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Yucatan Paradise in Peril

January 22, 2003

In an increasingly frantic age, in which no gratification is sufficiently easy or instant and few environments are unspoiled, it's comforting to know that there is a place where indigenous people still cling to a semblance of simplicity and where dolphins and sea turtles still find refuge in a fragile coral reef.

So, you're no doubt wondering: How quickly and conveniently can I grab a glimpse of all this cool environmental harmony stuff?

Well, if Carnival Cruise Lines and a Mexican theme park company stay their course, in just four years thousands more European and American tourists will be able to savor the joys of that tranquil realm along Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula -- all from the deck of one of the 30 or so additional luxury liners that will pull up each week to a proposed new pier.

Of course, environmentalists say an influx of massive ships would destroy the already threatened Great Maya Reef, and activists say the new tourist hordes would shove the indigenous Mayans further into the socioeconomic margins. But heck, until tourists finally love the area's attractions to death, the ships will be good for business, right?

Not according to many Mexican business interests, who say that cruise ships, with their foreign crews, will take jobs from the local tourist industry and displace fly-in tourists who spend more on shore.

Who, then, would benefit from having as many as 800,000 new tourists a year docking at the peninsula? The promoters of Home Port, a joint venture between Carnival and the Xcaret theme park.

Xcaret, built along a beach, seeks to recreate Maya village life and put ecology on display. Already, more than three-quarters of a million people annually pay $50 a head to explore subterranean rivers, feed the fish, touch baby turtles or swim with dolphins. Already, one activist told The Times' Carol J. Williams, the "entire ecology has been 'concessionalized.' "

Indeed, cruise ships already dock at a gravel port near the proposed port, but with big new docking facilities, cruise lines figure they can double the number of visitors to this piece of paradise.

Such a vision has obvious appeal to people who profit from theme parks and cruise ships. But it can't possibly make sense to the Mexican government, which should be encouraging a more farsighted and prudent approach to the future of the Maya Riviera.

That's why Mexico's environmental agency needs to conduct its own review before it is too late. Now, about 80% of the local economy depends on tourism. Once the coral, fish, turtles, dolphins and tranquillity are gone, the region will probably be known for poverty and environmental ruin -- and the cruise ships will move on to the next attraction.

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