Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF URBAN AND INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT

A case history:  Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico

By Peter V. Wiese, retired exploration geologist

Executive Summary

Before its development, Cancún Island was a barrier island, 17 km long and 100-400 m wide. It faced the Caribbean Sea and enclosed a shallow lagoon and was an important nesting site for seabirds and sea turtles.  There were several openings to the mangrove lined lagoon in which there was a variety of marine life.

In order to create a tax base for the newly created state of Quintana Roo (1973), it was decided to create an upscale resort for the wealthy.  First, farmers were brought in from other states to set up the agricultural infrastructure on land to the west of the lagoon.  However, poor soils resulted in these farmers becoming subsistence farmers, and most food is brought in from other parts of Mexico.

Quarries were developed and causeways constructed linking the island to the mainland and restricting the flow of fresh water into the lagoon.  Sections of the lagoon were filled for golf courses and amusement parks.  Sewage treatment and the disposal of other wastes became a major problem, eventually the exhausted quarries were used as rubbish dumps, polluting the groundwater supplies.  The creation of marinas in the lagoon added to the problems so that now the smell and appearance of the lagoon is unhealthy.

Added to the ecological impacts is the demographic impact resulting from thousands of unskilled workers moving into the area and living in barrios with no running water or sewer services, where disease is a constant problem. Many of these workers, having few skills, turn to crime to survive, resulting in a frightening clash of cultures.

After 15 years of development, Hurricane Gilbert hit Cancún in 1988, resulting in considerable destruction and hardship.  In an effort to win back its share of the tourist trade the hotel association participated in competitive pricing.  Tourist arrivals increased, but it was a different type of visitor, more budget conscious.

The development of Cancún can be traced in a model entitled the ‘self-destruct theory of tourism.’ In Phase I of this model, a remote area becomes an escape for the rich who live in isolation from the rest of the population.  Through Phase II, the middle income tourists arrive, the rich move on and there is more interaction between tourists and residents.  The area moves on to mass tourism and there is socio-environmental degradation of the destination in Phase III, which ultimately leads into Phase IV as the tourism industry collapses leaving a resident population unable to return to its old way of life.  Cancún has nearly reached the endpoint of Phase III.

Introduction

My introduction into the Yucatan Peninsula and Cancún came in 1973, just about the time the State of Quintana Roo was created by a degree of Mexico’s President Luis Echeverria.  I arrived as an exploration geologist seeking a source of high quality limestone for export to the United States of America.

For the next 20 years I watched Cancún grow and develop into a city of over 300,000 people in support of a tourist industry which every year is host to about 5 million tourists in its 20,000 hotel rooms.  The result of this explosive growth has been positive in that the development created jobs and hard currency for Mexico at a time of great need, but the environment suffered in proportion.

This presentation/paper is based on my observations and several hundred local newspaper articles from Diario de Yucatán and Novedades de Quintana Roo, which I have archived and translated into English.  (Copies of these newspaper archives also exist at UNESCO-CSI in Paris and at the Sustainable Economic Development Unit, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago).  Appendix I contains just one recent newspaper article relating to the growth and development of Cancún and the English translation.

Geology

Most of you already know the Yucatan Peninsula is a platform of calcium carbonate, ranging in age from Eocene sediments to Recent, all deposited under warm shallow marine seas with alternating periods of erosion and deposition during the glacial periods, when sea levels rose and fell.  These marine sediments have been drilled by PEMEX, the national oil company, to depths of 7,000 metres.  Annual rainfall is about 100 centimetres per year – the dry season runs from November to May while most of the rain falls from June to October.  Temperatures are tropical to sub-tropical. 

The soil profile is very thin, less than half a metre thick in the Cancún area, but it is able to support vigorous vegetative growth due to the rapid decomposition of leaves falling from deciduous trees.

There are no rivers in the northern part of the peninsula.  All rainfall penetrates the shallow soil cover and enters the limestone substrate which is porous and permeable.  Once in the groundwater regime it moves down gradient through cracks and discrete channels and finally emerges into the sea.  This water is the sole source of all drinking water for both rural and urban populations.

