December 12, 1998
Private ownership of Mexican coast leaves locals without access


                  CANCUN, Mexico (AP) -- To get to the 1,000-year-old Temple of the Scorpion on
                  the clear blue Caribbean Sea, an ordinary Mexican has to find one of the rare public
                  access paths to the beach and hike about a mile (1.5 kilometers).

                  An international tourist need only step out of one of the luxury hotels that surround the

                  Needless to say, almost all visitors are from other countries. On a recent afternoon, the
                  only Mexican at the temple was groundskeeper Eduardo Hernandez, who
                  was repairing a drainage ditch.

                  "Nobody comes here," he said. "There's no access. They (the hotels) don't let
                  you walk through their property."

                  Mexicans are increasingly being cut off from their own Caribbean coast. This
                  year, the Quintana Roo state government sold off 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers) of
                  the last 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of public beaches to hotel developers, or
                  concessioned them off to theme park operators who charge prices few
                  Mexicans can pay.

                  Along the 80 miles (130 kilometers) of sand that stretch between Cancun and
                  Tulum, an area known as the Mayan Riviera, there are perhaps two public
                  beaches. On the rest, private owners are building, or hoping to build, exclusive
                  luxury hotels.

                  Of the 550-mile (885-kilometer) Caribbean coast down to Belize, almost every
                  inch is privately owned, in large part by non-Mexicans.

                  Perhaps the most open part is Cancun itself -- where the Temple of the
                  Scorpion stands. Although most hotels have security guards who keep
                  undesirables from crossing their property to get to the beach, a half-dozen
                  small, unkempt public access paths squeeze between the resorts.

                  "You can go through the hotels if you're a blue-eyed gringo, but the
                  darker-skinned you are, the less chance they will let you through," said Araceli
                  Dominguez, a member of a local ecologist group.

                  Even environmentally sensitive areas are being sold off. Sixty miles (95
                  kilometers) south of Cancun, Spanish hotel developer Grupo Sol Melia this
                  year bought the sea turtle nesting ground at Xcacel beach. The beach was a
                  regular stop for schoolchildren on field trips.

                  "People used to bring their kids and camp behind the beach during nesting
                  season," said Ivan Granados, a 21-year-old biologist at the turtle protection
                  camp. "This year, almost nobody came."

                  Sol Melia has blocked off the access road and begun cutting palm trees, but its
                  executives refused to say what kind of hotel they plan to build.

                  Jose Luis Perez Quintal, the government official who oversaw the land sales,
                  didn't flinch as he said what Xcacel and the surrounding coast will become:
                  "An exclusive zone for people with high incomes."

                  Critics accuse the government officials of selling out their nation.

                  "It appears there is nothing they won't sell to private investors," said
                  Greenpeace Mexico activist Juan Carlos Cantu.

                  "They think land is underused if there's no restaurant on it," opposition party
                  activist Tulio Arroyo added.

                  Gov. Mario Villanueva knows that Mexicans face discrimination on their own
                  coast. As mayor of Cancun in the early 1990s, he temporarily closed a
                  discotheque and a beach resort for denying entry to Mexicans.

                  He conceded that there are problems with the development but defended the
                  state's privatization plan.

                  "Maybe there should have been better planning to have more public beaches,"
                  he told The Associated Press. "But what good is a nature reserve if it's not
                  being used?"

                  Construction worker Jaime Rubio, for one, would have used one. He traveled
                  with his wife and three children from the western city of Guadalajara but
                  couldn't afford the $39-a-person entry fee to X-Caret -- a mostly fabricated
                  amusement park with snorkeling and swimming activities in a jungle setting. It
                  would have cost half a month's wages.

                  "For Mexicans, this place is no longer accessible," he said. "The dollar rules

                  Two other formerly government-run beaches were concessioned off to the
                  operators of X-Caret recently.

                  Environmentalists say the development is destroying the coastline. A strict
                  zoning law introduced in 1994 was supposed to limit hotels along the Mayan
                  Riviera to low-rise ecotourism projects. That law has been largely ignored.

                  Densely packed, seven-story hotels are going up on pristine beaches, some
                  complete with marinas and jetties in apparent violation of both zoning laws and
                  international agreements to protect the nearby Maya Reef.

                  "There are people who are building out there without submitting an
                  environmental impact statement," said Silvia Phillip of the federal attorney
                  general's office for environmental protection.

                  Environmental Secretary Julia Carabias said a few offending projects -- she
                  couldn't remember how many -- have been temporarily shut down. But in
                  most cases, the damage already had been done -- like at one hotel project in
                  Puerto Morelos, where bulldozers filled in several acres of sensitive wetlands
                  near the coast.

                  Over and over again, however, state authorities and developers like X-Caret
                  claim they are doing more to protect the coast than if the areas were used by
                  Mexicans. They cite the litter at the few existing public beaches -- which don't
                  even have wastebaskets or bathrooms.

                  Cantu, the Greenpeace activist, calls those arguments unfair. "How can you
                  expect Mexicans to protect the sea environment if they're not even allowed to
                  get to know it?"

                  Copyright 1998   The Associated Press.