Mexico Tourism Officials Grapple with Study

Government environmental report tells of dangerous levels of pollution off Pacific coast resorts

By: Kevin Brass

Mexico tourism officials scrambled last week to counter charges of dangerous levels of water pollution in many Pacific coast resort cities.

A government study found unhealthy levels of water pollution in 16 bays, including Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Ensenada and Puerto Escondido. Some swimmers have already reported intestinal problems after swimming in the water, Jose Iturriaga of Mexico’s environmental protection agency (PROFEPA) told Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper.

However, tourism officials say the report doesn’t offer a complete picture. “The pollution issues found in some beaches in Mexico are not indicative of issues with the destinations as a whole, but rather refer to pollution in a small number of beaches in each destination,” the Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) said in a written statement released Feb. 12.

According to the study, water pollution levels in several of the bays did not meet government standards for water used for recreational purposes, primarily due to inadequate water treatment facilities.

The tourism agency emphasized that federal, state and municipal officials “have been working together to implement measures that will both protect and clean beaches to meet federal standards.” A more detailed analysis of the study will be released in April, according to the official statement. People familiar with the water situation felt the report may have overstated the problem.

“I was a little surprised, because it’s not new information,” said Dr. Saúl Guerrero, who has studied the waters around Puerto Vallarta. “We are working on it.”

The report singled out Zihuatanejo as one of the worst polluted bays. “Zihuatanejo bay has problems because its wastewater treatment plant doesn’t have sufficient capacity,” Iturriaga told Reforma.

Helmut Leins, owner of the Hotel Villa del Sol in Zihuatanejo, said the report was misleading and “not true.”

Most of the pollution in Zihuatanejo is isolated to the area around the village, he said. The bay, he noted, has a strong current and regularly cleanses itself, keeping pollution away from the tourist beaches of La Ropa and Las Gatas. “The village beach is dirty, but not the tourist beaches,” Leins said.

Leins, the former head of the local hotel association, has been working for years to help stem pollution problems in the area, organizing beach clean-ups and lobbying the state for a new wastewater treatment plant.

Soon after the water pollution report hit the newspapers, government officials announced that federal financing had been approved for a new water treatment plant in Zihuatanejo.

Environmentalists say that Mexico needs a national effort to address the water treatment issues.

“When I read that people in boats are trying to manually pick up trash, then I start to get a sense that no one is really working the issue,” said Ellen Athas, director of the Clean Oceans Program for the Ocean Conservancy, an international group based in Washington, D.C.

But Athas did see positive signs in the recent study.

“The fact that they’re testing beach water is a positive thing,” she said. “It’s the first step in making progress toward cleaning it up.”