Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Welcoming the Invaders

By David G. Young

Mahahual, Mexico, February 12, 2019 --  

Growth in the cruise ship industry depends on finding destinations that won't make a fuss.

Thousands of cruise ship passengers disgorge daily at this remote Mexican port.  They flood the tiny town like a sunburnt gringo army.  By daybreak, a 16 story floating hotel is securely moored on the main pier, and a second is approaching.  By nightfall a third will arrive, readying its passengers for an onslaught the next day.

Pre-Invasion Buffet
Photo (c)2019 David G. Young

In the old fishing village a mile south of the terminal, workers spend the mornings cleaning the beach, furiously scooping up seaweed washed ashore overnight.  They line up the rows of thousands of beach loungers aimed at the Caribbean like iron filings around a powerful magnet.  Vendors set up tables with seashells and handicrafts, and massage and tour hawkers prepare to intercept the invaders and make a sale.

One block inland from the shore, the ramshackle town probably looks much like it did 20 years ago before the cruise terminal was built.  The totilleria makes fresh shells for the town's fish tacos.  A few tiendas sell eggs, cigarettes and candy.  Kids play football on the town field.

But just as in Venice and Talinn, the era of mass tourism and giant cruise ships has forever changed Mahahual  The old professions of fishermen and farmers have given way to tour guides and bartenders. That invading army comes with pockets full of money that are impossible to ignore.

Unlike the tourists of decades past, sport fishermen and backpackers who drove hours to get to this specific town, the new visitors are only vaguely aware of where they are.  It's just another Caribbean port where they can shop, drink and swim.  

For those who care to know the name of the place they came to get drunk, the cruise port developers made it easy, rebranding the area Costa Maya rather than the tricky to pronounce Mahahual.

While a few retired fishermen might miss the old days, changes from cruise ships  in tiny Mahahual have affected few people compared to places like Venice, which still has hundreds of thousands of full time residents.  There, anti-cruise ship laws charging entry fees and limiting sitting in public spaces make it clear that not everyone welcomes mass tourism.

The rapid growth in the cruise industry over the past 30 years has seen the industry reach 26 million passengers in 2016.1  That growth is poised to continue for the foreseeable future, as cruise lines operate at full capacity, limited only by the speed at which they can build new ships.

But while the sales growth may remain sustainable in coming years, pushback in places like Venice show that it is not just passengers and cruise lines that are part of the equation. Should destinations become unwilling to host ever larger numbers of visitors, cruise lines may find it hard to sell tickets on a cruise to nowhere.

That's what makes tiny and purpose-built destinations like Mahahual so useful.  With so few pesky locals to fight back against the invaders, these destinations can fuel industry growth for years to come.


1. Forbes, The Cruise Industry's Boom Is Primed To Continue, September 1, 2018