TREND: The popular wellness retreat on the Mayan Riviera deals with issues that threaten its very sustainability as a tourist attraction. Every year, millions of visitors head to Quintana Roo’s Caribbean beaches to relax, party and repeat. The state received 22 million visitors during 2019; now, it is trying to catch up after the Covid-19 downturn. With a shaky recovery on the horizon, resorts along the Mayan Riviera like Tulum might find it hard to deal safely with the growing demand brought by the Easter Week and Spring Break holidays. As of this writing, Quintana Roo’s epidemiological indicator remains yellow (in a four-color traffic light system).
•The beginning of spring is a high point for Tulum. The town has built an identity that stems from its ancient Mayan history and privileged natural surroundings. Travelers hastily make their way to the Mayan Riviera in time for the equinox. Visitors awe at the marvels and spectacle of nearby Chichen Itzá in Yucatán or the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Others wish to walk along pristine beaches like Tulum’s to escape the cold weather at home or hang around the famed cenotes (natural deep-water wells) that dot the land.
•Tulum saw the arrival of nearly 2.2 million tourists in 2018, its highest on record. As of 2020, the town had a population of 46,000 which is 65 percent more than in 2010 according to Mexico’s statistics agency INEGI. The latest census showed Quintana Roo ranked first among the Mexican states with the most significant population growth rate. The municipality of Tulum ranked second in the state. This is the direct result of the area’s economic appeal for many workers..
•The hospitality sector has been keen to position Tulum as a poster-child for sustainability. A cottage industry of nature-friendly hotels, spas, and restaurants has sprouted in the area that dabbles in a luxury eco-chic aesthetic. The model has proven, but it might strain when as it scales. However, it must be said that such success has attracted the attention of tourists but also that of people involved in illicit activities.
•The spotlight shone on Tulum during March, and not for good reasons. On March 27, four local police officers killed a woman (a refugee from El Salvador) while in custody. Protests sparked in Mexico and other countries concerning police brutality, and Mexican authorities arrested the culprits. Her remains arrived in San Salvador during the weekend. The situation comes as local citizens worry about the capacity of police forces to deal with mounting insecurity. Organized crime participates in the distribution of drugs along the Mayan Riviera and protection rackets.
•During the past months, authorities have shut down clandestine parties around Tulum and have also temporarily suspended access to local archeological sites. Although restrictions on gatherings have been in place since last year, health inspectors temporarily closed five hotels for exceeding capacity during the weekend (April 2-4). Authorities stopped two large-scale events hidden deep in the jungle and around cenotes were as well. Some Mayan sites did not permit access for a few days after visitors did not heed Covid-19 rules regarding the use of face masks, also a frequent problem in restaurants.
•The business community has openly raised concerns about the situation in Tulum, claiming it could damage the town’s reputation. In a recent interview, Tulum’s Hotel Association president talked about how businesses should respect guidelines for safe operations during the pandemic and how authorities should enforce them. The association also condemned police brutality. Tensions are rising as Tulum’s inhabitants have also denounced that tourists, especially foreigners, seem to get preferential treatment from the police. For some, the town could be at risk of being labeled a “drunken tourism” destination.
•Tulum remains safe for visitors, but it will have to adapt its strategy for the rest of the year. With the rising possibility of a third wave of Covid-19 cases, the town is preparing for fluctuations in the number of visitors for the following months. It will have to do so while maintaining a balance between economic recovery, public safety, and sustainability. For the moment, the state government launched health brigades, called “sanitary bubbles” aimed at tourists in typically busy places from March 29 to April 12 in Tulum, Cancún, and Playa del Carmen, closing off areas and streets from transit from midnight to 5 a.m.
•Recent events show how important it is for tourists to respect local laws and guidelines in Mexico. Limit your visit to popular beaches and sites while respecting health protocols and curfews. Avoid drinking in public spaces and acquiring illegal drugs. As much as store owners or cashiers want to offer patrons excellent service, avoid being rowdy or disrespectful. Be mindful of interactions with local police. Plan your outings and routes with time before heading out, particularly at night. (Do not forget to wear sunscreen!)
TAKEAWAY: Tulum´s existence is profoundly dependent on tourism, and efforts have been underway for years to make its sustainability a selling point. However, tensions and expectations regarding the behavior of foreign visitors will be high. The town is still an attractive and safe place for relaxation, enjoyment of nature, and the practice of well-being. Locals want to keep it that way.
* Spotlight by Sergio Mendoza, a freelance writer and consultant specialized in strategic development and geopolitics. He writes the Mexican Memo, a bilingual newsletter on Mexico-U.S. culture and politics. Twitter: @Sergistan