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A Poor Example of Protection Efforts in Akumal Bay

A few weeks ago, the “snorkel with turtles” suspension in Akumal Bay was lifted after only 51 days and SEMARNAT reissued permits to commercial operators.

Much like before, only those with a permit can conduct tours in the bay, and each permit holder is expected to follow certain limitations and restrictions to conduct their business in a sustainable and prescribed way within a specific protected area within the bay. Some of those limitations include:

  • Snorkel activities can only be carried out between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
  • No more than 6 people/group plus a guide.
  • The minimum distance between groups is 10 meters.

A full list of rules for tourist service providers can be found on CONANP’s Facebook page.

Yet in the past few weeks, since the permits were issued, several rules are being ignored. Case in point, the following irregularities and violations have been witnessed:

  • Snorkel tours are being conducted before the hours of 9 a.m.
  • Snorkel tours are being conducted after 5 p.m.
  • Commercial tour providers rumoured to not having a permit are conducting tours and operating in Akumal Bay.
  • Snorkel groups are exceeding the limit of 6 people per group
  • Snorkel groups are not keeping a 10m distance

Why are the rules being broken?

There are several forces at work, as was the case before the suspension. First and foremost, it comes down to the lack of respect for the rules.

For years, many of these commercial operators have been conducting their business in whatever manner they see fit, focusing on profits first and ecological impact last. Also, history has proven that their conduct of operation comes from a different “playbook”—a playbook that condones setting up shop on private property, conducting business illegally, torching police stations and vehicles, vandalizing and theft as well as acts of physical assault against their fellow citizens and tourists… all actions that have come with minimal or no legal consequences.

So how can it be feasible to go from renegade and rebellious self-serving attitudes to having to follow the rules? Even the former permits which clearly stated a maximum of 12 people per day per tour operator were never followed along with other directives, so what possible incentive or motivation would make them follow the rules now?

Secondly, and perhaps the biggest reason as to why the rules cannot be followed falls onto the responsibility of the authorities with their lack of organization and ineffective enforcement and execution of any sort of overall management.

The most recent permits were reissued before the authorities bothered to conduct any scientific studies to establish the capacity limits for the bay or organize a cohesive management plan or even implement protocols or procedures to oversee or enforce the rules, effectively creating a “cart-before-the-horse” scenario.

Authorities are on the beach, but without a monitored, centralized entrance or organized procedures in place for both in water and on the beach activities, there is no way for the authorities to know the following:

  • which groups are entering—permitted or not,
  • which groups are entering with authorized guide,
  • how many people each group is entering with,
  • which circuit each which group is using,
  • are the groups following the timeline for each circuit, or
  • how many total snorkelers or beach goers have entered the beach that hour or day.

If the authorities can’t effectively monitor the activities, how are they expected to enforce the permit rules?

The simple answer right now is that they can’t. Without structure in place and only two PROFEPA staff to monitor all the activities and actions for over 30 permitted groups (alongside the unpermitted groups) in and out of the water, it is just not viable.

As a result of these serious and definite gaps, many of the tour operators are capitalizing on the situation. Tour groups are entering the bay before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. with more than six individuals because there are no authorities on the beach at these times. And even when there are authorities on the beach between 9 and 5, they simply don’t have the capacity to fully monitor or enforce those entering without a permit or those entering at a different access with more than six people.

Is protection a priority? 

So, it begs the question, is protection of Akumal Bay really a priority?

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority, then each and every tour operator would be making a conscious effort to respect the rules and demand the same from each permit-holding colleague.

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority for the authorities, and not just the façade of back patting and congratulatory credit in decreeing a protected area, a cohesive management plan (including capacity limits based on local scientific studies) with various approaches to administer that plan would have been developed and implemented even before the consideration of re-issuing permits to legitimate commercial tour operators with business permits and a business address.

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority, an effective and comprehensive plan would take into account more than just the guided tours of the bay—it would consider the rental of snorkel equipment (a great contributor to the overuse of the bay), education and information for all users of the bay, and training and education to ensure all guides are qualified, insured, first-aid certified and all operating in a sustainable, standardized and legal manner.

But… when governments are financially encouraged to put the cart first, the priority for the horse is secondary at best—disregarding the vital planning, implementation, enforcement and management steps—thus resulting in Akumal Bay being a poor example of ecological protection designed by all levels of government involved.

DEFYING THE SUSPENSION ORDER; CHALLENGING THE AUTHORITY

Earlier today several local cooperatives took guided snorkeling tours in Akumal Bay, despite the ongoing temporary suspension and the suspension notice  clearly visible on the beach.

Guide from local cooperative walks his “snorkel with turtle” tour guests past military patrol, PROFEPA and suspension notice sign

The authorities were apparently  taken off guard and started documenting evidence. They were unable to stop this activity although they followed them into the water. Some tense interactions on the beach with the rest of the guides had the military standing by.