Siting

Cancún Island was, before its development, a barrier island, ranging in width from 100 to 400 metres and was about 17 kilometres long, running north and south and parallel to the coast.  It had only a couple of crude shelters which were used intermittently by local fishermen.  It faced the Caribbean Sea and was a nesting place for sea birds and for five species of sea turtles.  West of the island lies a shallow lagoon, called Nichupte, which averages three to four metres in depth.  There were four openings between the Caribbean Sea and the lagoon, the two northern openings allowed sea water to enter the lagoon and the two southern openings allowed for its departure.  This access to the open sea provided sufficient exchange to support a wide variety of marine life.  It was home to manatees, juvenile fishes, caracol, lobster, crocodiles and all manner of marine life.  Mangroves were found in many parts of the lagoon around its periphery and marine grasses were plentiful.

Development

During the period of Luis Echeverria, when statehood was granted, it became obvious that the success of the newborn state would depend upon some method of creating a tax base in addition to income for its inhabitants.  There were no railroads in the new state, very few paved roads, no deepwater ports and nothing to export if they did have ports.  Electricity and telephone service was confined  to a very few medium sized cities.  The indigenous people were Maya, most of whom did not speak Spanish, were uneducated and unaccustomed to any kind of regimented work schedule.  They lived, and still do, in remote villages much as they did at the time of the conquest.

After much deliberation, the national political authorities decided that tourism, designed principally to attract rich North American and Canadian tourists would be the financial engine that would support the new state.  Initial funding and seed money would be furnished by the federal government.  Political leaders and planners flew off to places like Miami to see what kind of developments would attract the targeted tourists.  It was decided to build a Miami with a Mexican flavour.

The basic premise was that this would be an upscale resort for the wealthy.  Hotel rooms would sell for US$175 - $200 per night and up, and the restaurants and services would be priced accordingly.  These wealthy tourists would buy expensive jewelry, rent big cars, charter fishing boats and aeroplanes. It was on this assumption that the hotels were designed, the shopping malls conceived, and the money borrowed to build them. The fact that large amounts of money were to be furnished from the public treasury made this an attractive proposition for those in a position to take advantage of it.

Construction

Although the government planners recognised that the white sand beaches, the clear blue Caribbean waters and the sun were the primary draw for the tourists, they went to work without paying much attention to the environmental fallout from their efforts.  They failed to see that any substantial tourist development involves a trade off, where the environment is sacrificed for the comfort and pleasure of the tourists and for the income that this development yields.  It’s a simple trade off.

In recognition that a huge army of migrant construction workers would need to be fed, the government of Mexico brought farmers in from the northern State of Sinaloa to set up the agricultural infrastructure.  These farmers were granted a collective title to several thousand hectares of land on the west side of the lagoon to undertake their farming activities.  It didn’t take long for these farmers to learn that the intensive farming of the shallow Yucatan soil was far different from what they had known in Sinaloa.  Rainfall was seasonal, undependable and the groundwater near the coast had too much chloride to be used for irrigation.  So these formerly productive farmers turned to subsistence farming and food was brought in from other parts of Mexico.  It is still being brought by truck and by air, enough food for 300,000 residents and 5 million tourists per year.  Some fruits are locally grown, chicken and eggs are locally produced and seafood is seasonally available.

Government attention then turned to sources of construction aggregate for the enormous effort which lay ahead.  To answer this need they turned to the lands deeded to the farmers on the west shore of the lagoon.  Since the land was already deeded they were going to be permitted to operate stone quarries instead of farms and sell the product to the contractors.

The stone this produced was not particularly well-suited for construction aggregate – it was relatively soft, abraded in handling, and it was difficult to get a bond between the stone and the cement paste or the asphalt.  But it was all that they had.  So for about ten kilometres alongside the lagoon and in full view of the highway from the airport into the town of Cancún, there were quarries.

Ground elevation was about ten metres and the stone was quarried to about one metre above the water table, which was the same elevation as the water in the lagoon.  They did not have the facilities nor the expertise to mine underwater, so the quarries spread out laterally.

Roads had to be developed to facilitate the delivery of the stone as well as labour and other materials onto the island, and causeways were built to connect the island to the mainland quarries.  The use of causeways was maximized and bridges minimized to save money.  The causeways, of course, restricted the free flow of fresh seawater into the lagoon and the environment changed abruptly.  The manatee fled and the lobster and caracol populations were decimated.  Later, parts of the lagoon were filled to create golf courses and amusement parks, in some cases on top of mangroves which served as nurseries for young marine species.  The building of the causeways was the first deadly mistake in the development of Cancún.

