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The Sea of Cortez- Successes and Failures of Tourism Development

By miltongroup, September 28, 2020

The Gulf of California- or the Sea of Cortez- is principally known for its incredible marine life. Part of the area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has one of the highest concentrations of micro-invertebrates anywhere in the world. But it also conjures in the imagination the conquistador Hernan Cortez and John Steinbeck’s expedition. There is a romanticism to the area, from the Isla Angel de la Guarda to the mythologised Demonio Negro thought to be a black shark measuring 18m. Its communities have attracted the intrepid and itinerant, hippies and luxury travellers. With its allure as much its beauty as mystique, it has become a focus for tourism.

Amongst other species, the area is known for Humboldt squid and leatherback sea turtle as well as multiple species of whales including the Californian Gray and humpback. The existence of a plethora of endemic as well as migratory species, historically cemented the area’s reputation for fishing, both commercial and sporting. This combined with reduced inward flow of the Colorado River into the Gulf has had a deleterious effect on overall marine life, with recovery far from assured. The diminution in life beneath the waves has attracted the attention of conservationists, public bodies, as well as Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs), have been pushing for coordinated action to both preserve and enhance the environment. Notable successes have too often been overlooked due to the practical difficulty of monitoring such a vast area- even one with these attributes.

In terms of birdlife, the Gulf is of great ornithological interest. There are over 35 sizeable islands, which combined with islets, total over 900. Many of these were caused by volcanic eruptions, and have been recognised for their ecological value since the late 1970s. Designated a refuge by the then government, floral and faunal protection was afforded in 2000. There are a number of statutes and bodies charged with the conservation and rehabilitation  of these areas, including the international Man and Biosphere Programme and Special Biosphere Reserve. Mercifully, these bodies are coordinated under a single management plan, helping create a cohesive framework for the long term protection of the overall area.

The development of tourist infrastructure has had both positive and negative ramifications. San Felipe has been the recipient of Spring Break tourist traffic offering revenues for coastal communities but attendant effects on the environment. San Carlos in the State of Sorona has been drawn upon by movie producers ranging from the Mask of Zorro to the Spanish soap, Por Tu Amor. Its principal hotels were the Santo Carlos Plaza and the Club Med, now closed. Guayamas has drawn on its unusual transit arrangement where permit formalities are suspended for vehicles entering from the United States. Here, the tourism industry is supportive of over 8,000 jobs, across nearly 2,000 rooms. Though have been attempts at ecotourism, but it can more accurately be considered a tourist amenity hub.

Cabo San Lucas is perhaps the most developed tourism destination on the Sea of Cortez. Prompted by a decision by the Mexican Government to create a hub in the 1970s, it is a salutary lesson in both success and failure. Appreciation of the natural environment, and the need for cohesion in long term planning of tourism and its concert with community. Following the completion of the Trans peninsular Highway, development expanded rapidly and without meaningful restriction. This undoubtedly brought greater prosperity in the area, however, as tastes have changed is has presented challenges to retroactively redress damage caused decades ago. Sustainable planning was falteringly applied confronting policy makers now. Just as the more recent example of parts of Thailand and Sri Lanka attest, tourism plans need to be generational more than temporary.

As elsewhere, groups have coalesced to ameliorate the situation in Cabo San Lucas and contribute to a ecosystem and marine plan extending across the region. The Gulf of California Conservation Fund as well as the Center for Environmental Law in La Paz, have been at the forefront of these efforts. However, high end tourist operators have also appreciated there are economic benefits associated with sensitivity to surroundings and adherence to sustainable principles. Foremost amongst these are the Montage and the Esperanza by Auberge. Both are sensitive to the environment and are better aligned with a new era more conscious of our obligations to preserve and protect. Further up the coast at Costa Palmas, the Four Seasons pays more than lip service to sustainable design and operation, contributing rather than detracting from the environment it occupies.

This region provides important lessons for other countries and regions looking to attract the market. Its supportive business environment, strong connectivity and exceptional beauty enabled big name brands to come, and others to follow. Haphazard development, though, has exacted a toll not simply on the environment but also of the ability of resorts to command rates achievable in more pristine environments globally. Foresighted, well-resourced brands, together with an alliance of ecologists and conservationists are re-imagining the area, and will continue to do so in the post-Covid era. Understanding its successes and failures serve as instruction to other areas at the beginning of their tourism trajectory.

Oliver Nicoll, Financial Strategist