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An Ugly Fight at Pretty Site

Developers join environmentalists to oppose a cruise-ship pier on Mexico's Great Maya Reef. A glut of tourists endangers the area.

January 20, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

XCARET, Mexico — Swim with the dolphins. Feed the fish. Touch baby turtles. Watch quail eggs hatch on cue, ahead of closing time at the aquatic theme park here that is the Maya Riviera's most popular commercial attraction.

Communing with nature has long been the big draw for many of the 3 million tourists who visit this coast each year to vacation on alabaster beaches lapped by aquamarine waters along the Great Maya Reef.

So many get so close to the fragile flora and fauna on the Caribbean shore, which is now encrusted with resorts from Cancun to the overrun ruins at Tulum, that the natural jewels are at risk of destruction. The coral is dwindling and the turtles are dying out.

That is why the latest large-scale tourism venture proposed for this trampled playground -- a pier for cruise ships that would bring additional day-trippers by the thousands -- has incited an unlikely alliance of opponents. They include environmentalists, Maya rights activists and early-bird entrepreneurs eager to protect the part of paradise they have already tamed for the tourist market.

"Our entire ecology has been 'concessionized,' " said Aniseto Caamal Colon of the indigenous-rights group Yuxcuxtal, which means "green life" in Mayan. The group sees the pier project as a threat to the sea life, land and lifestyles. "The indigenous people who are supposed to benefit from development are being left along the wayside. We can't even go to the beaches anymore because the only access is from private resorts."

Environmentalists and business interests are opposed to the project not so much for its ecological shortcomings as for its contribution to the cumulative risks posed to the 220-mile coral reef, the second largest after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Although no one development is blamed for the dwindling coral and sea life, tourism and the facilities built to accommodate the throngs are cited in environmental impact reviews and studies detailing the damage, such as one conducted late last year by the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"The government usually grants permission for a project on condition that the environmental problems are resolved, but not one project in this area conforms to those laws and conditions," said Araceli Dominguez, who runs a small, eco-friendly hotel in the nearby town of Playa del Carmen. "All we can do is say, 'No more.' "

Dominguez is spearheading resistance to the pier project, leading the region's first broad-based effort to put an environmental foot down after 30 years of resort construction. She is confident of winning because of support from Cancun's business leaders, who are using their considerable resources to push the federal environmental agency for another review. They also have influence with the local municipality, where a pending building permit is the remaining obstacle to the start of construction.

"It's quite funny to see these developers we are usually fighting against bringing out refreshments and helping us put up loudspeakers at demonstrations," Dominguez said.

The battle is against Puerta Cancun-Xcaret, also known as Home Port, a joint venture between the theme park's owners and Carnival Cruise Lines, the biggest player in the luxury cruise industry that combined deploys half its global fleet to the Caribbean.

Once in full operation by 2007, the pier and terminal would be a home port offering departures for cruise ships four times a week and day visits for more than two dozen others. That is expected to bring 800,000 more tourists a year to the already-bustling shores of Quintana Roo state, the eastern flank of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Home Port's promoters argue that cruise ships will be visiting anyway and that failure to build a departure base will only serve to reduce Mexico's share of the fastest-growing sector of the tourism market. A few cruise ships already make day visits, docking at a gravel port a few hundred yards south of the proposed pier.

Miguel Quintana is majority owner of the Xcaret theme park and holds a 70% share of the Mexican half-stake in the Home Port project, which would put cruise ship passengers within walking distance of his current investment. While park attendance would surely benefit from its proximity to the cruise ships, Quintana said the pier is needed to make Mexico a player, not just a provider.

"Cruise ships have been visiting the same 12 Caribbean islands for more than 50 years," he said in defending a new route. "This is very attractive for Spanish-speaking Europeans, and as the only home port that is not in the United States, passengers won't need U.S. visas, and that opens the market immensely."

The project will benefit the Maya Riviera communities, Quintana said, because Carnival has promised a share of its disembarkation fees to the local government to invest in education, public works and health care. Most towns along the coast are slums screened off from the luxury resorts by landscaping and fences.

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