The beautiful island of Cozumel rests on a rich marine ecosystem with coral reefs that attract more than five million visitors per year. It is estimated that 1500 to 1800 divers and snorkelers swim daily in the waters of Cozumel Reef National Park.
Conserving these valuable and fragile ecosystems against threats from rising tourism has been a challenge for the park authorities. In the past, they had to deal with tourists who touched the corals and marine animals, and dive boats and tours that were not careful with the disposal of solid wastes or even hazardous wastes such as engine oil and fuel.
“We have only four park rangers and three patrol boats. It became impossible for us to take care of the park ourselves,” said Christopher González, Director of the park.
Now, González proudly says that the park has thousands of eyes that watch over it every day.
Through the MARTI initiative, its partners the Coral Reef Alliance and the Cozumel Island Intersectoral Group (or GI for the Spanish acronym) have designed a course on Sustainable Marine Recreation (SMR), which CONANP uses to train all tour and dive guides who enter the park about the importance of the reefs and their stewardship, including the regulations that must be met within the protected area. The SMR course is now mandatory and has been given to more than 7,000 people in six years. Entities such as the Naval Secretariat (Spanish acronym SEMAR) and the Federal Attorney of Environmental Protection (Spanish acronym PROFEPA) use the SMR course for personnel working in these marine areas.
“The course opened our eyes to the consequences of our bad practices, although minor, in the ecosystem that gives us work,” says Danirel Álvarez, marine tourism guide for the Sand Dollar Sports tour operator. “We learned to take care of wildlife, not pollute and raise awareness in tourists,” added Alvarez.
MARTI and its partners also created the Environmental Walk-Throughs program (EWT) for diving and marine tour companies, to evaluate their behavioral practices within the park, the status and management of their vessels and the management of their waste products. CONANP has implemented EWTs for 83 providers of these services, out of the 113 that are working on the island.
These evaluations have enhanced the monitoring system of impacts on the park, identified the priority areas in which most service providers are failing, which are forming the basis of educational campaigns. According to Gonzalez, this data has been crucial in defining integrated mandatory compliance policies for the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park Management Program.
For tourism entrepreneurs, initiatives such as SMR and EWT have changed the mentality in the sector and enlisted businesses in promoting sustainable tourism at Cozumel. “At first, there was conflict because the park put more rules on us, but we understand how all this has benefited the business and the island that we love,” said John Flynn, owner of Sand Dollar Sports.