What once was a small fishing village, Tulum has quickly become one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Home to miles of pristine beaches, exotic wildlife, and the world’s largest underground river system, people come from far and wide to experience Mexico’s trendy, ecological haven.
Filmmaker Rachel Appel and her team say travelers shouldn’t always trust the countless businesses claiming ‘eco’ and ‘environmentally friendly.’ In fact, Quintana Roo, the state in which Tulum is located, creates more waste per capita than any other region in Mexico. On average, Mexican residents produce one kilogram of garbage per day, while in Tulum and its surrounding area, residents produce an average of two-and-a-half to three kilograms everyday.
In 1995 there were just over 3,000 inhabitants, but today Tulum has a local population of around 35,000 and hosts more than two million tourists per year. The city has the highest population growth in all of Mexico, and is only designed to sustain only around 7,000 people.
“Tulum was built fast, and they didn’t know what was coming,” Appel says in an interview with MindBodyGreen. In the rush to keep up and take advantage of the economic boom, hotels began dumping their sewage directly into Tulum’s freshwater aquifer, and most are entirely powered by diesel generators. With nowhere to put all the town’s trash, the jungle just next to the city is now hosting a massive landfill, and is growing larger each day.
In recent years, Tulum has been a hotspot for development, and real estate companies in the city have failed to follow through on promises of sustainable practices. Lack of regulation has caused construction to spiral out of control, and the once sleepy village is quickly becoming a replica of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen — cities just north of Tulum that have both failed to preserve their environment.
The geologic formation of Quintana Roo is made up of limestone rock. This means the ground is extremely permeable, allowing water to filter through the soil and feed the underground river system. This network of rivers is what makes Tulum’s ecosystem so unique. When the ceilings of these waterways collapse due to both mechanical and chemical erosion, they form what we know as ‘cenotes’.
Cenotes have become a major tourist attraction because of their natural beauty, crystalline freshwater, unusual rock formations, and lush vegetation. It is the only source of freshwater in the area, not only making it valuable, but critical for the area’s survival.
As development heavily increases, materials such as concrete cause the limestone’s permeability to decrease, which interrupts the cycle of water. In some areas, the underground river is so shallow that construction causes the ground to collapse, not only polluting the fresh water, but also creating safety hazards.
Tulum will likely keep growing at a fast rate, and Appel and her team have not set out to stop that growth. What they are after is something they believe is completely attainable: sustainable development strategies not just in Tulum, but booming development hotspots all over the world. They want Tulum to be the example of a completely self-sustaining city.
There are solutions that work both for the environment and for the economy, which is something that the creators of The Dark Side of Tulum plan to emphasize in their film. The intention of this documentary is to not only create awareness, but to establish real environmental change, present real solutions, and feature the stakeholders who are making a difference. Tulum can implement more sustainable infrastructure, but not without the careful observation and study of the land, taking into consideration factors such as sunlight, wind, soil and rain.
Appel stresses that Tulum is still savable, but if action is not taken to seriously improve infrastructure as soon as possible, this paradise will be unable to recover. And just like Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the quality of the economy will deteriorate: the high-paying visitors will stop coming, prices will be driven down, and a mass market will open in Tulum, putting volume above quality, and creating another environmental loss.