Locals left behind by Mexico beach boom

The 'Mayan Riviera' is developing too fast, environmentalists warn.

Rosalio Mezo dips his feet in the Caribbean Sea and points from one end of Xpu-Ha Bay to the next. There used to be nothing along this inlet, he says, save a few fishermen's homes and the jungle.

Now a 200-room hotel stands to his right; a 700-room resort to his left. In fact, along this stretch of shore south of Cancún called the Mayan Riviera, developers are devouring land in a boom that has made this region, by many accounts, the fastest-growing in Latin America.

Once a swath of small fishing communities made up of simple, palm-covered homes like that of Mr. Mezo, this coastline has become the trendy new vacation spot as Cancún has morphed into a concrete jungle of high-rise hotels. Now the number of hotel rooms along this strip on the Yucatán Peninsula's eastern coast has surpassed that of Cancún.

Critics say the transformation is threatening fragile ecosystems (such as the region's mangrove forests), exceeding the capacity of the current infrastructure, and forever changing the area's tranquil way of life. Tourism and local officials say they are planning responsibly and providing an alternative to Mexicans who might otherwise head to the US in search of employment.

Developers come to Mezo's 700-by-100-meter slice of land every few months, he says. "They always say, 'It will be so much money, you will be able to take your family and live abroad, or wherever you want,' " he says, driving his blue motorboat to pick up his 6-year-old granddaughter from school on a recent day. "I don't want to live anywhere else. This is where I want to live."

Most people Mezo knows, including most of his siblings and aunts and uncles, sold their properties, and in their place have risen massive resorts. In 2004, the Mayan Riviera, a roughly 60-mile stretch, counted 23,502 hotels, according to the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Trust. Last year that number increased to 30,705, and officials say they expect to add some 3,500 rooms by year's end.

Much of the investment is from European developers – particularly Spanish – and the market includes everyone from those seeking destination weddings to second-home purchasers. All along Highway 307, which connects Cancún with Tulúm, billboards advertise mortgage alternatives and new resorts on the rise.

More tourists, more jobs

The growth has created jobs. The city of Solidaridad has grown an average of 22 percent per year for the past five years, says its mayor, Carlos Joaquín. Nearly 95 percent of the residents aren't originally from the region, but come to work as maids, gardeners, souvenir hawkers, dishwashers, and drivers. "Why would they go to the US, when they can come here?" he says. "We generate so much employment."

But while it may bring new inhabitants, it also displaces lifelong residents – particularly those with prime beach-front property. Though Mezo, a fisherman, makes his living from tourism, with a small seafood restaurant and by running fishing tours, others were ousted by it.

On a recent day he rides along the shoreline, past hotels with neatly manicured beachfronts and rows of blue sun chairs. This used to be the property of his neighbors, but many were bought out. He says they moved inland, or even to cities in the Yucatán, such as Mérida. Many, including his own brother, were victims of bribery and bad deals, he says.

His daughter, Jacqueline Mezo, says that of all the friends she studied with in school a decade ago, hardly anyone lives here anymore. "It doesn't matter the millions they offer. This is our home," she says, celebrating her cousin's birthday on a recent night, over lobster salad and flaky white fish cooked for hours in palm leaves under the sand – fish that her father and uncles caught the night before.

A changing way of life

"[Mezo] hasn't gotten wrapped up in the whole globalization thing," says Patricio Martín, a representative with the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. But he was also lucky; he had a land title. Many others didn't. "There were people who had the land, but they were bribed or threatened. Land speculators just took control," says Mr. Martín. "They are building more rooms than is sustainable in the region."

While other tourist hot spots such as Cancún or Acapulco, on Mexico's Pacific coast, are marked by confined high-rises, this growth has moved horizontally. "The Riviera Maya is the place where you have most of the tourism sprawl, with big resorts in pristine areas," says Ramon Cruz, a senior policy analyst at Environmental Defense in New York. "The problem is that it's a trendsetter."

Environmentalists scored a victory this winter, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón approved mangrove-protection measures that were strongly opposed by the tourism industry. The new law has slowed down construction, says Martin, but it is not being strictly enforced.

"Yesterday I walked through here with a machete. Today I zip by in a car," says Mezo. "Before we were alone here, now there are tourists everywhere."

His five grandchildren, are learning how to fish, and anchor the boats. The oldest, age 11, already drives the family motorboat. "This is for them," he says. "I want them to have this place forever."

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