Puerto Escondido, located in the state of Oaxaca, is a touristic paradise that doesn’t want to become the new Acapulco.

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The opening of a highway has brought the capital of Oaxaca closer to this gem on the Mexican Pacific coast, which has gained popularity in recent years. The challenge now is to ensure that the economic boost from tourism benefits the local population.

Lorenzo Castillo, who spent his childhood and adolescence on the beaches of Puerto Escondido, reminisces about the idyllic past: “It truly was paradise. The view was like a dream—small cabins of local fishing families, pristine beaches without crowds.” Over the years, this coastal town has become one of Mexico’s most visited destinations internationally. From January to November 2023, Puerto Escondido, with its charming population of around 25,000, welcomed over 800,000 visitors.

With its tropical climate, kilometers of golden sandy beaches lined with coconut palm trees, and palapas providing shade from the sun while watching the spectacular waves crash against the shore, Puerto Escondido offers breathtaking sunsets over the Pacific. However, some believe that the town is losing its essence due to mass tourism. “Puerto Angelito is overcrowded; influencers have flooded the area. There are even fights over which local business plays the loudest music,” complains Castillo, a 56-year-old microbiologist who owns a restaurant on Marinero Beach.

As a descendant of one of the founding families of Puerto Escondido, Castillo has witnessed the transformation of the landscape. The change began in the 1960s when the town gained recognition. “The first surfers from the United States arrived, followed by hippies,” he recalls. During the same decade, the Pochuteco language—one of the region’s more than ten indigenous maternal languages—became extinct. “My mother was born here, and my father in Pochutla. They moved to Acapulco and started a family there. Although my siblings and I grew up in Guerrero, we returned to Puerto Escondido every year. But with the pandemic, everything changed. Certain places became unbearable. Punta Zicatela at night is chaos; it disrupts any attempt at peace,” laments Castillo.

Marta Reyes, the Tourism Councilor of San Pedro Mixtepec, explains the challenge: “We are at the limit. Puerto Escondido is a cheap and accessible destination where everyone is welcome. There are no labels; anyone can enter a restaurant or bar dressed however they like. But the magic and fame of the place overwhelmed us.”

Statistics support the councilor’s statements. In recent years, this Pacific gem has exceeded its capacity. According to data from the Oaxaca government, in 2022 alone, foreign visitors increased by nearly 145% compared to 2021. “After the pandemic, many people decided to stay here indefinitely,” says Reyes.

Rosalinda Ramírez, who runs a food business near Zicatela Beach (one of the most popular and renowned surf spots internationally), laments the economic impact: “Everything changed after that. Many locals were affected economically, and foreigners took advantage by buying land. Rent prices skyrocketed.” According to the Tourism Councilor, the turning point occurred in 2022 when construction surged by 400%, leading to true gentrification. “They want to privatize the entire coast; real estate companies are aggressively buying land from farmers—even areas that previously had no interest. They’re even building on the hillsides, leaving them bare,” says Ramírez as she fries fish for her customers.

Along the beachfront, massive half-constructed cement hotels stand abandoned, their interiors exposed. Just meters from the shore, signs overlap—some with large lettering, others more modest—offering lots for sale and listing available land with phone numbers. “And this will only increase with the new highway,” says the cook, referring to the project inaugurated by President Manuel López Obrador.

On February 4, the president visited the region to officially open the Barranca Larga-Ventanilla highway. With an investment of over 13 billion pesos (762 million dollars), this federal expressway reduces the travel time between the state capital and the coast to less than three hours (260 kilometers). According to the president, the project will bring essential health and education services closer to the population, benefiting around 166,000 residents and visitors. The new infrastructure is expected to help Puerto Escondido surpass the 5.6 million national and international visitors it received in 2023, significantly impacting tourism and development.

Most of the local population celebrates this news, including Gerónimo Villanueva, known in the area as “El Pistachero.” This 82-year-old street vendor has survived for 50 years by selling sweet potatoes, pistachios, popsicles, and tamarind pulp along the coast. “Everything will be closer,” says El Pistachero

“The highway has facilitated logistics and transportation, reduced supplier prices, and improved services,” explains Castillo, a man who has lived through the metamorphosis of the port where he was born and now resides. “With the highway, the weekend destination that used to be Acapulco has become an everyday thing. This is exactly what’s happening in Puerto Escondido. The pity is how the place is developing, all planned on the fly,” says the hotelier, fearing that the Oaxacan destination will meet the same fate as the first. “The day after the inauguration of the new road, everything filled up. A month’s stock of my restaurant ran out in one day,” he recounts, still surprised.

Towards an Unsustainable Destination

“We are growing in a chaotic way,” points out Reyes. And there is no necessary infrastructure for this, nor are there territorial organization plans or budget. “More than 50% of the local population does not have a sanitary drainage system, and an even smaller percentage has access to potable water,” states the municipal councilor. “Good services only reach some areas; here, the water truck comes once a week,” says Lorenzo Castillo, an expert in water quality analysis.

Until last year, the hotelier was responsible for one of the clean beach committees, organizations that work to carry out environmental management in the area. Local organizations, along with NGOs like Salvemos Puerto Escondido, Costa Unida, or SOS Puerto, have long been demonstrating to demand authorities to stop the predation of real estate projects by foreign investment groups and access to clean water. Last year, the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (Cofepris) warned that the beaches of Puerto Angelito and Bahía Principal recorded much higher levels of bacteria than allowed. A problem that mainly derives from the pollution of the lagoons that connect to the sea.

“The discharge of sewage in Puerto Escondido is something known for years. From the upper basins, all the trash that remains in the drains comes down, and with the rain, it is dragged to the sea,” affirms Reyes, for whom the situation is increasingly critical. After complaints from residents and activists about the ecological damage suffered by Punta Colorada, the last virgin beach of Puerto Escondido, the governor of Oaxaca visited the area to announce the rehabilitation of the wastewater treatment plants, which are insufficient and have many failures. The protests and the legal protection filed by the residents also managed to halt an urban development that was going to put the ecosystem of dunes, jungle, and forest—key to a variety of protected species on this stretch of coast—at further risk.

“I trust that the state authorities will do something urgently. Also, that the issue of the landfill is resolved,” says Reyes, referring to the municipal landfill of Pedro Mixtepec. “An open-air landfill overflowing and without any control, so dangerous for health. There are no programs for the management of solid waste,” laments the councilor. There is also no municipal strategy for road organization. “More necessary than ever now with the new road, where heavy vehicles will transit. We need a lot of support from the federal government because we are drowning,” claims the councilor.

What is needed, according to Castillo, is investment in infrastructure for basic services. “But, above all, a management plan,” concludes the hotelier, who advocates for the creation of ecotechnologies, instruments developed to efficiently use natural and material resources, “so as not to end up like Acapulco. “We walk the same, without territorial planning,” he laments. The councilor agrees with him: “tourism is welcome, but not at the risk of our natural wealth or the environment for the population of Puerto Escondido.”

The challenge is to find a balance and a model of sustainable tourist development, and that foreign investment can generate development for the local population without stripping their landscapes or diminishing their rights, such as access to clean water. “The money that tourism leaves is good for the people here, but we must find a balance. The misfortune of Hurricane Otis has set an example for us that development without a territorial strategy can be the end of our paradise,” warns the hotelier with some nostalgia that the landscapes of his childhood memories on these beaches are disappearing with the massification of tourism.

Source: El Pais