Can paradise be sustainable?

White sand beaches, Caribbean waters and an incredible reef make Tulum a tourism Mecca. Its booming tourism industry is driving unprecedented growth but threatening its sustainability as well.

Photo: Tulum Ruins, Mexico


Our inability to cope with Tulum’s outstanding growth as a single integrated community sharing a common vision of a sustainable future, is now a serious threat for us and our children to keep living in Tulum while sharing it with tourism.

Illustration: Map of the Riviera Maya


The issue of sustainability

Arises from:

  • Tourism driven growth
  • Population growth
  • Lagging infrastructure
  • Unwanted environment impact

Tourism driven growth

Tourism has been driving our growth. Mexico’s Riviera Maya was the 10th most visited destination in the world in 2010 arrivals. Government policy wants yet to improve that goal by moving up to being the 5th preferred competitive and sustainable tourist destination in 2018 (National Tourism Accord 2011). This goal calls for 50 million visitors, doubling 2010 amount, and increasing income to US$40 billion four fold the figure for 2010. This is a 16.4% steady growth rate for the next 6 years.

Rooms curve

Week 01 2012 sampling

Available hotel






Rest of Riviera Maya





% of nationwide rooms


Source: 2012 Sectur / Planeación Turística / DataTur monitoreo 70 puntos / Reporte Ejecutivo Semana 01 2012

Being the fastest growing town [1] nationwide, Tulum is Mexico’s last frontier in the Mayan Riviera by the Caribbean sea and one of the most visited destinations in our country.

Population growth

People servicing the tourism industry account for population growth in Tulum, which has kept steady and fast paced, significantly above the national average and above all other municipalities in Mexico.

Tulum City subtotal











% Yearly mean



QRoo. mean yearly pop growth 2005-2010


Nationwide. mean yearly pop growth 2005-2010


Compiled with National 2010 Census Data from Mexico’s Bureau (INEGI)

Lagging infrastructure

Proper infrastructure construction and financing by government and licensed operators, has been falling behind the the tourism industry driven population growth for several years. It is this lag that translates into unwanted environmental impact. Since the rate of growth continues to accelerate, the problem deepens. Hence the sustainability problem we now face as a society in Tulum.

Authorities fiscal budgets, law enforcement and law regulations voids, current urban and development planning methods and other government agenda priorities, as well as private sector lack of long term sustained involvement, law compliance and committed investment, are all playing in a catch-up scenario that might just not happen on time [2].

The legal framework underlying government policy is a key area of opportunity that needs to be addressed soon if it is to enable real actions and sustainable tourism enforcement:

Mexico’s General Tourism Law (Ley General de Turismo), published on June 17, 2009, has a strong emphasis on sustainability, however its full implementation has been delayed because the reglamento [regulations] of the law remains incomplete and, as of the end of 2011, without a clear path to adoption. [3]

Unwanted environment impact

There is yet another treasure in this Caribbean region and that is water.  Tulum sits on top of significant renewable fresh water resources of Mexico’s overall and of the planet [4][5][6]. Actually the whole Yucatan Peninsula does.

Our ecosystem is intimately tied to water from the sea and fresh water from an intricate network of underground rivers and cenotes (sinkholes into the aquifer) that coexist in a delicate equilibrium due to the highly permeable limestone rock bed of the whole Peninsula, only covered by soil a few meters deep. Everything filters down to the aquifer which is just a few meters below.

To understand our challenges we need to follow the flow of water

It is water that reveals to us potential risks and needed actions that need to be taken   unanimously looking ahead, if we are to remain as one of the best tourism spots in the world and a place for us residents to live in harmony with nature. The only possible answer for Tulum is to steer our development into a sustainable one that limits growth while investing in needed infrastructure. One that enforces our environmental laws [7]. Fortunately tourism trends are showing that travellers are looking forward to stay in real eco-tourism destinations that can be certified so achieving sustainability will also bring differentiation to Tulum tourism industry, and an increase in tourist average spending.

Our society must become aware and involved and change its current behaviour. Authorities and citizens have drafted and signed several sustainability plans for action in the recent years, at a rate of at least one per year:

  • “Plan de Conservación Akumal -Tulum“ (2009), 
  • “Programa de Desarrollo Urbano PDU” (2010) – Municipal government urban development document.
  • “Adaptación al cambio climático-Tulum 2030” (2010) workshop, 
  • “Declaración Unidos por Tulum”, (2011), 
  • “Foro del Agua” open forum (2012).

Academic and research communities , local and foreign, have been involved. NGOs and private consulting firms have participated as well, but so far short term business and other established practices have rendered them useless every time. It is a matter of culture, commitment and above all, common will. The latter is not there yet.

The Tulum series of combined posts

In the upcoming series of articles we will follow the flow of water and describe how our aquifer is being endangered as we grow and how will it affect Tulum and its tourism in a few more years if we do not change our current practices. We will also touch on other factors that affect our environment such as waste management itself, key services such as urban drinking water and real estate speculation. The series is a joint blogging project with Mona Deutschmann.

Our goal is to raise awareness by appealing to Tulum’s minded residents and tourists around the globe.

Start reading the series now!

You can read an introduction for this co-written series in the article cleaning efforts in the Sian Ka’an Reserve just published by Mona Deutschmann . The citizen organised event took place on Sunday, May 9th this year. Our Caribbean shores and reef are exposed to unwanted impact to the environment. In Sian Ka’an, just south of Tulum’s coast, it is mainly sea currents that are bringing garbage from international waters into its shores. The issue is serious.

How to help

Do you want to help? Begin by learning about our challenges while reading our posts. When visiting Tulum or the Maya Riviera, remember what you now know and others do not, and keep it clean.


References: Please click  to view the numbered list [1] through [7] used in this article/post, in a separate blog page.

Media and text content Licensing: Please click  to view license terms for third party media or my own media and/or text as used in this article/post. A separate blog page will open.


10 thoughts on “Can paradise be sustainable?

  1. Do stop to read Malu Guijoza’s swift article! (

    In it she lays down the crucial question about citizen quality of life and the price premium of sustainability projects that render them luxury lifestyle accessible only.
    A think luxury segment will continue to pay for such projects, specially true from the Real State perspective. But, what about citizens in Tulum?

    Will government pay the “premium” for the Citizen to live in a sustainable way (basically doing what it should providing adequate sewage, recycling, membrane covered dumps, treatment plants, quality drinking water to its population and environmental education)?
    And if not, would luxury (and all) real state market be negatively impacted in the short to medium term as well?

    Where is the equilibrium point for sustainability?
    What do you think?

    1. Invertir en educación!! los niños aprenden muy rápido! lo difícil somos los adultos….colocar en las mesas gobernantes con capacidades en medio ambiente, escuelas especificas en medio ambiente(guardianes forestales,puntos de observación para científicos,biólogos Ing. ambientales). El punto de equilibrio???? empezar con los grandes generadores de basura (fabricas y supermercados)que después compramos. Ese impuesto especifico por contaminar sea destinado a la recuperación o educación.

      1. Gracias por comentarlo Nora. Que gusto escucharte!
        Voy a tratar tu punto de vista en un siguiente artículo que espero veas pronto.

      2. Nora, hemos publicado una entrevista a Pepe Blanco que nos ha enseñado mucho y que querrás ver en relación al tema que bien señalas de la Educación como vía. Seguiremos tratando el asunto del punto de equilibrio en un articulo de tipo comentario dentro de poco.
        Entrevista inglés:
        Entrevista español:

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