A victim of its own success? Shocking aerial photographs reveal how Cancun's booming tourism has transformed the Mexican fishing village

  • The beach resort of Cancun attracts over three million tourists a year with its new high-rise hotels and nightclubs
  • Aerial shots reveal reduced biodiversity and polluted waters as a result of a development over the last 20 years
  • Experts say the loss of mangrove swamps for hotel sites has increased the risk when natural disasters strike

The Mexican beach resort of Cancun, with its white-sand beaches, coral reefs and nightlife, attracts more than three million tourists a year - but the effect of this has taken its toll.  

The area's transformation in the 1970s from a small Caribbean fishing village into a strip of nightclubs and high-rise hotels has reduced biodiversity and polluted water resources as infrastructure struggles to keep up, critics say.

Furthermore, the loss of mangrove swamps, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes, to make way for hotels and other buildings has increased the risk when natural disasters strike, according to environmentalists.

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The coastline of Cancun in Mexico is seen in a combination of NASA satellite images taken in 1988 and in 2015
The coastline of Cancun in Mexico is seen in a combination of NASA satellite images taken in 1988 and in 2015

The coastline of Cancun in Mexico is seen in a combination of NASA satellite images taken in 1988 (left) and in 2015 (right)

The area's transformation in the 1970s from a small Caribbean fishing village into a strip of nightclubs and high-rise hotels has reduced biodiversity and polluted water resources as infrastructure struggles to keep up, critics say 

The area's transformation in the 1970s from a small Caribbean fishing village into a strip of nightclubs and high-rise hotels has reduced biodiversity and polluted water resources as infrastructure struggles to keep up, critics say 

In the high season from about December to early April, tourists from the United States, Europe and further afield crowd the resort to swim and snorkel off usually pristine white beaches, party in the resort's many nightclubs and play golf - with rubbish lying in their wake

In the high season from about December to early April, tourists from the United States, Europe and further afield crowd the resort to swim and snorkel off usually pristine white beaches, party in the resort's many nightclubs and play golf - with rubbish lying in their wake

Ahead of the U.N. Climate Conference in December, the photographs have been released as part of an Earthprints collection, which seek to demonstrate the ability of humans to change the landscape of the planet.

From sprawling urban growth to the construction of new islands, each of the featured sites, including Cancun, has profoundly changed in the last 30 years, with accompanying NASA satellite images showing scale. 

In the high season from about December to early April, tourists from the United States, Europe and further afield crowd the resort to swim and snorkel off usually pristine white beaches, party in the resort's many nightclubs and play golf. Cancun is also popular with Mexicans.

'Tourism is now one of the major drivers of the country's economic growth,' Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid Cordero said last month at a travel fair in Cancun.

Mexico will attract 30 million visitors this year, generating more than $17 billion (£11 billion) in revenue, the government says. Top resorts include Cancun, the nearby Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast.

Following the hotel building boom, Cancun's population expanded too, reaching more than 600,000 by 2010. 

Top resorts such Cancun, the nearby Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast helped to attract 30 million visitors to Mexico this year

Top resorts such Cancun, the nearby Riviera Maya, and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast helped to attract 30 million visitors to Mexico this year

The government say that tourism generates more than $17 billion (£11 billion) in revenue annually 

The government say that tourism generates more than $17 billion (£11 billion) in revenue annually 

Mass tourism has changed the landscape. Mexico has already lost 65 per cent of its mangroves, according to environmental group Greenpeace

Mass tourism has changed the landscape. Mexico has already lost 65 per cent of its mangroves, according to environmental group Greenpeace

Following the hotel building boom, Cancun's population expanded too, reaching more than 600,000 by 2010
Following the hotel building boom, Cancun's population expanded too, reaching more than 600,000 by 2010

Following the hotel building boom, Cancun's population expanded too, reaching more than 600,000 by 2010

Mass tourism has changed the landscape. Mexico has already lost 65 per cent of its mangroves, according to environmental group Greenpeace, and more are disappearing with each passing year.

Fewer mangroves lead both to coastal erosion and greater risk of damage when hurricanes do strike, according to CEMDA, the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law.

'Tourists don't come to Cancun just for the hotel buildings,' Alejandra Serrano, an environmental lawyer and coordinator of CEMDA's Cancun office, told Reuters by telephone. 'They come because of the sea and the beach.'

The loss of mangrove swamps, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes, to make way for hotels and other buildings has increased the risk when natural disasters strike according to environmentalists

The loss of mangrove swamps, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes, to make way for hotels and other buildings has increased the risk when natural disasters strike according to environmentalists

Beachgoers have had another environmental challenge to contend with recently. Tonnes of brown seaweed have choked beaches in resorts throughout the Caribbean including Cancun this season

Beachgoers have had another environmental challenge to contend with recently. Tonnes of brown seaweed have choked beaches in resorts throughout the Caribbean including Cancun this season

The Sargassum algae releases a pungent smell as it decomposes and even before then contains biting sand fleas

The Sargassum algae releases a pungent smell as it decomposes and even before then contains biting sand fleas

Beachgoers have had another environmental challenge to contend with recently. Tonnes of brown seaweed have choked beaches in resorts throughout the Caribbean including Cancun this season, prompting local authorities to launch a large-scale clean-up operation. 

The Sargassum algae releases a pungent smell as it decomposes and even before then contains biting sand fleas.

Theories vary as to the cause of the seaweed in such quantities, from rising sea temperatures to a change in currents. 

Tourists in Cancun were heard complaining of how the seaweed hampered their access to the sea, and some even talked of cutting short their stay because of it.

The large amount of smelly seaweed has prompted local authorities to launch a large-scale clean-up operation to tackle the issue

The large amount of smelly seaweed has prompted local authorities to launch a large-scale clean-up operation to tackle the issue

Theories vary as to the cause of the seaweed in such quantities, from rising sea temperatures to a change in currents

Theories vary as to the cause of the seaweed in such quantities, from rising sea temperatures to a change in currents

Forty years after the first tourism developments, building continues in Cancun. Current projects include Malecon Tajamar Cancun, a 170-acre beachside site containing offices and more than 2,500 homes, according to a promotional video on YouTube.

Mexico is among countries likely to see tourism playing a larger role in the economy in the next decade, the World Travel and Tourism Council says. 

Reconciling that with environmental concerns is part of the challenge faced by resorts such as Cancun. Bodies including the United Nations World Tourism Organization are prodding countries including Mexico in that direction.

'Cancun can be an attractive destination,' CEMDA's Serrano says. 'What we need is lower impact tourism.'

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