Lessons learned at the third Sustainable & Social Tourism Summit in Cancun

July 19, 2019
The 3rd edition of the Sustainable & Social Tourism Summit in Cancún, México was a great success, bringing together more than 300 tourism experts to discuss pressing issues in the Caribbean and beyond.

The Sustainable & Social Tourism Summit has been held in Cancun, Mexico since 2017 and its third edition was a success, positioning itself as the most important sustainable tourism event in Mexico. More than 300 national and international professionals met on June 24 and 25 to share experiences, projects and create new partnerships.

Program of the first day began with the presentation of Juan Luna Kelser of George Washington University on sustainable tourism trends, followed by Verónica Gómez of the International Social Tourism Organization. Her presentation was dedicated to the challenges of providing decent employment in tourism, being a sector that offers particularly precarious conditions to its workers. In that sense, one of the tasks of ISTO is to advocate for the rights of workers in the industry.

The official inauguration of the event took place near noon, with the presence and speeches of important public authorities, such as the Governor of Quintana Roo, Carlos Joaquín González and the Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco Marqués, as well as the words of Vicente Ferreyra Acosta, Chairman of the Summit Organizing Committee and Director of Sustentur.

The rest of the program included examples from the public and private sectors in terms of their actions for sustainable tourism. The states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatán, which make up the Yucatan Peninsula, presented their tourism strategies and plans, in addition to the sustainability model of the state of Guanajuato. Quintana Roo announced the launch of its Sustainable Tourism Master Plan by 2030, which will start to be developed during this year. It will surely be a challenge to design and implement this plan, taking into account that Quintana Roo is the main tourist destination in Mexico; in 2018 this state received more than 14 million tourists and most of those visitors were concentrated in Riviera Maya (from Cancun to Tulum), putting significant pressure on resources and services infrastructure.

On the other hand, the private sector was represented by the CEOs of important tourism companies, such as TUI, Alltournative and City Express Hotels. Of particular interest was the presentation of Ewald Biemans, CEO of Bucuti & Tara Resort Aruba, for his commitment to fight climate change. Bucuti & Tara is the first hotel certified as Carbon Neutral in the Caribbean, generating 15% of its energy with its solar panels, and was recently chosen by the Green Globe certification as the most sustainable hotel in the world. Among its many best practices are the elimination of disposable plastic, the reuse of materials in its facilities and the audit of waste to proceed with recycling, among many others. In addition, the hotel makes its guests participants, with beach cleaning programs and the “Pack for a Purpose” initiative.

The second day of the summit was very intense, including case studies of success, multilateral cooperation projects and environmental phenomena that currently affects the Mexican Caribbean. The presentation of the so-called “Mayan Train” was the opening conference, where Rogelio Jiménez Pons, Director of FONATUR, entity that will carry out the project, explained how the work will be executed and the positive impacts it would generate. He focused on the contribution to economic development of the southeast of the peninsula and to the promotion of less exploited archaeological sites. The Mayan train project is controversial, as it will connect different already over-densified tourist destinations, such as the aforementioned Riviera Maya, and environmental impact studies have not yet been carried out.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that it is a truly inclusive project with local communities, although FONATUR’s Director stressed that they seek to associate with the owners of the land near the train and not buy them. The train will connect the main tourist destinations, linking airports and ports of the peninsula as well.

A panel of multilateral tourism projects had the participation of experts from UNDP, Conservation International and GIZ. These organizations have ongoing projects in Mexico in terms of adaptation to climate change in the tourism sector, integrated landscape management and productive land use while conserving biodiversity. Other interesting cases in Mexico are the destination Maya Kaan, a brand that brings together several Mayan communities of Quintana Roo, in the immediate vicinity of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Here operates the cooperative Community Tours Sian Ka’an, which received recognition as the first carbon neutral community company in Mexico.

Among the success stories outside of Mexico were Costa Rica’s tourism management model, based on tourism that uses its natural resources through ecotourism; the interesting case of co-management of protected natural areas on Easter Island, Chile, where local community obtained the Rapa Nui National Park concession for 50 years to actively participate in the management of the park with the state government. Finally, the experience of Malaga, a city that had to reinvent itself in the 90’s, focusing on cultural tourism, and that today is one of the most sustainable cities in Spain.

The last panel was dedicated to the topic everyone is talking about in recent months: the massive arrival of sargassum to the Caribbean shores, which strongly concerns the tourism sector since the white sand beaches and turquoise sea are affected by these macro algae that reach the coast dragged by sea currents. This phenomenon was intensified in recent years possibly by the warming of the waters and the excess nutrients in them which is related, among other causes, to inadequate drainage systems that pollute the sea. The dangers of sargassum go far beyond aesthetically ruining the beaches of the Caribbean. Excess algae makes it difficult for sunlight to pass to the ocean floor providing oxygen for corals, and its decomposition produces gases such as methane, deteriorating water quality.

The recently discovered disease called “White Syndrome” is killing coral species on the coast of Quintana Roo at an accelerated rate, seriously compromising the ability of corals to provide numerous medium and long-term ecosystem benefits, such as the creation of reefs that protect hurricane coasts and sand production, among many others. To this end, CONANP (National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) and Sustainable Travel International signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the summit, to collaborate in the protection of Cozumel’s reefs, with the Support Nemo campaign. NEMO (Natural Environment Marine Observers) is a citizen science movement that seeks to involve travellers and operators in reef conservation, creating awareness about  importance of protecting these ecosystems. Through Instagram, by uploading photos of the reefs made while diving or snorkeling and using the hashtag #supportnemo citizens can help monitor coral health, while a group of scientists assesses threats to take action.

The closing of this important event was done by French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky, reflecting on the current individualistic society and how the conception of tourism has changed in recent decades – from demonstration of social status towards an expression of tastes and personality. Lipovetsky said that tourism is an expression of that individualism through the search for new experiences in a system he called “hypertouristic” with increasing segmentation. According to the philosopher, there is a kind of responsible tourist, interested in the search for meaning in his travels and who wants to take part in transformative experiences, but it is still an individualistic search of his own pleasure. Therefore, the quality of natural and cultural heritage is essential and tourism industry must protect this heritage that is its main asset.

The sustainable tourism summit showed that there are numerous initiatives in practice and planned in the region that follow the path towards sustainability. However, much remains to be done to move from plans to action, and both the public and private sector must assume their responsibility for the impacts that tourism generates, since the negative effects can already be seen in the Mexican Caribbean.

  • Like this story? Share it!