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JEREMY HOBSON: The extremely cold temperatures across much of the U.S. right now have some fleeing to the sunny beaches of Mexico. Tourism along the country's Caribbean coast is expected to grow this year. But scientists say development is ruining the natural wonders that those tourists come to see.
From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.
Eve Troeh: Biologist Cesar Barrios says when he moved to the Riviera Maya, just south of Cancun, 20 years ago, the road had two lanes.
Cesar Barrios: With the trees coming to your window.
He laughs because we're stuck in six lanes of traffic. There are 20 times the number of hotel rooms that there were when Barrios arrived. People come here to see a massive coral reef that's so close to the shore, you can wade out to it.
Jasmine Zebig and some friends bought fins and snorkels to see their favorite animal.
Jasmine Zebig: We're going to see the sea turtles.
They don't need a guide or a permit.
Zebig: Just gonna go on our own; you can just swim right out there.
And Cesar Barrios says that presents a problem. The reef hasn't been managed. It may look fine to newbies, but it's actually half-dead. He says unfettered access, rising ocean temperatures and increased pollution from hotel sewage has led to a tipping point for local dive shops.
Barrios: Because they are losing the business.
And hotels will soon follow, he says. Unless local officials accept slower economic growth. And they say they want to.
Ecologist Paul Sanchez Navarro is helping government calculate the real cost of new hotels. He says every new hotel room is equal to 18 new full-time residents. He reaches out to educate locals.
Paul Sanchez Navarro: To make sure that the cleaning lady of the hotel room understands that if the reef dies, she loses her job.
When Fairmont hotels built its Mayakoba resort, it preserved native mangroves to prevent beach erosion. It treats its sewage and conserves water and power. Manager Lyn Santos says the best option for the ecosystem would be no new hotels. But that isn't economically or politically realistic.
Lyn Santos: We cannot stop development, but we can use it in an intelligent way, and with science behind.
And she says that compromise is progress.
I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.
JEREMY HOBSON: And if that story made you want to go on vacation, you can check out photos and more information about the Riviera Maya at Marketplace.org.