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A flock of white-capped American coots gathered near an electric boat gliding through a mangrove canal. Nearby, a spindly legged heron posed on a limb, a crocodile sunned on a rock and an osprey spread its eagle-size wings overhead. Sounds like a scenic nature reserve, right? Not quite.
Mayakoba, the 590-square-acre resort development in the Riviera Maya with three luxury hotels and a golf course, doesn’t quite meet the high environmental standards of a place like the Sian Kaan biosphere reserve a few miles south. But several international organizations have applauded the developer’s ability to make tourism compatible with nature.
On Dec. 8, 2011, biologists, hoteliers and tourism officials gathered at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba to honor the resort’s Spanish developer, OHL Desarrollos. Andres Pan de Soraluce, the company’s president, accepted the Ulysses Award from Carlos Vogueler of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The award celebrates tourism projects that are improving the positive social impact of the sector and taking a leading role in responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.
Daniel Katz, founder and board chair of the Rainforest Alliance, honored Mayakoba with the Sustainable Standard-Setter Award as the first resort in Latin America to be recognized as a Rainforest Alliance Verified Destination. Mayakoba was selected for its commitment to conservation and outstanding leadership in efforts to improve the environment and local community outreach.
The two awards represented the culmination of a vision for Mayakoba’s founders, who acquired the property in the 1980s when they purchased a Mexican company. They wanted to sell the land, but caves with underground rivers (called cenotes), nearly impenetrable mangroves and sand dunes were not in big demand at the time, when other developers were busy gobbling up the coastline for 1,000-room, all-inclusive hotels.
In 1995, OHL Desarrollos decided to hold on to the property and turn it into something completely different. They had biologists live on the land to study the flora and fauna and identify the safest places for construction. It became clear that future hotels would have to be built away from the coast, and the concept of replicating the natural canals flowing through mangroves evolved. The company eventually received the go-ahead from Mexican government officials in 1999 after promising to preserve 50 percent of the land in its natural state. The first hotel, the 401-room Fairmont Mayakoba, opened in 2005. Rosewood and Banyan Tree soon followed, and a fourth hotel is in the works. Biologists and naturalists were on staff throughout the construction phase, guiding builders through ever-changing obstacles.
“It took a lot of key learning,” said Soraluce.
Constructing the Greg Norman El Camaleon Mayakoba Golf Club and the artificial canals throughout the property was particularly challenging as scientists strove to protect indigenous plants. They planted 47,000 mangroves after areas were excavated, redesigning the natural setting. The golf course opened in 2004 and now has six Audubon International certifications for environmental stewardship and awareness.
In less than a decade, Mayakoba’s natural attributes have blossomed. The 27 or so species of birds, invertebrates and fish that were in the area when construction began have increased nearly tenfold. Each hotel employs a full-time biologist and the overall development has on-staff biologists and an environmental advisory board.
Guests have grown accustomed to views of herons and egrets from their decks and have adapted to the concept of riding an electric cart or bicycle to the beach. Reviews are glowing, and all three properties have received numerous awards. Making Mayakoba a financial success is taking a bit longer, but Soraluce takes that in stride.
“To develop a high-end resort like this, you need to have financial support and a long-term vision,” he said.
Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with Mayakoba’s long-term vision — at least when it comes to the planet.
Banyan Tree Mayakobawww.banyantree.com