Environmental groups sounded the alarm, but the politicians and developers brushed them aside.

Sewage treatment plants were built on the island next to the lagoon, and storm drains were designed to empty into the lagoon.  Recently it has been discovered that some of the builders of hotels and commercial plazas tied their sewage discharge lines into the storm sewers.  Others under-designed their primary treatment plants and when they failed to operate properly, they routed untreated sewage into the sewage trunk lines.  About 80% of the surface area of Cancún Island has now been paved or made impervious to the entry of stormwater into the ground.  Storm waters then carry petroleum products, heavy metals, lube oils and other soluble and insoluble chemicals into the lagoon.

Any time you gather 300,000 permanent residents and the occupants of 20,000 hotel rooms in one area, there are going to be accumulations of mountains of garbage and Cancún is no exception.  What to do with it?  Why dump it in the exhausted quarries, of course!  And they did.  Organic, inorganic, dead animals, wasted food, construction debris, paint, used motor oil. All of it went into the abandoned quarries.  Of course the leachate from these wastes descended through the permeable stone in the bottom of the pits and entered the groundwater flowing into the lagoon.

If constricted flow of fresh seawater, sewage, storm drainage, and leachates were not enough, natives of the area, driven by financial problems, cleaned out the remaining edible seafood to sell to the hotels.  Marinas were established in the lagoon with no provision made for the disposition of human wastes or used motor oil.  The lagoon was doomed.

The native population generally does not use the lagoon.  They know from the smell and appearance that it is unhealthy, but the tourists, not knowing any better, continue to play in its waters and suffer the consequences of ingesting the sewage and coliform bacteria.

Today, while most people in Cancún don’t really care about the lagoon, some dedicated environmentalists and scientists realize what has been done to it.  Opinions range from the situation being hopeless (mainly biologists) to the developers’ belief that by pumping sewage into the lagoon the contamination will be flushed out.  Another developer recently proposed that the lagoon be filled up, thus getting rid of the problem and creating new land for development !  Countless committees have been formed to consider solutions, innumerable studies made, but nothing much ever gets done.

Demographic impact

Added to the ecological impacts of this development project there has been a demographic impact which, while hidden from the tourists, is no less real in its impact on society.

Thousands of unskilled workers from other parts of Mexico have left their families, come to Cancún and built their shelters of sticks, plywood and tin on the outskirts in what are called ’irregular’ settlements.  Potable water is lacking in these areas as well as sewer services.  Disease is a constant problem.  These migrant workers are producing a new generation of people in these barrios.  They grow up without skills in the midst of a tourist environment and a lifestyle for which they are unprepared.  They turn to petty crime and not so petty crime in order to survive.  Car thefts and robbery are commonplace and it is said that twenty minutes after checking into any hotel you can be enjoying the drug of your choice.

Most of the good jobs in Cancún are considered by the young people to be the ones where they can interface with the tourists, improve their language skills, and receive tips, hopefully in dollars.  Cancún is where the action is.  Yet very few of the local young men or women have the necessary social skills to perform these services.  The tourist industry, intended in part to create employment for local people, has found it necessary to bring in people trained in foreign languages and skilled in the art of dealing with tourists, to perform these jobs.  These are the clerks, bellboys, waiters and bartenders in the major hotels and restaurants who are the recipients of tips while the local people make beds, do the gardening, work as laborers and pick up trash.

The clash of cultures is frightening in this tourist environment. A tourist family of two adults and two children will spend on one meal what the Mexican family spends for a week on food.  The maids in the hotels are subject to dreadful temptation from the jewelry, money and luxury articles that are left in open sight in the rooms they clean up.

The discos and night clubs bring wealthy young men and women from Mexico City to participate in the ‘high life’ – but with them come prostitution, drugs, AIDs and crime.  Many upper and middle class Mexican families do not allow their teenage children to go to Cancún.

 The family has long been the centre of Mexican culture.  But the drawing power of the bright lights of Cancún is difficult to resist and the young people are turning their backs on their villages and their parents and their traditional responsibility to look after them.  A social revolution is underway as a result of the demographic impact.

