Tourists enjoying Le Méridien Hotel.
Credit: Claudio Cruz/IPS
Hints of Sustainability at Cancún Resorts
By Verónica Díaz Favela* - IPS/IFEJ
Cancún, a resort destination in Mexico, began to lose tourists who were demanding a more natural vacation. As a result, several companies have set out on the path towards a more sustainable hotel industry.
CANCÚN, Mexico, Mar 23 (Tierramérica).- Antonio Moreno is the banquet manager of a four-star hotel in the southeastern Mexican resort city of Cancún, but for more than a year his duties have included digging through the trash.
Why? To ensure that the waste has been properly separated out for recycling, he explains. The containers are "blue for plastics, yellow for cardboard, grey for metals and green for organic waste."
With 213 rooms, Le Méridien Resort & Spa, where Moreno works, is one of the more than 60 hotels in Cancún and the latest to receive sustainable tourism certification. The seal is granted by the Australia-based Green Globe, says Alma Quiñones, head of human resources.
Three other hotels in the area are ready to begin the process to earn certification, and nine already have it, according to Green Globe's representative in Mexico, Gustavo Ramos.
All are located on a 130-kilometer stretch of coastline in Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancún, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum -- together known as the Mayan Riviera. Renowned for its turquoise waters and white beaches and coral reefs, the strip has more than 70,000 hotel rooms and receives three million tourists each year.
In the past three decades, this part of Mexico, home to the Maya culture and important archeological sites, including the monumental pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Tulum, has been a magnet for visitors from the United States, Canada and Europe. Here they find sun, beaches and culture. In return, they bring in revenues totaling 5 billion dollars annually.
However, the lack of environmentally sustainable practices has led some of those tourists to turn their backs on Cancún.
"There are groups of tourists who research whether we are truly environmentally friendly before they make their reservations," said Quiñones.
Hotel officials here estimate that they lost 260 million dollars in revenues last year for this reason. To their surprise, hundreds of tourists asked for their money back when they arrived in Cancún and did not find what had been touted in travel brochures and websites. The colorful reefs and broad beaches were victims of Hurricane Wilma in 2005, leaving in their place just a narrow strip of sand and many rocks.
According to Gabriela Mercado, tourism director for the national Secretariat of Environment, Mexico is losing its competitive edge due to the lack of sustainable management of its natural resources, and in 2008 that was reflected in the decline of tourism from Europe, where many travelers choose their destinations based on environmentally and socio-culturally friendly practices.
According to the representative of the non-governmental Mexican environmental law center, CEMDA, Alejandra Serrano Pavón, the Cancún hotel companies destroyed the mangrove forests to build their resort complexes, without taking measures to protect the sand dunes, which further accelerated coastal erosion.
To reverse this process, the federal government wants to recuperate the beaches through a 60-million-dollar project -- but that doesn't appear to be a real solution either.
Officials from the beach areas where the federal government plans to take sand complain that this now precious resource will be used in coastal areas by the very ones who destroyed them.
They also criticize what they see as the hotels' indifference to the local community. There are doubts ranging from whether economic benefits from tourism remain in the region, as the Secretariat of Environment official herself admits, to the fact that the residents of Quintana Roo no longer feel that the beaches are theirs, especially those in Cancún.
The hotels create a barrier that prevents public access to the sea. "Ten years ago, in the hotel area of Cancún, there were 'ecological windows' where we could still see the sea. But no longer," says Moreno, of Le Méridien.
If someone wants to reach the water, she or he must pay the hotel, as publicist José Uriart does. "I pay my 20-dollar day pass and I can use the pool, showers, recliners, towels," he said.
But if one were to use the beach without paying, the experience of crafts vendor Jaime García serves as a warning: "The guards are arrogant. They say the beach belongs to the hotel. Once I told them that the beaches are public, but they turned on the water hose and doused me until I left," he said.
As a result, one never sees "a Maya who works there go and lay out a towel on the beach outside the Hotel Presidente," says CEMDA's Serrano Pavón
Perhaps because of this some hotels feel compelled to improve their image, and work to obtain sustainability certification voluntarily. They set up water treatment plants and use the water to irrigate their golf courses; they use biodegradable detergents; they decorate their grounds with native plants, and make an effort to improve relations with the community by adopting schools and social services centers, giving talks about sustainable practices and donating the money they obtain through recycling metal and glass containers.
But it's not just a question of image.
In one year, Le Méridien Hotel cut its electricity consumption five percent, water consumption four percent, gasoline 13 percent and gasoil 24 percent, reports facilities manager Cristóbal Gudiño Nava. Furthermore, the hotel went from an output of more than one kilogram of garbage per day per person to just over half a kilo per person. Next year these numbers need to continue to improve in order to ratify the certification.
In Playa del Carmen, the Mayan Palace Hotel, also certified by Green Globe, "set aside an area for a crocodile preserve and an island on a lake as a home to pink flamingos. We also have an area for composting and a nursery for native species," says Erica Lobos, head of the certification project.
"We offer the tourists a bicycle tour through those areas and explain why we are working to protect the plants and animals, which are the fastest to recover after a hurricane," she added.
But, Lobos went on, although these efforts are important, implementing a culture of sustainability is a slow process. "There is a certain apathy. We advise about sustainable practices, and when there are just one or two hotels per month expressing interest in working this way," it is too few."
Meanwhile, the Secretariat of Environment is drafting national standards for sustainability requirements for the region's tourism industry. It will include criteria to determine whether a hotel is sustainable or not and will be the basis for rankings. A hotel's poor ranking in sustainability is likely to bring negative publicity.
According to CEMDA, even if the standards are well received, they are still not enough, because there are hotels that do not comply with existing regulations and yet continue to receive permits and authorizations from the federal authority. The Secretariat of Environment declined to comment on these criticisms.
The indifference of some hotel operations, especially the newer ones, when it comes to truly sustainable development of their business is due in part to the fact that they don't see the economic benefits of taking care of the area, says Serrano Pavón.
They still believe that the environmental issue "runs counter to development and job creation, but it's just not the case. It is quality of life for the resident, and it is going to allow them to continue with tourism and generate profits," concluded the CEMDA spokeswoman.
* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).