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From the turquoise depths of the sea to the grottos of underground cenotes to the sugary-white sands of luxurious resorts, one word keeps popping up in Mexico’s Riviera Maya: sustainability.

The movement to preserve the environment is alive and well in the state of Quintana Roo. Tourism officials emphasize it, as do the guides who run the snorkeling trips to the Caribbean’s fragile coral reefs and the leaders of tours of the region’s spectacular underground river.

Even the managers of the Riviera Maya’s luxurious resorts are quick to point to their various environmental certifications that document the steps being taken to protect the area's natural resources, the workers who staff the resorts, and the cultures of the surrounding communities.

“With our growing sustainability practices, we aim to refresh the Mexican Caribbean’s standing as a global tourism innovator,” said Dario Flota Ocampo, director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board.

Propelling the movement is the annual Sustainable and Social Tourism Summit, which for the past three years has brought vendors and experts together in Cancun, the region’s largest city, to talk about the latest sustainability offerings on the market.

A news release from the Mexican Caribbean notes that the region enforces sustainability through its Secretary of Tourism’s Distintivo S, or distinction for sustainability, which provides benefits to hotels and tourism businesses that conserve both energy and water.

In fact, the tourism board says the sustainability movement in the Mexican Caribbean is “beyond a trend.” With 63 hotels and tour operators already certified, the movement has become “a conscious choice in the picturesque Mexican Caribbean.”

During a recent sponsored press trip to Quintana Roo, I experienced a number of sustainable practices in action. Here are several examples.

A coral reef conservation effort in the Mexican Caribbean.

Restoring The Coral Reefs

A combination of natural and human-created conditions has taken a toll on the Mexican Caribbean’s coral reef. Experts attribute the damage to everything from hurricanes and sunscreen use to warming ocean water and large quantities of seaweed.

In recent years, though, a massive effort has been underway in the Riviera Maya to reverse the damage.

It is a campaign in which Ruben Vazquez at Snorkel Native Park takes pride.

“This section you’re about to visit, which is in the National Park Reef of Puerto Morelos, is a very nice and beautiful snorkeling spot,” Vazquez told our group as we prepared to head out on a boat for our first snorkeling excursion in the Caribbean Sea. “And that’s because all the effort that the community, all the people who work along the coast, we have been doing for 10 years, working shoulder-to-shoulder with authorities … to protect the reef.”

Vazquez explained that a process called coral fragmentation is being used in coral nurseries throughout the region.

“We are transplanting some of those fragmentations straight to the coral reef formations,” Vazquez said.

Using scuba gear, divers apply a special concrete to the ocean floor to create the nurseries. And the coral is taking to its newly created home.

“It’s growing up so good,” Vazquez said of the coral. “[The process has] been working very well.”

To give the coral a chance, the national park asks all visitors to shower before snorkeling in order to remove any traces of sunscreen or other chemicals.

Vazquez said biodegradable sunscreen was once thought to help protect the coral.

“But unfortunately, even those sunscreens that said they were 100 percent natural, they were not really 100 percent natural,” he said. “They still have chemicals. And those chemicals were bleaching the coral.”

According to an August 2019 article in Mexico News Daily, the replenishment of the reef is part of a strategy developed by the Quintana Roo government. The government plans to plant 265,000 coral colonies in reefs off the state’s coast by 2022.

The website of SECORE International, a worldwide organization dedicated to coral reef conservation, explains that the once-thriving coral reefs in the Riviera Maya have suffered in recent decades from hurricanes, diseases, and bleaching events. Due to the stresses, “some corals do not produce offspring anymore,” says the website. “Without corals, reefs and their inhabitants will disappear within a few decades.”

And that is why projects such as the one in Puerto Morelos are so important, it adds.

The coral nurseries are visible during snorkeling excursions in the National Park Reef, and Vazquez said that most visitors are happy to see the progress.

“We are so glad when people go to the coral reef,” he told our group, adding that he and others working on the restoration project often hear, “‘It’s so nice that you guys really commit to conservation.’ And that’s our commitment,” Vazquez said, pointing to a sign on the fence that read Sustainable Eco Park.

The Rio Secreto in Mexico.

Preserving The Underground River

Mexico’s Rio Secreto was discovered only 15 years ago, and the Rio Secreto organization is on a mission to protect the underground river’s iridescent water and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites.

The organization emphasizes its environmental commitment from the moment that visitors arrive at the site. Every visitor must shower before the tour to remove chemicals from their skin, and the tour guides repeatedly remind participants not to touch the limestone formations along the way.

A significant portion of the tour entrance fees reportedly goes toward the preservation of the underground river, the preservation of local plants and wildlife, water quality studies, and environmental-education programs.

View of Isla Contoy in the Mexican Caribbean.
Cindy Barks

Protecting The Islands

Like the coral reefs, Mexico’s remote Caribbean islands are being protected and restored by the government and various advocacy groups.

Isla Contoy, for instance, is uninhabited, and only 200 people may visit it each day. The island is a sunscreen-free zone, and plastic bottles are not allowed.

Located at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, lovely Isla Contoy has been protected by the government since the 1960s, and today it is jointly managed by the government and the Amigos de Isla Contoy organization.

Only a few companies are allowed to operate tours to the island, and the guides are well versed in the island’s fragile ecology and its rich history.

The Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun resort.
Cindy Barks

Minimizing The Environmental Footprint Of Resorts

While large all-inclusive resorts aren’t usually associated with environmentally conscious practices, many of Quintana Roo’s resorts measure up on a number of certification platforms.

My group stayed at the luxurious Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun, and true to form, we were treated to great restaurants, extravagant nightly entertainment, and a stunning beachside location.

But Secrets Capri stresses that it is as committed to the environment as it is to its guests. For instance, the resort carries the Rainforest Alliance Certification, which comes with assurances of a minimal environmental footprint, along with support for workers and local cultures and communities.

When it comes to supporting local cultures, Secrets Capri doesn’t fall short. The resort’s managers pointed out that the resort donates school supplies -- as well as the clothing and other items that the hotel no longer uses -- to Mayan villages in the area.

According to the Rainforest Alliance website, hotels must demonstrate that they are protecting nearby ecosystems, are wisely using natural resources, and are taking steps for climate-change mitigation to receive certification.

Secrets Capri has also been certified by Travelife for meeting strict criteria in areas such as managing environmental and social impacts.

The Travelife website says that hotels are evaluated in terms of human rights, labor, community engagement, and environmental impact. The standards were designed by the tourism industry, and a global team of independent auditors visits every property to conduct an assessment.

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