Mexican resorts get creative to deal with sargassum

Sargassum washed up on the beach at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Sargassum washed up on the beach at Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo Credit: Kamira/

For large swathes of the Mexican Caribbean, this has been the summer of sargassum, but while the rust-colored seaweed has plagued the region's beaches on and off for several years, resorts and destinations have recently been finding ways to fight back.

This season's build-up has been particularly severe, blighting beaches across the Riviera Maya and Cancun coastlines and forcing many resorts to implement new solutions to tackle the outbreak.

"It's a naturally occurring phenomenon in the summer, but it has increased over the last several years," said Kappner Clark, chief marketing officer for resort owner RLH Properties. "We've realized this is a part of life and a part of climate change."

RLH's portfolio includes the Mayakoba resort complex, which is located just north of Playa del Carmen and comprises the Andaz Mayakoba, Banyan Tree Mayakoba, Fairmont Mayakoba and Rosewood Mayakoba properties.

In mid-August, Mayakoba announced it would begin installing a milelong barrier just off the development's coastline, designed to catch and redirect the sargassum before it can wash ashore. According to Clark, the barrier, which is anchored to the sand below and rises just above the water line, is intended to be as unintrusive as possible.

"You don't just put up a barrier and call it a day, though," Clark said. "Collection of the sargassum caught by the barrier is done by boats. And if any does make it to the beach, we have a team of people who collect it, or we also have a tractor-style machine designed to pick up the seaweed, as well."

Once sargassum is collected at Mayakoba, it's drained, then sent to special mills for crushing. Subsequently, the sargassum waste is delivered to extraction plants and turned into compounds such as alginate and fucoidan, which are used by the pharmaceutical and textile industries, or the stuff is converted into biofertilizer. 

Like Mayakoba, other resorts have focused their remediation efforts on barrier-collection methods. Among them is the Desire Riviera Maya Resort in Puerto Morelos, which invested $96,000 in a 918-foot barrier that, according to Alessio Giribaldi, general manager of Desire Resorts, has "provided guests a sargassum-free beach" since its April installation.

AMResorts' Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita has opted for a similar method, installing a $120,000 seaweed barrier to protect its 1,900-foot stretch of beach.

Alternatively, Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts has developed a barrier-free response plan that uses only a network of boats to collect sargassum at its Riviera Maya properties. The brand has reported a 95% reduction in seaweed across its impacted resorts. 

These private sector efforts have been backed by federal, state and municipal responses, as well. In destinations like Tulum, for example, Mexican naval ships have been deployed to collect sargassum before it reaches the coast, and in late June, an international summit was held in Cancun to address the issue on a global scale, with representatives from a dozen countries in attendance.   

Catching and disposing of the sargassum, however, is only half the battle for Mexican Caribbean resorts. Misconceptions about the seaweed are widespread, and once a beach is cleared or the sargassum in a given area begins to wane, it can be challenging to communicate these updates to travelers and the trade alike.

Erica Doyne, senior vice president of marketing for AMResorts, said that providing travelers with updates on naturally occurring sargassum is "a top priority." She added that many travelers aren't aware of the fact that sargassum is a seasonal occurrence, more common from April to October, and that volume can vary significantly day to day. 

"We want potential travelers to be educated on the issue and, in turn, feel confident in the decision to book a trip to specific destinations and resorts," Doyne said. 

To further bolster consumer confidence, AMResorts' adults-only Secrets Aura Cozumel and its family-friendly Sunscape Sabor Cozumel, like many other properties in the region, have installed webcams that offer live footage of their beaches. 

Mayakoba, meanwhile, has leaned heavily on its robust social media presence to help spread sargassum-related news, posting video updates of its beaches across its various Instagram channels. 

Tom Brussow, president of the nonprofit organization YesToMexico, said the destinations have also become more savvy at communicating about the issue with visitors.

"I think the tourism boards and resorts have definitely had to become more proactive in how to address things from a communication standpoint," Brussow said. "And it's important, because a lot of people think [the sargassum] is a Mexico-wide problem. But it doesn't, in fact, affect, for example, the west coast destinations like Los Cabos in the same way it does other areas." 

YesToMexico, which was established by a group of travel trade professionals late last year, states as its primary goal to provide "more fact-based and balanced communication regarding travel to Mexico" as well as to offer educational resources to both consumers and travel advisors. 

The group has addressed the seaweed issue with a "Fast Facts Sargassum Guide," available on its website. 

Brussow also lauded the efforts made by the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, which has been offering biweekly updates on the sargassum situation via email. 

In a late August Quintana Roo update, the tourism board said that "more than 83% of the beaches frequented by tourists in the Mexican Caribbean are sargassum-free or have only trace amounts of seaweed" and that the overall sargassum volume in the region is decreasing daily.

"We want people to be accessing these resources so that they're making decisions based on facts, not based on what they heard from their neighbor or what they might have seen on a TV news report," Brussow said.


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