People are often surprised to hear that Costa Maya/Mahahual is a government planned and subsidized, low environmental impact development area, built to provide jobs and income for Mexico’s #2 industry, and do so in harmony with the fragile and spectacular environment of the Western Caribbean. In the late 90’s, the four nations that border the “Meso-American Reef System”, the second largest living reef left on the planet, agreed to implement regulations designed to limit environmental impact from development along their Caribbean shore lines. Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua all put forth plans to develop their tourism areas in a manner that would stop the devastation that almost 40 years of over development in the Cancun area had done to the northern tip of the reef system. Costa Maya/Mahahual is the result of Mexico’s commitment to that agreement.
Low density development is one of the ways to limit environmental impact. However, lower density means lower amounts of revenue, making the justification for investment into infrastructure more cost versus return prohibitive. Cancun’s 2-3,000 room hotels, the main reason for the environmental disaster that came about, would not be possible under the new regulations. In most areas of Costa Maya, hotels can only have 5-10 rooms. Hardly the income producer that a Cancun/Riviera Maya has been for so many years and certainly not enough to justify the cost of infrastructure. However Mexico had this wonderful area, perhaps the most beautiful beaches in the entire country, so the question became; how could Mexico develop it for tourism and not violate their agreement and compromise the environment. Cruise ships were the obvious solution.
The cruise industry about this time had begun to remake itself, changing from one of the filthiest industries on the seas, into one of the cleanest. By the late 90’s, the impact of cruise ship trash had become verifiable and devastating to the oceans and the industry was forced to clean itself up. International agreements, as well as pressure from a more environmentally aware consumer, forced the industries to stop dumping trash and sewage into the ocean and even made lines compete with how “green” they could become. Ships now have recycle technology built right into them and waste is monitored in a way that they are fined if they do not have amounts proportional to their passenger load. Today, the worst polluters on the seas are the US Navy, who, because they are not bound by the same rules of the cruise industry, dump all their trash into the ocean while in international waters.
So the idea became, build a containment city, one that can contain the environmental footprint left by 6 hour per day cruise ship guests, as opposed to 24 hour a day hotel guests. That footprint is actually very small and therefore a containable thing. Unlike hotel guests, who usually drive cars to the hotels, dropping oil, gas, asbestos, transmission fluid and so forth onto the streets, where they of course find their way into the ocean and the mangroves, cruise ship guests arrive in a single vessel. That ship is escorted in and out of the port by a Mexican navy ship that will direct it away from reef areas and also monitor the water around the ship to make sure it is not discharging anything it should not, like fuel or sewage.
Hotel guests also contribute many times more impact on the special, state of the art, wet-land sewage treatment facilities and triple lined landfills we have in Costa Maya. Both are very expensive to install, maintain and upgrade as the city grows, and are therefore limited in what they can contain. The environmental footprint of a 5-6 hour guest is a tiny fraction of that of a 24 hour guest on these type services. Hotels built in the containment area, can have as many as 35-40 rooms. Most are still under 10 rooms. Those built outside of town, because the green septics required can only process small amounts, are usually less than 10 rooms.
Roads within the containment city are engineered to drain rain water away from the ocean and mangroves. Mainland mangroves are the wetland plants that supply vital nutrients for the living reef. Too often automobile run-off killed large areas of mangrove and denied the nutritional needs of the reef miles off shore. Like any living creature, the starved reef becomes weaken and susceptible to damage from hurricanes or diseases. In Mahahual’s containment area, automobile run-off drains in ways that it is filtered before it can get back into the mangroves and ocean ecosystem.
Today, Mahahual’s containment city is complete, with the last of the city’s streets paved this past spring. Mexico seems very serious about developing the area further, but still within the guidelines of their low environmental impact commitment. As a tree hugger, I have been pleasantly surprised to see the type of progressive thinking from the Mexican government that I have so often seen here. Like most governments, sometimes they get things right, sometimes not. Mahahual/Costa Maya is one they got right. Viva Mexico!