A twinkling jewel of an island located in the Mexican Caribbean, 11 miles off of the northeast coast of the Yucatán peninsula, Cozumel has stunning beaches and colorful coral reefs that lure millions of tourists each year. Blessed with year-round visibility and warm turquoise waters, the reefs that ring the island treat snorkelers to views of spectacular sponge formations, massive coral walls, and fish species including parrotfish (Scaridae spp.), Nassau groupers (Epinephelus striatus), stingrays (Dasyatidae spp.) and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum).
The second most popular cruise tourism destination in the world after Miami, Cozumel receives nearly three million cruise passengers each year. Seated in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, Cozumel has not gone unscathed by such high numbers of visitors. Poorly planned tourism development has destroyed costal habitat; inadequately treated solid waste and waste water have contaminated drinking water; and underwater visitors have damaged marine habitats — it is estimated that an average of 2,000 scuba divers explore Cozumel’s fragile coral reefs every day.
To help Cozumel’s cruise tourism industry improve management of cruise visitation and safeguard the natural resources that make Cozumel so attractive, Conservation International’s Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) launched the “Protecting Cozumel’s Natural Heritage: Developing an Action Plan for the Shared Stewardship of a Cruise Destination” project with support from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Coral Reef Conservation Fund and the Cruise Lines International Association.
Conservation International (CI) partnered with Cozumel’s Department of Tourism and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association to facilitate a series of focus groups and a multi-stakeholder workshop that brought together more than 80 cruise industry leaders from local, state and federal governments, the private sector, civil society, and cruise lines to define high priority environmental issues related to cruise visitation and reach consensus on collaborative actions for addressing them.
To promote an honest and candid dialogue and ensure a completely participatory process, CI initially led a series of focus group meetings in April 2007 that allowed each cruise industry stakeholder group to meet separately in order to identify high priority issues that would help improve the sustainability of Cozumel’s cruise tourism.
The following month CI held a one-day workshop, bringing together representatives from all of the cruise tourism stakeholder groups so they could develop a strategy to address the top two priority issues identified in the April focus group meetings: improving environmental awareness among cruise passengers and of the local community. Seleni Matus, an advisor for MARTI, says that during the workshops the focus stayed on the issues that had a high level of consensus. “That way, we were able to efficiently move through very positive dialogue that focused on the strengths and experience that each different cruise industry group had to bring to the project,” she says.
Matus explains that served as a third-party facilitator, not as an active participant. “From the outset, it was very clear that each stakeholder group would need to bring their skills, know-how, and their resources to the table to identify and put into the action the strategies that they felt were most important,” she notes.
Javier Pizaña, president of the local marine operators’ association says that the event “provided us with an excellent opportunity to align shore operators’ efforts with those of other sectors involved with Cozumel’s cruise tourism.” He adds, “Although the local community values highly the protection of our natural environment, it was very beneficial to have an external facilitator help to encourage and coordinate collaboration across sectors.”
Working together for the first time, stakeholders created a destination-level environmental education campaign to educate cruise ship visitors about the conservation of Cozumel’s natural heritage. A locally-based working group comprised of representatives from all stakeholder groups produced a 30-second video that will be shown on board of several of the leading cruise lines for one year, as well as the ferries that connect the island to the mainland. The video is estimated to reach at least 500,000 people in six months. In conjunction with an existing municipal-level recycling campaign, Cozumel’s tour operators are implementing a trash separation campaign on board of all of their tour boats to help improve the management of the solid waste that visitors generate. The third project is a “Paseo Ambiental,” a visual display of images and well-crafted conservation messages to be placed in strategic points where cruise ship visitors gather and disembark. The messages will highlight the importance of protecting Cozumel’s natural resources and encourage visitors to leave a light footprint during their visits to the island. The next step will be to take the lessons learned and successes from this campaign to develop an additional campaign that targets local residents.
CI has created the first “Action Plan for Shared Stewardship of Cozumel’s Natural Heritage” to provide guidance in how to sustainably manage cruise ship tourism. The Mayor of Cozumel and officials from the Department of Tourism will officially present the plan at an event scheduled for early 2008, where leaders of each stakeholder group and local government officials will sign a declaration of commitment to continue to work towards the sustainable management of cruise passengers. “This declaration will help underscore the recognition that each stakeholder group plays an important role in managing Cozumel’s natural assets and are committed to shared management of cruise ship visitation,” Matus emphasizes. In early 2008, there will be a change in local government in Cozumel, and this declaration will help to ensure that these conservation achievements continue into the new government’s term.
Matus believes the key to the success of this project was ensuring that the local government took a strong leadership role and that there was widespread trust in the process and ownership of the project among stakeholders. She notes, “These were the key factors in opening up positive dialogue and to ensure that we have a very well-defined exit strategy. At the end of the day, the idea is to empower the cruise industry leaders to share responsibility for the sustainable management of cruise passengers.”
While the project officially ends in December of 2007, the local cruise industry leaders have expressed an interest in MARTI’s continued support. In the next three years, CI will replicate this project in the other major cruise ports of call throughout the Mesoamerican Reef region. A similar project is already in progress in Belize.