Cozumel, the Caribbean island that does not want more cruises

The sound of breathing underwater generates a hypnotic purr. With each exhalation, a long column of bubbles is heard rising to the surface; on each inhalation, a noise like that of Darth Vader’s mask. It is produced by the biologist Germán Méndez, who advances with the oxygen tank on his back in a perfect horizontal line, as if supported by an invisible harness. He dives freely in these crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea, taking care of his coral farm with care. If any of them lie on the seabed, they bury them well so they don’t fall off. Some look like purple tentacles and others look like yellow brains or large fans waving in the water. As he leaves, he asks: “Did you like my office?”

But his office, on the island of Cozumel, has its days numbered. In this area dedicated to the restoration of corals for a decade, the Government has authorized the construction of an 800-meter mass of concrete: the fourth international cruise ship dock on the island. The work is part of the package of strategic projects presented by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in October 2020 to reactivate the economy after the pandemic. To Germán, on the other hand, it seems that destroying part of the corals for which the island is famous in order to bring in more cruise ships means “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”. “What are the tourists going to come for? To see dead stones? Cozumel is not an island of docks, it is an island of corals”.

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When the sun begins to go down, the stretch of coast where the pier will be built begins to fill up. A group of friends drain their cans of beer under a mangrove swamp and a little further on a couple kisses with the noise of the sea in the background. The area is so close to downtown Cozumel that it is a coveted destination for locals to spend the afternoon. Here they do not charge admission in dollars like in the beach clubs designed for tourists. There are not frozen daisies or umbrella-shaped straws. Just a public space, of which there are fewer and fewer, where those who do not have much can feel rich looking at this turquoise sea while the sun dyes the horizon red. If the pier is built, this area will be closed to the public.

A group of women willing to collect signatures to request a public consultation on the project arrives here like an earthquake. The youngest, Olivia Rose, runs at full speed along the coastal avenue on her motorized scooter waving a flag that bears the name of the group: ‘No to the fourth pier’. Guadalupe Martín Cab, environmentalist and president of the Conservation, Research and Environmental Management group of Cozumel (Cimac), applauds Rose as she sets up a small table on the sidewalk. And Claudia Yaneth Cifuentes, staunch defender of the president of Mexico, asks a man who wants to join the cause for his identification. The group is heterogeneous, as is the fight against a work that aims to bring more visitors to an island that lives off tourism.

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The activist Guadalupe Martín Cab waves a flag during the collection of signatures against the fourth pier, on January 22.
The activist Guadalupe Martín Cab waves a flag during the collection of signatures against the fourth pier, on January 22.Theresa of Michael

Guadalupe Martín Cab does not fit the words in time. He has all the arguments and he wants to explain them before it gets dark. “The question is why do they want to build another pier if they have never filled the existing ones?” The data supports it: the island has three international docks for cruise ships that have not exceeded 54% occupancy in either 2018 or 2019, the buoyant years before the pandemic. Even so, Cozumel is one of the islands that receives the most cruises in the world. The company that has won the concession, Muelles del Caribe, has obtained a lucrative deal: it will not only build the dock, but also a terminal building with its corresponding commercial area. That could be the answer. In a statement, the company stated that “obviously the docks are built for future operations and not current ones, so they will need to have larger dimensions compared to those of the current docks.”

When the activist found out about the project, her organization carried out a census in the area that counted twenty coral species, including two that are threatened. However, when Muelles del Caribe presented its documentation to the environmental authorities, it only reported seven. Guadalupe’s voice reaches high levels of indignation when she talks about it. That is why he joined Germán Méndez and other organizations on the island and, with the help of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), filed an injunction against the work that was admitted for processing in January. This week, a second lawsuit filed by the ‘No al fourth dock’ group has also been accepted by a federal judge, who has also ordered the provisional suspension of the work while the trial is resolved.

It’s Monday and since dawn those floating cities begin to appear in the sea. There are five in total, which translates into thousands of people who will want to go down to the beach first thing in the morning and will get back on the boat to set sail around five in the afternoon. Taxi drivers wait in a long line for a tourist to hire their services, but most have scheduled tours from the boat. They get off at the terminal building, get on a bus and arrive at a beach club or an ATV tour through the jungle. They go to the bathroom, it is assumed, at least a couple of times during their stay. And meanwhile the only sewage treatment plant on the island is working at full speed. If the new dock is built, up to 18,000 more people could arrive daily on this island that UNESCO has designated as a Biosphere Reserve.

A cruise ship crosses the waters of Cozumel in front of the area where the fourth pier is planned to be built.
A cruise ship crosses the waters of Cozumel in front of the area where the fourth pier is planned to be built.Theresa of Michael

From the institutions that promote tourism in the State, the vision regarding cruises is more flattering. Marisol Vanegas, who was Secretary of Tourism for Quintana Roo until July of last year, welcomes the construction of a fourth cruise ship dock because, she says, it will not only increase the number of ships, but also diversify the type of companies that They arrive in Cozumel. He highlights that each cruise tourist spends an average of 175 dollars, which “is not negligible considering that it is only for a few hours,” although he acknowledges that it is less than that of tourists who stay in hotels to dive on the island.

A Disney company cruise launches a deep sound that emulates the famous melody of the movies of our childhood. He interrupts Miriam Moreno, who wonders who really benefits from the economic development of this type of tourism. “They are large corporations that consume from other large corporations. What falls on the people is really very little.” A social psychologist and diver, Moreno is part of the Coral Hero organization, which is dedicated to community conservation of corals in various parts of the state of Quintana Roo. He says that, during 2020, when practically no cruise ships arrived due to the pandemic, the island’s economy was sustained by its main source of employment: the diving industry. “But if it continues to be managed as before, the reef will not last long. And divers usually look for living sites, not dead ones.”

What happens to Cozumel is repeated in many parts of the world. Archisonada was Venice’s decision to put a stop to cruise ships. How much capacity does a place have to entertain so many people on a daily basis? Provide them with water, process their waste? How many cruise ships can an island hold before it’s out of bounds? In environmental terms, the beauty of Cozumel is, at the same time, its condemnation. Thousands and thousands of tourists who want to enjoy its coral reefs, its beaches with crystal clear waters, its jungle with dozens of endemic species. But to supply that demand, it is necessary to create beach clubs, resorts, developments such as the controversial Lakam-Ha, in the south of the island, which are gradually eating up those pristine areas that initially attracted tourists. It is the story of Cancun, of Playa del Carmen, of Tulum.

Aerial view of the works for the Lakam Ha tourist development in Cozumel, on January 23.
Aerial view of the works for the Lakam Ha tourist development in Cozumel, on January 23.Theresa of Michael

“What they are doing throughout the Riviera Maya is cutting down the mangroves, building hotels and dumping their wastewater into the sea. That is why we see enormous amounts of algae in these places that are killing the corals”, says Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. The expert, who worked with Germán Méndez on the coral restoration project, explains that the nutrients that the sewage brings are food for the algae, but they prevent the development of the corals. To this was added the so-called white syndrome, a disease that was detected for the first time in Florida in 2014. Four years later it had killed half of the corals in Cozumel.

Germán Méndez seems uncomfortable on dry land. He is more comfortable in a wetsuit, propelled by his long blue fins, taking care of what he calls “his corals”, as if they were his offspring. Around him he only sees destruction where others see economic development. At the end of the interview, he asks, worried: “Have I been too catastrophic?”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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