Hurricane Gilbert

In September of 1988 when modern Cancún was already fifteen years old.  Hurricane Gilbert stormed into the Caribbean and struck the city.  It was a category 5 hurricane and a devastating blow.  Many of the beaches disappeared, there was no water, no food, no electricity, the airport was inoperable and eight thousand tourists were ejected from their hotel rooms.  No provision had been made for a disaster of that magnitude.  While there were no fatalities among the tourists, the hardships which they endured, many of them sleeping on the floor at the airport and begging for food from the locals, made US travel agents doubtful about sending clients to Cancún.  Tourists were directed instead that winter to the islands of Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Barbados.

In a desperate effort to win back its share of the tourist trade, the Cancún Hotel Association participated in competitive pricing of their facilities. Travel agents bought discounted blocks of airline tickets and put together package tours to go along with the cheap room rates. Meals and other inducements were added to the packages and by 1990 the number of visitors had almost recovered.

While the number of visitors increased, they were a different kind.  They were budget-conscious, lower income visitors who took full advantage of the discounted packages, but spent very little money in restaurants, expensive stores, sightseeing, etc.  They would arrive in Cancún with $250 and go home with $200 still in their pockets.  The complexion of the place had changed, and the rich tourists passed up Cancún for the pleasures of the offshore islands of Belize or Honduras.  To this day Cancún still has not succeeded in luring back the upscale tourists and it is starting to show in lack of repairs and maintenance of hotel facilities, the closing of many restaurants, and even several hotels being offered for sale.  I will return later to this theme.

Future plans

There is no question that Cancún is a troubled development, both from an environmental and demographic point of view.  Yet in spite of the acknowledged overbuilding there, the political authorities are agitating for the tourist development of the rest of the Quintana Roo coastline, over a hundred kilometres, to the border with Belize. Twenty thousand more hotel rooms are envisioned for the ‘tourist corridor’, along with the  infrastructure to house and feed probably 300,000 people to service them.

One hopes that the lessons that could be learned from the mistakes at Cancún would guide these new developments, but the indications are not encouraging.

Ecotourism is being suggested, but ecotourism seems to have a life of its own, and where it is initially successful, the promoters then want to build on that success.  More tours are sold, requiring more facilities, drawing more local people to settle in the area, and ecotourism becomes forgotten.

I have had people in the environmental movement and the tourist business tell me that tourism is an environmentally ‘friendly’ industry, but from what I have observed at Cancún and other Mexican resort areas, it simply is not true.

Self-destruct theory of tourism

In the mid-eighties, several researchers on the subject independently reached similar conclusions on what they have called the « self-destruct theory of tourism ».  (The Patterns and Impact of Tourism, J. Holder in « Environmentally Sound Tourism in the Caribbean, April 1987.  The Banff Centre School of Management).  This theory, very briefly holds that tourism is a given situation develops and declines in cyclical fashion in four phases:

Phase I

A remote and exotic spot offers peaceful rest and relaxation and provides an escape for the rich who live in isolation from the resident population.

Phase II

Tourism promotion attracts persons of middle income who come as much for the rest and relaxation, as to imitate the rich.  More and more hotel accommodation and tourist facilities are built to attract and accommodate more and more tourists.  This transforms the original character of the place from « escape paradise » to a series of urban developments with several consequences:

Phase III

The country resorts to mass tourism, attracting persons of lower standards of social behavior and economic power.  This leads to the socio-environmental degradation of the tourist destination.

Phase IV

As the place sinks under the weight of social friction and solid waste, all tourists exit, leaving behind derelict tourism facilities, littered beaches and countryside and a resident population that cannot return to its old way of life.

Final note

Cancún has reached nearly to the point of Phase III of this theory.  A recent survey revealed that only 20% of the visitors intend to return.  This means constant and costly promotion to maintain the flow of tourists.  It may be too late for Cancún, but there may be some here in this room who can influence tourist development in their country, and the Cancún experience should be examined closely in order to avoid the pitfalls which are so evident there. 


This paper has been presented by Peter V. Wiese, retired exploration geologist,  to the international Conference on "Earth Sciences Processes, Materials Use and Urban Development" which took place in Bogotá, Colombia, in November 1996 under the sponsorship of SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council of Scientific Unions) and IUGS (International Union of Geologic Sciences).

Updated for the CSI web site in July 2000


Reaction to this article by Jules Siegel

WP Forum: The social impacts of tourism / Cancún-Mexico and Maputaland, May 2001 (user name= csi ,  password= wise)

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