North AmericaMexico

The Climate Problem Strikes Mexico’s Idyllic Beaches

José Escalante gazes out over the mile-long stretch of fine, white sand that leads up to the Mayan ruins set on a hill above the blue waters of the Caribbean. A few fishing boats have been anchored off the coast of Tulum’s Playa Pescadores, which is considered to be one of the world’s most gorgeous beaches. Tourists take photos as the sun sets over the Yucatán peninsula in the background. Everything seemed to be in order in paradise.

Escalante, on the other hand, is exhausted. For a variety of reasons, including the increasingly unmanageable amounts of seaweed washing up on the beach, the large chains with few local connections opening restaurants and beach bars, and organized crime, which makes security a concern, he is selling the six beachfront hotels he co-owns in this thriving Mexican tourist destination.

He is also preoccupied with a more existential issue. According to him, “Climate change is unquestionably one of the reasons I’m selling.”

On the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, almost all infrastructure is concentrated in a coastal ribbon of beach resorts and timeshare properties, particularly between Tulum and Cancun, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the north. The sound of air-conditioned white minivans full with visitors buzzing over sweltering tarmac is accompanied by the sight of palm trees on display. However, this property is in a precarious situation.

According to Ruth Cerezo-Mota, an oceanographer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), sea level rises caused by the climate crisis might reach 40cm (15in) by 2050, resulting in the loss of four to twenty metres of beachfront property. According to Christian Appendini, a coastal engineer at the University of New Mexico, this “would result in mayhem.” The beaches in front of urban developments would most likely be lost unless dramatic nature-based beach restoration efforts are implemented, according to the report.

According to the Mexican tourist ministry, the 700-mile-long coast of Quintana Roo is being eroded at a pace of 1.2 metres per year, with certain areas losing as much as 4.9 metres per year in some places.

Sand excavated from the seabed is being used to sustain certain beaches, which are vanishing altogether in other areas. A lot of the time, they are little more than sand strips that are no broader than a gravel road. Sometimes the beach has totally disappeared, leaving just waves crashing against the walls of swimming pools, restaurants, and residences in its place.

Hurricanes are projected to become more intense as a result of rising ocean temperatures, resulting in storm surges and increasing coastal erosion in the process. Cancun was devastated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, causing significant portions of an eight-mile coastline to be washed away, which were then artificially repaired, and then by Hurricane Dean two years later, causing further damage. The Riviera Maya area was hit by 17 tropical storms and 13 hurricanes in 2020, making it one of the most active hurricane seasons on record for the region.

Algal blooms have also been a problem along the coast of the Riviera Maya, a phenomena that experts have connected to rising water temperatures, according to the National Geographic. On a regular basis, masses of decaying black seaweed may be seen along the shoreline along the coast. Workers shovel seaweed into wheelbarrows along the shoreline in Tulum, and hotel owners are frequently at a loss for where to store it all after being overwhelmed by the amount of seaweed.

Experts argue that even as the area begins to recover from the epidemic – over 12.5 million visitors visited Quintana Roo last year – there is little consideration given to the looming climate problem.

Seasons that have been recorded

The building of a new international airport in Tulum, Mexico, was proposed by the country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, last year, and the massive Tren Maya train project is expected to further expedite growth. According to Bios Poltica, a Mexican environmental monitoring organization, at least 91 major tourism projects are now under development in the state.

According to the Mexican census, the population of Playa del Carmen, the state’s second-largest city, has increased from 63,000 in 2000 to 333,000 in 2020 from a population of 63,000 in 2000. In fact, according to the city’s administration, it has the highest growth rate of any municipality in Latin America.

According to Escalante, this expansion is exacerbating the challenges in the region: “I believe that the way hotels are developed has probably contributed more to the loss of beaches than sea level rise.” A phenomenon known as coastal squeeze has resulted from the construction of resorts on top of dunes, which has slowed the process of beach creation.

“The real-estate market in the Cancun-Riviera Maya area is not particularly sophisticated – nobody is thinking long term or about climate change,” says Gene Towle of the Mexican property consultant Softec.

As Jennifer Ruiz-Ramrez, an oceanographer at the University of Quintana Roo, puts it, “I believe there is a window of around three years before developers begin to experience the economic impacts of environmental deterioration.” The amount of time it will take visitors to realize that the reality does not match the picture they are being sold is estimated to be around three years.

On the Riviera Maya, there are some indications that the reality of the climate problem is beginning to sink in for some members of the tourist sector. The Quintana Roo government enrolled into the world’s first coral reef insurance policy in 2019, with premiums paid by both hotel owners and the local government. The policy was effective in 2019. In 2020, after Hurricane Delta’s destruction of reefs and beaches, the first payment of $800,000 (£590,000) was made.

International action may also have an impact on the sector. During its meeting in June 2021, the G7 group of wealthy democracies endorsed the need for publicly listed firms to publish climate-related financial risks. As a result, beachfront assets might become a source of liabilities. Approximately 22 resorts in Cancun are expected to suffer partial floods every year by 2050, according to Daniel Scott, a geographer from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“It might take up to three years before the G7’s decision is put into effect,” Scott estimates. As a result, “institutional investors will begin selling high-risk houses along the seaside,” says the author.

As a result, Escalante might be the first of many investors who attempt to liquidate their holdings while the market is still hot. He does not anticipate having any difficulty selling his properties during the current boom – he has never had a hotel that was less than 100 percent occupied during the peak tourist season in Tulum.

“It was a very fantastic business,” recalls Escalante of the experience. Nevertheless, he believes that the writing is on the wall: “I was just in Cancun, and the beaches were in the same condition as they were after Hurricane Wilma 15 years ago.”

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