Profepa officials were seen on the phone, but they did not get the guides to desist, although they eventually stopped on their own. This seems to be a brazen act of rebellion and lack of respect for the authority, unless something else is happening here.

In addition, cooperatives have been taking tours in after Profepa staff leave at 5pm, and as of yesterday, the Profepa staff were doing overtime and left at 7pm. We hope to get some clarity about this situation soon.

Action Taken by Authorities in Akumal

February 15, 2017

What started as regular day, quickly turned into an unusual one with the arrival and presence of authorities taking swift action.

Authorities from PROFEPA accompanied by the Marines arrived in Akumal this morning informing the snorkel tour operators in the bay that they were required to leave and that the bay was now temporarily closed to all commercial activity.

Marines arrive with authorities to suspend snorkel with turtle activities

While many of the cooperatives seemed to be taken by surprise, it shouldn’t have been a surprise since all commercial tour operator permits expired on December 31, 2016.

Since January 1, any commercial group that was operating tours in Akumal was doing so without a permit. Akumal-based cooperatives continued to enter the bay and conduct tours without permits, as well as outside groups (both commercial and freelance) began their operations again—increasing the numbers of snorkellers on a daily basis.

Authorities have done little or nothing for the past 10 months, since the declaration of the Refuge for Protected Species in April of last year. Despite outside or unpermitted companies entering the bay or local cooperatives exceeding their daily quota of guests (12/day), there were no consequences or enforcement—the authorities simply turned a blind eye or their backs.

Today, however, was different. Action was taken.

Authorities say that this is a temporary suspension of all swim with turtles activity until permits are obtained.

From a purely environmental perspective, it’s a win. However, there are other components that need to be considered for a long-term sustainable solution and future for Akumal. There needs to be a win-win situation that balances economic, social and environmental needs.

But until that time, there are immediate pressing questions. In fact it seems there are more questions than answers or information available at this time. On our list of questions:

Permits

  • Who will get permits?
  • How many cooperatives or companies will get the permits?
  • How many guests will be allowed per day?
  • Who will oversee and ensure authorized entry of groups and that limits are not exceeded?

Zoning

  • Is there a specific zone for swimming only? For snorkelling only?

Beach Goers / Snorkellers

  • Can they rent snorkel equipment? From where? Or they expected to bring their own? Do the same recommendations regarding the use of lifejackets apply?
  • What if someone offers them a tour (since this is illegal until permits are issued)? Where do they report and to whom?
  • Who will be providing beach goers with information/education on best practices or details if the recommendations change?

Fingers crossed that in due time the authorities will be releasing more details and answering some of these immediate questions while taking steps towards long-term sustainable planning and implementation.

IMG_2266

 

 

Snorkeling in Akumal: One Family’s Nightmare, “an absolute disaster”

January 10, 2017

As more incidents of harassment, intimidation and assault are occurring on the beach and in the water by various local guides and their associates, tourists are becoming increasingly frustrated, frightened, and vocal.

The following is a report that was shared with us by an American tourist:

***

I’m writing to inform you that snorkelling in the bay was not as we remembered and an absolute disaster. 

I attempted three times to snorkel in the bay and on all attempts I was accosted by people claiming to be guides insisting I pay them money and saying that life jackets are mandatory. On the third trip in the ocean (December 19 at 10 a.m.) three guys ganged up on my 3 small kids, girlfriend and I.

The one guide was heavy set and was the one that started it all. I told him to get away from us and leave us alone. While he was yelling at us he kept a hand in his pocket as if he had a hand on a knife or something. I kept looking at it underwater to insure I wasn’t about to get stabbed or anything. I never saw a weapon but he seemed to have something in his hand.

Another guy grabbed my girlfriend and attempted to pull her to shore. My kids started crying and were scared with the yelling and seeing this commotion. After my girlfriend broke free, she managed to take these pictures of the incident.

This is the big guy that started the whole thing. Would not leave us alone and had something in his hand in his pocket.  He kept insisting we get out of the water pay him $20 and needed a guide and life jacket.  Keep in mind we were right over 3 beautiful  turtles he was almost kicking with his flippers

This is the big guy that started the whole thing. Would not leave us alone and had something in his hand in his pocket. He kept insisting we get out of the water pay him $20 and needed a guide and life jacket. Keep in mind we were right over 3 beautiful turtles he was almost kicking with his flippers

 

This is the guy who grabbed my girlfriend assertively and tried to take her to shore. She broke free and took his picture.

This is the guy who grabbed my girlfriend assertively and tried to take her to shore. She broke free and took his picture.

 

This is the guy who ran into me with this boat, and threatened us with his paddle held high over his head as if he was going to strike us with it.  I flipped him out of the boat.

