture economy (tourism) and stratospheric growth. Others are pointing to a structure that serves the interest of fewer and fewer state residents.
The state’s 1960 population stood at around 50,000, nearly all Mayas living in coconut plantations, fishing villages and chicle camps. It today exceeds 1.5 million, and includes people from around the globe. For some critics, it’s easy to point a finger at foreign controlled, mega-resort, all-inclusive enclaves. Most QR development is owned by investment bankers (some American) or Spanish hotel titans. Some call it a Spanish ‘Reconquista’, since this Caribbean shore was the first North American contact point between Old and New Worlds (including Hernán Cortés’ fateful arrival in 1519).
It’s estimated the region will hit 100,000 sleeping rooms in the next five years, and 125,000 by 2025 (Las Vegas has around 62,000 rooms). To its credit, this foreign-dominated boom has created tens of thousands of jobs and a generation of upward socio-economic mobility (in some communities). The state accounts for nearly 50 percent of Mexico tourism receipts, hosting some seven million annual air arrivals (2015). Last year hotel occupancies were 81 percent in Riviera Maya and 77 percent for Cancun/Puerto Morelos. So there are lots of reasons to celebrate the state’s extraordinary success.
It’s the resulting competition for land and leverage that is troubling, especially in a country where foreign control and back room influence have been a pariah for centuries.
While vacationers savor a luxury landscape, the region’s hyper-sensitive ecology withers under a decades-long assault. Space for new construction within Cancun’s hotel zone has reached a saturation point. Land prices in Quintana Roo have soared 25 percent in the last year (Reportur.com.mx). Developers continue bulldozing sensitive mangroves, to the point where Cancun judges (and citizens) have finally said “enough”. Just in the past 60 days there have been three stark examples: the halting of a mega resort proposed by RIU, the sanctions against Dreams Sands for its unauthorized beach alteration, and the shameful, midnight decimation of a sensitive mangrove within eyesight of downtown Cancun.
Further south, land use laws from the 1980’s (no structures higher than the tallest palm tree) have opened the door to construction booms, but at an alarming environmental cost. The footprint of a five hundred room hotel (done high rise) is dramatically smaller than the signature Riviera Maya resort of today: a sprawling, three-story maximum, golf cart enabled mega-resort that gobbles up forest and sensitive wetlands. There’s a growing consensus statewide how land use laws are in serious need of reform, but where’s the political will?
Quintana Roo’s heavyweights are not industrialists, agro-conglomerates nor manufacturing giants, but rather its government officials, foreign investors and private sector (often foreign-based) companies. State citizens are asking more questions about this very cozy partnership, as well as the opaqueness of the state’s finances.
The state has had single party control (PRI) for its entire history (seven wins, seven elections). Reports reveal QR has one of the highest public debts of any state in Mexico, yet one of the smallest state populations. Playa del Carmen (Solidaridad Municipality) has the highest debt per capita of any Mexican city.
With elections for governor happening this coming June, jockeying for influence and political advantage are at a heightened pitch. And so are the questions being asked by the electorate. News report show candidates demanding expenditure transparency, infrastructure investment, and the dedication of room tax funds for promotional purposes only. The Hotel Association for Cancun and Puerto Morelos has called for enhanced promotion of non-all inclusive hotels. This position is supported by the Worker’s Party candidate Alejandro Alvarado Muro who’s making the control of all-inclusive hotels the foundation of his campaign.
The Cultural Assault
It’s ironic how a destination that shouts Mayan heritage is loosing its identity. Touring Mayan archaeological sites continues to be a mainstay attraction. But Shrek is coming soon. According to Riviera Maya News, a DreamWorks-branded theme park is expected to be built on 7.5 hectares of land in the Punta Maroma area. The initial investment for the DreamWorks amusement park will be $800 million US. There’s also the recent entrance of Cirque du Soleil, and every conceivable American big box store is part of Playa del Carmen’s unstoppable growth. Hardly a ‘sense of place’ development trajectory, for a region where Mayan communities (especially women) are less and less included in the state’s tourism boom.
While all single-industry economies are vulnerable, in Quintana Roo the transformation from frontier to ‘fashionable’ strains the very assets that tourism development is supposed to protect: eco-systems, people, culture, livelihoods, and social justice. The June 2016 elections are a much needed spotlight into the dark recesses of Quintana Roo. Let’s all hope for a brighter future.
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