TULUM, México – If Tulum were a person, it would undoubtedly be an Instagram influencer with a knack for effortlessly showcasing its eco-chic allure. Nestled along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, this coastal haven has risen to international fame, captivating wanderlust-filled hearts with its pristine beaches and a touch of bohemian allure. Its story, however, unfolds like a tale of two worlds: one, an alluring paradise bedecked in Lululemon-clad yogis and picture-perfect landscapes, and the other, a struggling ecosystem grappling with a tourism boom that threatens to shatter the delicate balance between development and preservation.
Tulum’s ascendancy to global recognition is largely attributed to the influence of social media, particularly Instagram. The app’s visual storytelling turned Tulum into a poster child for sustainable travel, drawing crowds of environmentally-conscious travelers seeking both relaxation and virtue-signaling. Amid the swaying palms and crystal-clear waters, a disturbing truth lurks—a tale of beauty tainted by the strains of over-tourism, ill-equipped infrastructure, and the degradation of natural wonders.
Originating as a humble Maya settlement, Tulum remained a tranquil backwater until mass tourism descended upon the Yucatan, spearheaded by the resort mecca of Cancun, a mere 131 kilometers to the north. Tulum, with its untamed jungles, ivory beaches, and architectural marvels reminiscent of luxuriant treehouses, emerged from obscurity to enchant travelers seeking an escape from the mundane.
Yet, the relentless surge in visitors has reshaped Tulum’s identity, and not always for the better. The population has surged by 65% since 2010, and the town’s once-hippie vibe is fading faster than a sunset on its horizons. Struggling to accommodate the influx, Tulum finds itself grappling with inadequate infrastructure, including a lack of electricity and sewage systems. Many of its prized locations, beloved by Instagrammers, rely on gas generators that contribute both noise and pollution to the very landscapes they adorn.
Even Tulum’s iconic cenotes, once sacred freshwater sources for the Maya civilization, now serve as little more than photo backdrops for selfie enthusiasts. Pollution threatens these natural wonders, painting a grim picture of paradise lost.
In this disheartening reality, economic progress for the local community remains elusive. Despite the proliferation of luxury hotels and high-priced establishments, Tulum’s residents are yet to witness significant economic growth. The average monthly wage stagnates at NZ$590, scarcely higher than figures from over a decade ago. The price of paradise, it seems, is paid by the land and its people.
Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope emerges on the horizon. In 2018, Quintana Roo officially designated Tulum as a sustainable tourism development zone, stipulating stringent criteria for developers to bear the badge of sustainability. While numerous establishments brandish the term “sustainable,” few venture beyond lip service. Notable exceptions, however, lead the charge.
The unassuming La Zebra Hotel, nestled on Tulum Beach, stands as a beacon of sustainable practices. Part of Colibri Boutique Hotels, this establishment, under Australian ownership and a Kiwi CEO, stands as an embodiment of conscientious tourism. Forced to shutter due to the pandemic, the hiatus kindled a renewed focus on sustainability. Education, a linchpin of their approach, equips staff with the rationale behind their eco-friendly choices.
Plastic, a ubiquitous pollutant, is virtually extinct on La Zebra’s premises due to the exorbitant costs of waste disposal. Recycling remains a distant dream, given the limited availability of recycling programs. The property’s compost enriches the local community, while discarded cigarette butts find new purpose as pots and bottle caps metamorphose into wigs for children battling cancer.
Ingenious methods reclaim resources. Sewage water undergoes filtration for irrigation, while kitchen grease is repurposed for aromatic candles. Coasters emerge from the reincarnation of liquor boxes. The hotel’s social conscience extends beyond its walls, impacting the nearby town of Chemax. Offering opportunities to an underserved community, La Zebra weaves sustainability into the fabric of daily life.
However, such beacons remain a rarity among the sprawling landscape of high-end resorts catering to the jet-setting elite. Our Habitas Tulum epitomizes “quiet luxury,” a sanctuary for discerning travelers. Celebrities like Paris Hilton seek refuge within its canvas-tent accommodations, positioned artfully amidst palm trees and jungle foliage. Plastic banishment, meticulous energy monitoring, and creative endeavors like the Plastic Hunters initiative underscore the hotel’s commitment to the environment. Carbon emissions find redemption in “agroforestry bonds,” nurturing trees that absorb their ecological debt.
Elevating the bar further, tour companies traverse the delicate line between tourism and stewardship. Mexico Kan Tours, a prominent name, orchestrates intimate excursions for conscientious explorers. A trip to the iconic Chichen Itza, a jewel among modern wonders, pairs local guides with zero-waste principles, ensuring responsible travel practices. Meanwhile, a hidden cenote offers a slice of paradise owned by a Mayan family. The company’s outreach extends beyond sightseeing, embracing beach clean-ups, community support, and nurturing local initiatives.
Yet, as these measures take root, Tulum’s transformation remains a race against time. The ceaseless construction that scars its landscapes underscores the urgency for change. Local enterprises strive to ensure that the hashtags continue to tell a story of sustainable beauty for generations.