This is the guy who ran into me with this boat, and threatened us with his paddle held high over his head as if he was going to strike us with it. I flipped him out of the boat.

 

A young skinny guy in a kayak came over and hit me with the kayak. He held his paddle over his head as if he was going to strike me if I didn’t get out of the ocean. They were yelling that they were going to get the police which was also frightening to us.

My shaken family returned to shore and my kids no longer wanted to return to the ocean in fear of more confrontation.  We left the following day to continue our vacation elsewhere.

Akumal is such a wonderful place, but incidents like these are such a shame. It is disgusting and needs to be stopped somehow. Being assaulted by these guys in the ocean is completely unacceptable. I know it’s a struggle as there are so many of these people that it’s got to be virtually impossible to stop them but something should be done to prevent this. It was not a good experience. It frightened my entire family—including my three kids who are under 11. While everything else in Akumal is great, being in the ocean was a nightmare for my family. I’m very saddened to say we won’t be returning until something is done.

 ***

The tourist who filed this report is correct in saying that something needs to be done.

It is clear from the past several months that self-regulation of the commercial snorkel tours by the local guides/cooperatives is not effective. Here’s why:

  • The daily limit or quota of tourists per cooperative set by the authorities are not being respected.
  • Incidents of assault and intimidation are being tolerated and even supported by fellow guides/cooperatives.
  • Guests and visitors to Akumal are being bullied, threatened, and accosted and into following quasi “rules” such as the mandatory use of life jackets and guides when the authorities have yet to establish the final management plan of the bay nor any sort of formal rules.

NB: Because there is no final and/or enacted management plan for Akumal Bay, there are no set rules for independent snorkelers. Any information currently published, posted or made public by the authorities are “Recommendations” only, not law.

But then again, maybe self-regulation is working… or at least it is working in favour of the cooperatives–they get additional tourism dollars by exceeding their permit quotas and imposing mandatory rentals of life jackets and guide services. Does self-regulation mean self-interest in this case? Because these actions are good indicators that there is little or no regard on the long-term impact on Akumal’s ecosystem, turtles or even the negative lasting impressions of its guests.


The Mexican Department of Tourism has laws for standards of service for all tourism-related businesses which ensures any tourist to Mexico has the right to standards of service, respect and conduct while enjoying the country, and in particular this area where tourism is the key economic driver.

Reports for any unacceptable or abusive behaviour, conduct, or unlawful practice provided by any tourist business can be filed online with the Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR), which has the responsibility to investigate each report.

http://www.sectur.gob.mx/quejas-e-inconformidades/otros/


SIMILAR ARTICLES

Snorkeling Incident Report—October 16, 2016

Bad Behaviour in the Bay—December 14, 2016

Bay Patrollers selling tours and charging an entrance fee…—December 22, 2016

Bay Patrollers selling tours and charging an entrance fee under the guise of being the official authorities

December 22, 2016
Last week an Argentinian man approached the fiscal inspectors on the beach in Akumal to report how he was tricked into paying an entrance fee into Akumal Bay.

As he explains in the video, he drove into Akumal and was stopped at the first palapa on the road. The people from the first palapa told him that they are the authority and in order to enter the bay and snorkel with the turtles he had to pay 500 pesos per person to get a bracelet which included a tour guide and was limited to 60 people per day. The man believed what he was told and paid a total of 1000 pesos for two individuals to enter and have a guide. However, when he got to the beach and saw many other vendors and way more people than the supposed daily limit of 60, he began to ask their prices, which were all different. The man realized at this point that what he was initially told was a lie and out of frustration reported the incident to the fiscal inspectors.

The inspector recognized that this is a problem that they are dealing with and would write up a report on the person. He also acknowledged that misleading tourists affects the reputation of the guides. In the end the inspector is heard saying that those people are the authority* because they are registered by PROFEPA and know how to best protect the bay.

*PROFEPA registered various guides and cooperatives to form a “vigilancia committee” to assist in monitoring the bay. Being registered by a government authority does not make the committee or its members government authorities.) 

But the question is this: Can you put the trust of protecting the bay in the hands of those who use such underhanded tactics to get business in the bay? How can conservation happen when those registered by PROFEPA to help protect the bay are the same ones seeking profit at any cost or consequence to the tourist and reputation of Akumal?

Incidents like these are impacting Akumal and tarnishing its reputation as a quaint and idyllic beach town. There is certainly nothing quaint or idyllic about being harassed, lied to, scammed or cheated. But this is the way Akumal is shaping up to be and by which its reputation is now being reflected. This situation can change when the protection plan is implemented, regulated and supervised directly by the government authorities, and when the capacity limit is set and respected. Meanwhile, the situation is only getting worse.

NB: There is no entrance fee to enter Akumal Bay.