Puerto Escondido’s Triumph Over Tourism’s Perils

Puerto Escondido, a radiant beach town, was on the brink of succumbing to the perils of over-tourism. However, the local community rallied to avert this crisis.

Renowned for its idyllic beaches, verdant landscapes, and vibrant sunsets, Puerto Escondido’s allure as a secluded tropical haven is undeniable.

Nestled in the southern Pacific coast of Mexico’s Oaxaca region, this haven has become a sanctuary for surfers, nightlife enthusiasts, and free spirits. The area teems with wildlife, from pelicans and buzzards to sea turtles, dolphins, and the occasional iguana.

Yet, the town’s increasing popularity brought with it the familiar woes of burgeoning tourism and the town’s unpreparedness for such an influx.

A decade prior, Puerto Escondido was relatively unknown, frequented mostly by a few retirees and surfers. However, social media buzz and a surge in Mexico’s tourism thrust this hidden gem into the limelight.

The town’s burgeoning fame had tangible consequences. In March 2020, amidst the COVID pandemic, Puerto Escondido saw an influx of individuals seeking refuge from urban density and stringent lockdowns, drawn by Mexico’s relaxed pandemic measures.

This surge marked a pivotal moment for Puerto Escondido. A construction boom ensued, with new hotels, eateries, bars, and clubs emerging rapidly. The influx of “digital nomads” drove up rental and living costs, leaving the community grappling with the rapid pace of tourism and development.

Local graphic artist Orlando Salinas, a long-time visitor turned resident since 2017, observed that while tourism brought economic gains, it adversely affected nearly every other facet of life.

Emmett Balassone, communications coordinator for the nonprofit Save the Waves, highlighted the unsustainable growth in tourism lacking proper oversight, which significantly impacted the environment and local economy. This led to issues like insufficient wastewater management, erosion from rampant development, and inadequate legal safeguards for vital habitats.

Community’s Counteraction

In response, the community united to confront these challenges, achieving a significant win in their campaign for sustainable tourism practices.

Their efforts centered on preserving Playa Punta Colorada, the last pristine beach in the area, from the threat of development. This decade-long battle became emblematic of the community’s dedication to fostering sustainable tourism regulations.

The Battle for Punta Colorada: A Community’s Stand Against Development

In 2011, Punta Colorada faced its first major threat when plans for a dock were unveiled, sparking fears of environmental damage to the neighboring beach, lagoon, and reef. The community rallied, forming the group Salvemos Colorada (“Save Colorada”), successfully halting the project and again in 2021 when the proposal resurfaced. Yet, the gravest challenge was still on the horizon.

Almendra Gomezleyva Melchor, a member of Salvemos Colorada, voiced concerns in August 2023 when the state government announced a new development scheme. The project envisioned a shopping center, budget and luxury accommodations, and four all-inclusive resorts, posing a renewed risk to Punta Colorada’s delicate ecosystem.

Emmett Balassone highlighted the broader environmental stakes, noting Playa Colorada’s status as one of the last unspoiled coastal ecosystems in Oaxaca, home to climate-critical mangroves.

A coalition, including Salvemos Colorada, Save the Waves, Costa Unida, the Oaxacan Conservation Fund, and SOS Puerto, united against the development. SOS Puerto emerged in 2022 when Andrea Esquerra discovered a fenced-off area on Bacocho beach, prompting her to challenge a proposed luxury apartment complex. Her actions galvanized the community, leading to a successful four-day blockade that ultimately scrapped the project and established SOS Puerto as a key community advocate.

The latest peril to Punta Colorada came in the form of the proposed commercial and hotel development. Melchor stressed the importance of the ecosystem, not only for its unique bodyboarding wave but also as a habitat for diverse wildlife and geological features. The development threatened to eliminate public access to the beach, with Esquerra warning of potential privatization by large hotel chains. The community’s resolve to protect their cherished beach remains steadfast.

Puerto Escondido’s Environmental Crusade Amidst Tourism Surge

Compounding the challenges, a local water treatment facility was found to be spilling over, with untreated wastewater seeping into the sea due to insufficient infrastructure for tourists. This revelation intensified the coalition’s mission, which now encompassed enhancing sanitation, safeguarding public beach access, and preserving the natural ecosystem.

The campaign escalated from public protests to legal confrontations, encompassing non-violent rallies, digital petitions, and unheeded appeals to meet with political leaders.

Melchor from Salvemos Colorada disclosed, “With the government adamant about developing Punta Colorada, we resorted to a collective environmental lawsuit to assert our right to a healthy habitat.”

The collective’s efforts yielded 300 signatures, persuading a judge to halt the construction permits temporarily. “For the moment, the sale or privatization of the area is on hold,” Esquerra confirmed.

Despite this provisional win, the battle continues. “We’re awaiting the court’s final decision,” Melchor conveyed, hopeful that their conservation dialogues with environmental and tourism ministries will resonate with the government.

Requests for comments from proponents of the Colorada development went unanswered.

The Underlying Dilemma

The contention over Colorada raises a critical question: How will Puerto Escondido navigate its burgeoning tourist wave?

Esquerra clarified that their movement isn’t anti-tourism but against the disparities and insufficient foresight in managing growth, leaving residents and visitors vulnerable. She advocated for robust infrastructure investments to support sustainable expansion and ensure environmental health and safety.

Melchor observed that despite Puerto Escondido’s rapid post-pandemic growth, infrastructure advancements lagged, leading to environmental and social issues like gentrification and rising living costs.

To address these challenges, Melchor suggested investing in essential services like sewage and water treatment facilities, regulating construction, and managing vacation rentals to retain financial benefits within the community.

Balassone emphasized the necessity of implementing these measures promptly to preserve Puerto Escondido’s allure for global visitors.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

Puerto Escondido’s predicament mirrors global trends, with destinations from Chiang Mai to Hoi An grappling with similar tourism-induced strains.

Salinas highlighted the community’s proactive engagement, with many locals participating in social initiatives, underscoring the power of community-driven solutions in addressing the impacts of tourism.

**Grassroots Unity: The Catalyst for Change**

“Transformation is rooted in the collective spirit of local communities,” concurs Balassone, “forging a sustainable vision and protective measures for their cherished locales.”

The experience of Puerto Escondido serves as a lesson for other communities facing similar challenges, emphasizing the importance of valuing community welfare above financial gains.

“The journey of Puerto Escondido can motivate other towns to band together and foster a sense of unity,” Melchor reflects. “Our collective efforts demonstrate that even seemingly insurmountable obstacles, like halting major construction projects or multi-billion-dollar developments, can be overcome.”

Ultimately, it’s about the power of community collaboration.

“The solidarity among residents is crucial,” asserts Esquerra. “The true power resides within the populace, who shape the future of their towns and tourist spots. Active participation, self-education, and vocal advocacy are essential, especially when the interests of the few threaten the well-being of the many.”

Source: Aljazeera