PLAYA del CARMEN, Mexico -- As summer vacation season starts, a resort on the Riviera Maya is setting the standard for ecotourism in Mexico -- a country where many developers have disregarded the environment in favor of rapid growth.
Mayakoba was built to both promote and protect the natural beauty and wildlife of the Riviera Maya.
“Years were spent studying the site before a shovel was put into the ground,” said James Batt, Vice President of Operations for Mayakoba.
Mayakoba’s three hotels - the Fairmont, Rosemont and Banyan Tree - are nestled in 593 acres of land that include a pristine beach, lagoons, and lush mangroves -- forests that thrive where water meets land.
Developers designed Mayakoba to protect the fragile coastal ecosystem.
“This is an area here on the left where we’ve actually replanted mangroves,” said Batt on a recent boat ride down through canals that wind through the resort.
Mayakoba's reforestation plan is in sharp contrast to other developments that destroyed endangered mangroves to make way for hotels and other tourist attractions.
On its web page, the Mangrove Action Project estimates between 1976 and 2000, Mexico lost as much as 25 percent of the mangrove area according to official data from the country’s National Institute of Ecology.
The organization’s mission is to work with coastal communities, researchers, and local government to conserve and restore mangrove forests, which support a wealth of wildlife and some scientists say can help slow climate change.
Mangroves have been vanishing along Mexico's coasts for decades, especially in the Cancun area, and now construction is sprawling toward the Riviera Maya and Tulum.
The benefits of Mayakoba’s approach are evident when Batt guides visitors on a tour through the mangroves.
“There’s one right here,” Batt said, pointing to a colorful Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted bird with a black-and-white cap.
The birds are known for catching flying insects, but this one has a small fish in its beak.
“I didn’t know Kiskadees eat fish," said Batt, an avid bird watcher. "That was a first, pretty extraordinary."
Mayakoba has won several international awards for sustainable tourism, including an Ulysses Award from the U.N. World Tourism Organization and a Sustainable Standard Setter Award from the Rain forest Alliance -- a first for a resort in Latin America.
The reward for Batt is being out on the water.
“That’s a little Tricolored Heron, just beautiful,” Batt said, as he pointed to a gray-blue bird with long, yellow legs wading through shallow water. “It just caught a fish!”
He’s photographed some of those moments for a book “Maykoba’s Birds,” which has glossy photos of several of colorful species.
“The birds have become the poster child for us of sustainability,” said Batt.
Mayakoba has a biologist on staff to manage the environment and monitor a variety of species of birds, fish, reptiles, and other animals.
“We have an environment here that is attractive and appealing to the wildlife,” Batt said.
As the boat quietly moves through the mangroves, Cormorants perch in the trees that line the waterway and wave their large wings.
“They have no oil glands, so when they dive for food, after they come up, they have to hang their wings out to dry,” Batt explained.
Mayakoba’s guests may be surrounded by exotic wildlife, but they are not roughing it in a remote jungle. The resort promotes its property as “Luxury and nature in harmony on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.”
Developers saw value in preserving the pristine environmen, and guests are willing to pay extra for it.
A growing number of countries are trying to attract ecotourists to their destinations. The International Ecotourism Society defines those travelers as “responsible consumers interested in social, economic and environmental sustainability.”
Mexico has done little to appeal to these travelers. Tourism is a major source of income for the country, and federal and state governments spend more than $160 million per year on advertising the country's destinations.
The government tourism board on the “Visit Mexico” website has a combined adventure-ecotourism section that highlights activities including white water rafting, kayaking, and diving.
Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, in a speech in March about tourism policy said his goal was for the country to become a “world tourism power.”
Costa Rica is the world leader in ecotourism.
“Really, there’s no reason we should not be thinking of Mexico in the same breath as Costa Rica when you’re thinking of a nature-style holiday," Batt said.
Local people who depend on tourism in the Riviera Maya are hopeful more will be done to conserve the area’s natural beauty and build up ecotourism business.
“It’s good that there’s tourism here. We hope to preserve all this,” said Nicolas Moreno, as he steered a boat used for ecotours through Maykoba’s lush mangroves.
“Anybody who’s done this is going to talk about it. 'We went on the ecotour. We saw the waterways and wow,'" Batt said.