Sargassum Algae Threatening Mexican Caribbean Tourism

Photo: Inter-American Development Bank


MORELIA, Michoacán — Mexico is known internationally for its privileged geography and variety of climates that make it one of the top tourist destinations. Its diversity is such that, it is possible to find humid forests, mountain ranges, evergreen valleys, deserts and the warm marine waters of two oceans, all in the same country.

The Rivera Maya region, named after the ancient Maya culture that settled in that area more than 3,500 years ago, is located in the state of Quintana Roo, right in the heart of the Mexican Caribbean.

It is one of the main travel destinations in the country, with tens of millions of tourists annually, bringing an important economic benefits for Mexico.

The crystalline waters of the Mexican Caribbean are admired by many for the beauty of its landscapes, displaying aquamarine-blue beaches with fine white sand, surrounded by exotic tropical rainforests

However, since 2011, year after year, during the months of May throughout August, this tourist paradise suffers the ravages of nature itself, due to the proliferation of a species of a brown algae known as sargassum.

This seaweed is native to the Sargasso Sea, located in the Western Atlantic Ocean, and it is brought to the Mexican Caribbean by hot oceanic streams. Sargassum is known to rapidly grow and spread, inundating beaches, including in Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Due to the increase in sea temperatures and the pollution of ocean waters, this algae has been spreading throughout the Mexican Caribbean, affecting not only its natural beauty, but also impacting the economy of the state with a decreased number of visitors during the sargassum season.

Although sargassum is a food source for some marine species, it also contains microorganisms that are toxic to humans, causing severe skin irritations. Likewise, the fetid odor that the algae gives off when it decomposes drives away travelers and visitors from the beaches, generating major losses for Mexico’s economy.

The efforts of local authorities to clean the sargassum from the beaches have been ineffective, since manually removing this plague from the beaches is a time-consuming and expensive process that has no end. No sooner is the sargassum removed from the shore than new algae is brought to the coast by water currents.

Likewise, the treatment of sargassum, once it has been removed from marine waters, requires a very exhaustive and costly process. If sargassum is not disposed of correctly, it can cause emission of toxic gases into the environment, as well as human poisoning by hydrogen sulfide produced by the decomposing algae that can cause flu-like symptoms.

Until now, the prevention method that has been most effective against sargassum, among hotels and large resorts in the area, consists in the installation of floating barriers that keep sargassum away from beaches and recreation areas. However, this method is not infallible, and despite these efforts, as of today, many beaches in Quintana Roo are struggling with this rapidly reproducing algae.

The importance of addressing this problem for Mexico’s tourism sector cannot be underestimated. Approximately 34 percent of Mexico’s tourism income is produced by the state of Quintana Roo alone. Nonetheless, the situation seems very alarming since Mexican authorities forecast that 2022 could be as bad or worse than the catastrophic year of 2018, the biggest sargassum wave to date.

The sargassum problem is not exclusive to Mexico and it is only a matter of time until it becomes a global concern since it could continue to spread to the coasts of more than 19 countries located in the Antilles and the Caribbean, representing a great impact on the economies of those countries, which depend almost entirely on tourism for revenues.

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