This post is part of a series about the Maya Ka'an tourism project in Yucatan, Mexico. This project, which aims to create sustainable, community-based tourism for the benefit of indigenous Mayans, is backed by the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an important coalition of NGOs that has been working to combine conservation and tourism throughout coastal Central America since 2006. The Rainforest Alliance, which sent me to the Yucatan, and a local NGO, Amigos de Sian Ka'an, are members of MARTI, which has been responsible for the development and funding of the Maya Ka'an project. See links to related posts at bottom.
Cancun is a place I never thought I’d visit. Opulent resorts just aren’t my cup of tea. I’m the kind of traveller who shows up in a city with no plan for accommodation; I like to wander around before walking into some hole in the wall for a cheap and usually interesting night. So when I received an invitation to travel to Cancun with the Rainforest Alliance to learn about new sustainable, community-based tourism initiatives that are starting up in the Mayan region of the Yucatan, I was intrigued.
When I arrived at the Cancun airport last week, it was like walking into an oven. I left 60F weather back in Ontario, along with a few lingering snow banks, so this heat was very welcome. A driver took me to Tianguis, Mexico’s biggest tourism tradeshow, where the new Maya Ka’an project – the reason I’d come – had just been officially launched. Maya Ka’an connects 17 small communities in the Mayan region of the state of Quintana Roo, who have developed tourist attractions that range from outdoor physical adventures to cultural and social encounters. (You can read more about it here.)
That night, I had my first-ever introduction to an all-inclusive resort – the Grand Palladium near Tulum. Never before have I stayed in such luxury. Even weirder was being surrounded by fellow North Americans, which I’m not used to when travelling in Latin America. I felt like I was walking around in a time warp bubble that was borderline tacky, definitely strange (because of how un-Mexican everything felt), and ever so slightly addictive because everything was so easy.
I spoke with the Maya Ka’an tourism director, Vicente Ferreyra, about all-inclusive hotels. They are ubiquitous throughout the Yucatan, but he wanted to bring our group to the Grand Palladium because it’s a good example of a big hotel that’s actually trying to minimize its carbon footprint by implementing green initiatives. It has been certified by Earth Check for the past 5 years.
For example, all of the hotel rooms have energy-saving detectors that won’t let the air conditioner turn on if a door is open, and electronic devices charge very slowly if the room is vacant. Only 25 to 30 percent of waste goes to landfill; the rest is composted and recycled, though food waste continues to be a big problem. The hotel has annual donation campaigns for communities in the interior and hosts regular beach cleanups involving guests. It also runs a turtle conservation project that removes delicate eggs from the beach and places them in a protected area for safe hatching. It is considered to be one of the best in the region and, according to Ferreyra, stems from a genuine desire to protect these animals from predators and climate change.
I was especially interested to learn that the Grand Palladium was constructed behind the mangrove swamps that line the white sand beach, in order to protect them. Most of the other big resorts have destroyed the mangroves in order to build infrastructure directly on the beach. The Grand Palladium owns 60 hectares, but only 10 percent can be developed.
Tourists, however, are the biggest problem. Because most hotels are booked as part of a package, tourists buy based on price and don’t know or care about what green initiatives an individual hotel may have. Most times they don’t even look at a hotel’s own website.
There is a strong need to develop consumer interest in hotels’ green initiatives, but it’s challenging because of the type of tourist that’s generally attracted to this area in the first place. Relaxation and/or partying is at the forefront of everyone’s mind – which is fine – but this mentality can create a dangerous sense of entitlement that prevents any significant green advances from being made.
Marisol Herrera, owner of Totonal, a sustainable travel company, told me that hotel guests will often complain about the air conditioning not being low enough or water pressure not being strong enough – both of which are ‘green’ hotels’ attempts to decrease environmental impact.
While the Grand Palladium is a huge operation, with 1,500 rooms connected by a labyrinth of pathways that rely on an army of electric golf carts and a mini gas-powered train to herd guests from bedroom to beach to bar, I can see that the hotel truly is trying to minimize its impact and be as sustainable as possible under the circumstances. Though I still haven't been converted to the all-inclusive culture, it's a reality in Cancun that's not going away. Thank goodness there are some big hotel operators that are willing to work within that model and show that some degrees of sustainability can always be achieved. When a big hotel implements best environmental practices, it can go a long way toward making a difference.
Now, if only we could get all the tourists on board…
N.B. This post has been modified from its original version.