Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Vacaciones en Mexico: Parte 12

The journey back home, together with my inability to sleep on a night flight, afforded an ideal opportunity to reflect on our holiday, particularly the impact of tourism on the Yucatan. Has it been a good or bad thing for the area. I can only answer this question from a partial and, of course, highly personal perspective but I hope I’ve left the rose coloured spectacles off long enough to be reasonably objective. Whatever my opinion amounts to, working on it has helped to pass the time on a long flight back to the cold (as a matter of record, it was 30C as we left Cancun and -1C when we landed at Gatwick).

We are lucky enough to have visited the Yucatan once before, about 14 years ago. Then the main foci for hotel development were Cancun (which was, after all what it was built for) and Playa del Carmen: what was happening further south on the coastal strip was fairly patchy and limited by the atrocious track which passed as the main road. Since then the pot-holed roller-coaster has been replaced by a modern dual-carriageway and many more resort hotels have been built between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. This increase in the number of hotels has been accompanied by noticeable changes in the service infrastructure, for example, more tours, more local production facilities, more tourist shops, more public transport and much, much more construction.

All of these changes man more work for the locals, not just in the hotels but also in all the other areas. The tourist industry, although it is still expanding is also maturing in that more and more produce and expertise is being locally sourced rather than being shipped in. I spoke with a couple of people at our hotel about local agriculture and they pointed out that most of the vegetable, fruit and salads used by the hotel, and others, came from greenhouses in the vicinity which used modern hydroponic cultivation techniques. We got a glimpse of acres of these greenhouses on our flight path out of Cancun airport.

Of course, plonking huge resort complexes in the virgin jungle was never ever going to be a great gain for the environment. But what did strike me is the way ‘they’ (the hotels and the state) are aware that the environment is one of the major, if not unique, attractions of the Yucatan. They are doing what they can to be as sustainable and environmentally stewarding as possible. Lots of solar panels are in evidence, recycling seems to well structured, energy efficient air conditioning units are used, waste control and water conservation measures are in place, natural attractions insist on the use of biodegradable sun screens and insect repellents and conservation schemes are being put in place to protect natural wildlife. In this latter context, it’s worth mentioning that the tourist development is taken place along a relatively narrow strip right next to the sea: there’s still plenty of virgin jungle just beyond this strip. I realise I’m painting a very cosy picture but I do believe the commitment is there to continue along this ‘green’ pathway. They have to as their future depends on the Yucatan remaining a destination of choice for many holiday makers.

At the state level, the influx of money has meant that healthcare services have improved and schools and colleges are providing better education than before. In some places that was not hard to do as healthcare and education were pretty rudimentary (as they undoubtedly still are in the more remote Mayan villages). A lot of effort is being made to teach the locals the skills necessary to enable them to take advantage of what opportunities the tourist industry and support functions have to offer them. One interesting facet of this is the campaign by the state to provide bi-lingual instruction to prevent the Mayans from being disadvantaged by not knowing how to speak Spanish – many are still monolingual.

To come back to my original question: is tourism a good or bad thing for the Yucatan? I could not help but bear in mind what we saw and heard at the Mayan village. From their point of view, it has been a good thing as it has given them, particularly the young, opportunities they would never have had. Yes, there will be many who lament the loss of the old ways but those with the greatest stake in the future, the young, seem to be all for it. The developments are happening and, let’s face it, they will continue. As I see it, the locals are benefitting and the environment is being cared for responsibly. This is probably all we could ask for. If we are still around in 14 years, maybe we should go back to see if my optimism was well placed.

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