The balance between tourism and sustainability

Lesly Zarate is an undergraduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Recently I had the opportunity to go on a cruise to the Caribbean islands and Central America; an adventure I likely won’t forget.

My first stop on this cruise was to Mahogany Bay on Isla Roatan, in Honduras. I had never seen such nice views before and it left me wanting more. At this stop, we took a touring van from the cruise ship port to a beach to relax for a few hours. While in the van, the tour guides explained that Honduran residents rely on tourism for their livelihoods, so they try to maintain the island’s beauty. They also shared that the island’s leaders were planning to increase the number of ports. This made me question; what steps were the communities taking to maintain themselves and their island? With tourism increasing, it made sense that more ports were being built, but in doing so, the environment suffered; construction and expansion of the ports destroys coral reefs that should be protected. If this was happening at Mahogany Bay, then what does that mean for the other tourist zones outside of Honduras?

Tourists disembarked onto a small boat to be taken to the ports in Belize. Photo by Lesly Zarate

My next stop was Belize, and although Belize is a beautiful country with its own unique wonders, tourism does take away from that, in my opinion. When we were closing in on Belize, the cruise ship had to disembark its tourists in the middle of the ocean, about 20 minutes away from its ports due to the amount of erosion taking place there. Coastal erosion, depletion of fish stocks, degradation of the Barrier Reef system, and the impoverishment of coastal communities has resulted from tourism bringing in quick money to the economy. Yet many countries find a loophole to continue their business, in this case the method of disembarking cruise ship passengers. It was not a problem for me to disembark mid-way to the port, but there was a noticeable change in the water that left me questioning my impact on the environment. From where we had transferred to the smaller boats, the ocean was a light-filled and rich, deep blue color, but as we got closer to the coast, the water was brown and filled with debris and clay from years of runoff and erosion. There may be many benefits to tourists, but what we leave behind can be a detriment to the community and environment.

Finally, we came to our last stop, which was Cozumel, Mexico. This island was what I define as surreal; from the moment we docked at the port to the time we came back, everything was scenic. Like other cruise ship ports, we were kept in a general area where many stores and restaurants are located, but even that was full of beautiful vegetation. In the van on the way to the beach, the whole way there was a view vastly full of all kinds of trees, flowers, and fruits, with the exception of a couple pieces of trash. The beach there was amazing, and they even told tourists to not use sunscreen in attempts to not harm the fish and environment nearby.

The resting area near the ports of Cozumel. Photo by Lesly Zarate.

Through the lens of a tourist, Cozumel is very well-kept, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the residents of the island experience. Unfortunately, for the Island of Cozumel there has not been much local benefit despite the amount of money that tourism generates. Much of the funds go towards expanding the island to allow for more tourism despite its unsustainability. With any practice, the key to its longevity would be maintaining the sole cause or resources for it, but the over-exploitation of a resource will not result in a favorable outcome. In previous years, organizations that weren’t associated with the government have made attempts to promote refurbishment of the island and sustainability, but so far, the island is not sustainable as a tourist spot, and their efforts have not made a difference.

The cruise market is projected to be worth $15 billion in the next six years. Considering how easy it is to create a booking with travel companies, how convenient it is to reside on a ship, and how affordable the experience is, I expect that value will continue to increase as people book more cruises. It is important to note that these sustainability issues for these tourist zones will only get worse with time if not handled or addressed sooner. We may want to have these experiences in person, but maybe to admire these unique spots from afar is what is needed to evaluate what these tourist zones need to protect themselves.

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