Tropical Paradise or Curse? SkyTruth Investigates Cancún’s Rapid Urbanization
The Mexican government designed Cancún for tourism. Now its ecosystems are experiencing the consequences
Monitoring our planet with satellite imagery over time can reshape our understanding of human activities. When it comes to reshaping ecosystems, the tourism industry is often front and center.
Even though I have lived in Mexico for 20 years, Cancún isn’t among my top five destinations for vacation in my home country. Mexico has wonderful natural gems such as Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas, Pico de Orizaba in Veracruz, and monarch butterfly reserves. However, every time I tell someone in the United States that I’m Mexican, they instantly think of Cancún.
Based on my research into how the land was developed, that is exactly what the Mexican government envisioned when planning the city.
The Making of Cancún
As the most recognized tourist destination in Mexico—built and promoted for that purpose—Cancún serves as a useful case study into human activity’s environmental impacts.
The city, which is currently a bustling tourist destination, has transformed considerably over the years. Before the 1970s, the Cancún area had a population of approximately 100 inhabitants; by 2022, it had ballooned to nearly one million. Once an unmanaged system—an ecosystem without human intervention and management—this “dream destination” is now fully regulated.
In the 1960s, visiting Cancún would not have been as luxurious as it is today. There were no hotels, roads, or even people inhabiting the area. Electricity was nonexistent.
The Mexican government took a meticulous approach to Cancún’s planning and design. In 1967 it created a division under the Bank of Mexico to study and analyze potential tourist sites. It used technology, which at that time meant gigantic computers with slow processors, to find potential tourist destinations.
The research drew on help from a team of experts, surveys from tourists, statistics from other tourist destinations, and data on geographical preferences. Cancún rose to the top of the list for several reasons: It had an accessible geographical location, pleasant weather, minimal impacts from natural disasters, and an enviable view of the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, in 1971, the Mexican government officially founded Cancún. Soon, this hidden gem in southern Mexico would become a tourism magnet.
Threats to Habitat
The financial relevance of Cancún’s resort status is now obvious: Tourism contributes to more than 7% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. But what is the hidden cost of tourism to the environment?
Cancún mangroves are naturally protected—to some extent—because they are isolated from tourist attractions. But as Cancún grows, more mangroves are at risk. Cancún’s mangrove ecosystems have declined significantly since 1970 because of urbanization, with a higher rate of mangrove loss than the rest of the country.
Even though Mexico’s government has passed laws protecting mangroves since the 2000s, Cancún’s rapid development poses threats to ecosystems, such as pollution from runoff, blockage of water flows, and a lack of wildlife corridors.
The destruction of Cancún’s mangroves is of significant concern because these ecosystems support marine life and biodiversity. According to Ocean Conservancy, mangroves sequester the most carbon of any tree—24 million metric tons of carbon in soil yearly, according to researchers at Louisiana State University. By comparison, another popular tree, the South Florida palm, only sequesters five pounds of carbon per year per tree.
Mangrove loss in Cancún leads to further disruption of local ecosystems: Global Forest Watch data show that Quintana Roo—the state where Cancún is located—has lost 15% of tree coverage since 2000. Cancún would not be such a wonderful destination without its diverse ecosystems.
Water contamination stands out as another harmful result of tourist activity in Cancún. Sewage from local attractions threatens an essential aquifer that lies beneath Quintana Roo. Pollution also endangers cenotes—breathtaking natural pits formed from sinkholes, where tourists flock to swim and play in splendid seclusion. The majestic cenotes are some of the most visited attractions in Cancún, putting a specific motivator for Cancún tourism at risk from tourism itself.
Cancún’s coral reefs are yet another habitat at risk. In the same way that contamination from fertilizers and sewage powers the growth of harmful algal blooms, when nutrient-contaminated water reaches reefs, microalgae tend to grow. These microalgae are lethal for coral reefs since they create an oxygen-blocking layer that corals depend on for survival. If the corals are damaged, marine life suffers consequences, as well. Human contamination is one of the main causes of coral loss, and Cancún is losing its corals quickly.
Keeping an Eye on Habitats
To address threats to ecosystems, like those in Cancún, organizations are starting to take advantage of technology.
SkyTruth’s new Verdant project utilizes artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to track changes in landscapes to help safeguard protected areas. It’s part of our strategy to address 30×30, a global initiative to protect 30% of land and ocean ecosystems by the year 2030. Verdant can help advance 30×30’s objectives, shining a light on threats to habitats with innovative satellite imagery and machine learning analyses.
One of the first steps toward protecting natural paradises like Cancún is raising awareness about human development’s impact on ecosystems. Public access to information can help meet that need; SkyTruth’s freely available data can assist governments and industries, so that they can make informed decisions around conservation policies.
With technology and open sharing of satellite imagery—and what it reveals about our planet—we can support responsible practices that protect precious ecosystems. Cancún and other tourist destinations around the world could use a watchful eye.