Cancun, Mexico — Cancun’s eroding white sand beaches are providing a note of urgency to the climate talks being held just south of this seaside resort famed for its postcard-perfect vistas.
Rising sea levels and a series of unusually powerful hurricanes have aggravated the folly of building a tourist destination atop shifting sand dunes on a narrow peninsula. After the big storms hit, the bad ideas were laid bare: Much of Cancun’s glittering hotel strip is now without a beach.
Hotels built too tall, too heavy and too close to the shore, as well as beaches stripped of native vegetation to make them more tourist-friendly, have contributed to the massive erosion.
“It was the chronicle of a disaster foretold,” said Exequiel Ezcurra, the former head of Mexico’s environmental agency. “Everybody knew this was going to happen. This had been predicted for 40 years.”
Cancun’s beaches largely disappeared after Category 4 Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, leaving waves lapping against hotel foundations or against rocks.
Four category 4 and 5 hurricanes have hit Mexico in the past decade, the highest rate in 40 years and equal to all those in the preceding three decades, according to Mexico’s National Meteorological Service. Many scientists blame such extreme weather patterns on climate change.
The coastline erosion was worsened by a rise in sea level, which has grown at a rate of about 2.2 millimeters a year.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but ... in an area as low as that sandbar, it doesn’t help, especially when the sandbar doesn’t have the properties to compensate for sea level,” Ezcurra said.
In a major restoration project last year, millions of cubic yards of sand were dredged from the sandy bottom of the Caribbean and pumped ashore in Cancun. The project created a seven-mile stretch of beach some 40 to 70 yards wide, at a cost of about $70 million.
It is already washing away. Waves have carved a waist-high shelf into the beach and Assistant Tourism Secretary Hector de la Cruz acknowledges that 6 percent to 8 percent of the new sand has been swept away — even without any major storms.
It was the second time such an undertaking had been tried; a $19 million beach restoration effort in 2006 also washed away, finished off by a Category 5 hurricane, Dean, that hit further down the coast in 2007.
Officials hope each disaster will be the last and the sand will somehow stick.
“The erosion was really caused by Hurricane Wilma stalling over the area, and we just have to hope we don’t get another one like that,” De la Cruz said.
Tourists and local residents are skeptical.
Fernando Garcia, a 47-year-old opal dealer from Bilbao, Spain, strode up the steep Delfines beach after a swim in the turquoise waters and gazed back to the shelf the waves have carved in the sand.
“In a year or two, another hurricane will come and the same thing will happen all over again,” he said. “This is an absurd waste of money.”
In a financial sense, however, it still works. Cancun remains the biggest money-earner of all of Mexico’s tourist destinations, bringing in about $3 billion per year — about a quarter of Mexico’s tourism income.
“I wouldn’t talk about Cancun as an error,” said De la Cruz. “I think Cancun is one of the most successful tourist developments not just in Mexico, but in the entire Caribbean.”