Can Hotels Coexist With Sea Turtles...And With Fierce Environmentalists?

Walking along the crescent beach of X'cacel under tropical stars, biologist Rogelio Villavicencio points at a giant sea turtle at the foot of the sand dunes. Under her 1.15-meter-long shell, the turtle is working furiously, her flippers tossing sand as she digs a hole into which she lays more than 100 eggs. Student volunteers pluck the eggs from the nest and rebury them inside a fenced section of the beach. When the eggs hatch 60 days later, the students carry the palm-size young to the water's edge. "Everyone who comes here falls in love with the turtles," says student Arturo Carrillo.

Well, maybe not everyone. The turtles on this 2.5-kilometer beach are at the center of a great debate over development. Giant hotels are under construction all along the "Mayan Riviera"--130 km of coastline south of Cancun. Pristine X'cacel is the last undeveloped major nesting ground between Costa Rica and Florida for endangered Atlantic loggerhead and green sea turtles. But in February, the Quintana Roo state government began selling 167 hectares of the beach to hotel developers, starting with Spanish giant Sol Melia, which bought 45 hectares for $2.25 million. Ecology groups argue that unregulated building will destroy the fragile coastal ecosystem. "There has been great anarchy in Quintana Roo's development," says Araceli Dominguez, president of the Mayab Ecology Group, a Cancun-based organization.

It will be hard for environmental groups to stop X'cacel's development. In 1994, they reluctantly signed a land-use plan for the Mayan Riviera that allows up to 10 hotel rooms per hectare at X'cacel. To appease critics, Quintana Roo's governor, Mario Villanueva Madrid, declared X'cacel's first 100 meters inland a turtle sanctuary in February. The federal government has promised to study X'cacel further but won't make the beach a protected area. "We can't base our decisions on the idea that there shouldn't be any development at all," says Pedro Alvarez-Icaza, head of ecological planning at the environment ministry.

Sol Melia executives argue that they can develop the beach safely. "We think this can be a great example of the way that turtles and man can share the same space," says Evagrio Sanchez, CEO of Melia Inversiones, the Spanish group's investment arm. To avoid confusing the hatchlings, which follow starlight reflected off the waves to reach the sea, the hotel lights will be hidden from the beach.

Scientists say that preserving X'cacel is crucial to the sea turtles' survival. Because X'cacel's two neighboring beaches, also key nesting sites, are already being developed, "the situation has gotten drastic," says Julio Cesar Zurita, a researcher at the College of the Southern Border in Chetumal. Zurita argues that the 100-meter-wide sanctuary won't protect the mangroves, the dunes, and the underground water system that make the beach suitable for sea turtles.

For now, Sol Melia can't break ground on its $25 million project. The company is waiting for the sanctuary's detailed management plan, due by yearend, before starting its environmental impact study. In the meantime, turtle lovers promise a tough fight.

While X'cacel gets the international attention, other disputes are brewing. Environmentalists are keeping close watch as the state begins developing another 130-km strip, the Costa Maya, north of Belize. Officials say the focus will be on eco-tourism. "We want the tourism in the south to be completely different from the north," says William Souza, deputy director of the state tourism development agency, Fidecaribe. He says a proposal to include tourist development in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve has been dropped.


And in Puerto Morelos, a village just 15 minutes south of the Cancun airport, local environmentalists have won the first battle against a megaresort planned by developer Julio Berdegue. They persuaded federal officials to halt construction of an access road through the mangroves and wetlands. Now, the unfinished road is a chalky gash through the green. "We're willing to accept a project, but not if it breaks the law" by destroying protected mangroves, says Ana Luisa Aguilar, president of Lu'um K'anaab (Mayan for "land and sea"), a local activist group. She worries that state and local officials will push the project through without permits. But as activists stand guard, winking at the law is harder than ever.

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