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Climate Change Causing Damage to Beaches in Cancun and Mexican Caribbean

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Fine white sand beaches are what bring many hundreds of thousands of tourists to Cancun and the Mexican Caribbean each year. But there are concerns that climate change is causing permanent damage to this important natural resource, and it’s feared this could cause a downturn in the essential income brought in by Mexico’s tourist industry.

What are the main issues for Cancun’s beaches caused by climate change?

  • Sargassum
sagrassum on beach

One major problem that stems – at least in part – from climate change is the amount of sargassum that blights the beautiful beaches annually in ever-increasing amounts. The 2022 sargassum season has begun, already causing huge amounts of stinking seaweed to be deposited on Playa del Carmen’s beaches

  • Storm surges
storm surge

Climate change is also responsible for larger, and more frequent, storm surges. These surges bring waves large enough to sweep away huge amounts of sand, pushing back the shoreline and threatening damage to waterfront hotels, restaurants, and bars. 

  • Coastal erosion

Mexico’s Department of Tourism, SECTUR, believes Quintana Roo’s coast is eroding at a rate of between 1.2 meters and 4.9 meters each year. And Ruth Cerezo-Mota, an oceanographer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), warns that by 2050, sea levels will rise up to 40cm, meaning somewhere between four and twenty meters of the beach will be lost. 

tulum beach

In a stark warning, Christian Appendini, a coastal engineer at UNAM, says: “This would mean chaos. All the beaches in front of urban developments would probably disappear unless drastic nature-based beach restoration measures are taken.”

What else is causing the erosion of the Mexican Caribbean’s beaches?

Climate change isn’t the only issue for Cancun and other Riviera Maya beaches. 

A lack of forethought by Mexican authorities has allowed mass development of areas of coastline, stopping the natural beach formation that should take place. This is called ‘coastal squeeze’ and is a major issue in cities like Cancun. 

cancun beach hotels

Also, the beachfront resorts that are built are often too close to the waterline and are too heavy, causing sand to compact and become unstable, increasing the risk of what’s called ‘slope failure’. 

What is being done to prevent the loss of Cancun’s beaches?

Already, beaches in the Mexican Caribbean are being artificially recreated. Sand is being dredged from the ocean in order to maintain the pristine beaches demanded by tourists. 

dredging tractor

Also, acknowledging the validity of coastline concerns, the Quintana Roo government purchased a coral reef insurance policy back in 2019, the world’s first insurance of its kind. This has already paid out, following extensive damage caused by 2020’s Hurricane Delta. 

What does the future look like for Cancun and the Mexican Caribbean’s beaches?

It’s unclear exactly what the future is for Cancun and the Mexican Caribbean’s beaches. 

With Tulum airport and the Maya Train both due to arrive in 2023, it’s unlikely tourist numbers will decrease anytime soon. But that’s not to say that a visible decline in the quality of beaches wouldn’t begin to turn off visitors to this destination.

tulum beach

Already, some hotel owners are selling up, worried that their valuable properties will be rendered worthless. Issues such as sargassum, the influx of non-Mexican chain brands, and uneasiness over organized crime form part of the reason for pulling out of the hotel business, but climate change is also a big concern. 

While tourists have – so far – largely been unaware of many coastal issues faced by Quintana Roo, moving forward, experts believe there will be an ever-growing discrepancy between the impeccable beaches tourists are being sold and what is actually delivered during their vacation. 

man collectin sagrassum

It will be down to Quintana Roo’s government to address these concerns, in order to keep the tourist industry buoyant and to maintain the beaches which form one of the region’s most precious assets.

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Rick Fellman

Saturday 25th of February 2023

We arrived on Isla Majeres yesterday (Feb 24,2023) and, again, rented, one of the beach homes on the southeast end of the island. Our last trip to Isla was in 2018. The erosion over that time period is incredible, in depth and extent. If it keeps up to the same degree, over the next 20 years, those beautiful homes will be on the brink of collapse.