Quintana Roo Makes A Push For Sustainable Tourism

Quintana Roo aims at being known for more than a hotel zone. 

Over the past few years Quintana Roo, the Mexican state most known for cities like Cancun and Cozumel, has been touted as an up-and-coming ecotourism destination. Though, it is hard to ignore the voracious development of the hotel/ resort industry and the toll it takes on the region’s coastal ecosystem. What was once an underdeveloped area is now a booming tourism market with effects that range from, water pollution and coastal erosion to mangrove deforestation and endangered species.

The large scale development of hotels that sit right along the coast has become a major attraction for visitors and it’s not hard to see why! Who doesn’t want to enjoy the pure, turquoise waters and sandy white beaches that Quintana Roo has to offer? But all-inclusive resorts are notorious for creating large amounts of waste, sometimes as much as 6kg per guest, per night [1]!

The good news is, the local government has teamed up with several tour operators to create experiences that are genuinely supporting the environment, community, wildlife, and culture. This doesn’t entirely curb the overdevelopment of the hotels in the area but there is a concerted effort from the secretary of tourism to strike a balance and push for “zones of sustainable tourism development.[2]”

For now, these pockets of development come in the form of changes in land usage and activities that highlight the preservation of natural resources.

Rio Secreto

Rio Secreto Cenote

Our group getting ready to venture down into the cave. Photo courtesy of Rio Secreto.

Exploring Cenotes (underground sinkholes) has become one of the most exciting and sought after activities in the Riviera Maya and with good reason! Many are drawn to visit Cenotes in equal parts because of their cultural significance and their high adventure factor. The ancient Maya considered the caves sacred passages to the underground and the caves were sometimes used for sacrificial purposes. Nowadays, guests can dive, swim, rappel, and spelunk in Cenotes with a local tour operator or guide.

One such place to do so and Green Suitcase Travel’s recommendation is Rio Secreto, a magical underground river in Quintana Roo.

Rio Secreto stands out from other Cenote tours in the area for its environmental and social responsibility efforts. The company is a 100% Mexican-owned and operated and donates a significant percentage of their ticket sales towards safeguarding the conservation of the region’s water, fauna, and flora. Proceeds also go towards educational programs like Centinelas del Agua A.C (Water Sentinels). Guests of the park are also asked to wear no sunscreen or bug repellant to support the integrity of the water.

The natural reserve features 1km of cave system to wade through while observing and learning about the geological formations within the cave.

Underground Cenote in Cancun

The inside of the underground cave system at Rio Secreto. Photo courtesy of Rio Secreto.

Upon arrival, you are given all the equipment you need to explore the caves safely. After you’ve shimmied into a wetsuit and secured your helmet (provided by the park), guests are taken the mouth of the cave. Before entering, a Maya Shaman blesses the group and performs a ritual to cleanse any impurities before entering—a sign of respect for the Mayan culture.

Once inside the cave, a specialized guide navigates the group through the cool, crystal clear waters. One of the most magical moments of the journey is when the guide asks all the guests to turn off their headlamps, lay back in the water, and enjoy the peace and quite the cave provides.

After it’s all said and done, the tour ends with a delicious buffet and a chance to relax in some hammocks before taking off on your next great adventure.

While there are some slippery parts (it is an underground cavern after all), the tour is suitable for folks of all ages and activity levels.

Isla Contoy

Isla Contoy Responsible Tourism. Photo by Misty Foster.

Responsible Tourism in Isla Contoy. Photo by Misty Foster.

Picture the most pristine, sunk-kissed island you can think of! The type of island you’d see from an aerial shot at the beginning of archeological-based, adventure film. That lush, picturesque island is Isla Contoy.

While neighboring sister islands Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox are better known, Contoy is fast becoming a contender for a special slice of paradise in Quintana Roo.

What makes Isla Contoy different is that it’s not inhabited, save a handful of Biologists actively working to study and preserve the island’s flora and fauna. The virgin island is a natural paradise unspoiled by development and over-tourism, where you can enjoy island life to its fullest.

There is a cap of 200 visitors per day that can access the island. The hope is that by managing the number of visitors, the efforts will not only prevent ecological damage due to human interaction but also provide education on why it is important to be a responsible visitor. Keeping the integrity of the island’s ecosystem is a key component of allowing tourists to enjoy it. The guardians of the island have taken special care to create a mostly zero-waste experience. There are only compost toilets on the island and guests are encouraged to not wear any (not even biodegradable) sunscreen but to opt for a rash guard instead. There is also no plastic policy.

One of the only buildings on the island is a pavilion with fun information on the history of the region and info on the type of native critters you might see. And you will see wildlife! Isla Contoy is a wildlife haven, so don’t be surprised if you spot a slaughter of Iguanas roaming around.

Isla Contoy eco tourism

Iguana family chilling on Isla Contoy. Photo by Misty Foster.

One interesting tidbit of note for nature enthusiasts is that an invasive species of spiders are eating the palm trees on the island. Local scientists discovered a way to combat this issue by vaccinating the trees using a special Mayan plant that makes the tree less sweet which is what the spiders are attracted to. Fighting nature with nature!

A visit to Isla Contoy is a quick 30-minute boat ride from Cancún we recommend working with the folks who operate the vessel, The Asterix.


Snorkle Park in Cancun

Mayan Mural at Alltournative’s Snorkle Native Park. Photo by Misty Foster.

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, also known as the Great Mayan Reef, is home to 65 species of stony coral and around 500 species of fish. The reef stretches from Isla Contoy all the way down to Belize and Honduras. For divers and snorkelers alike, it’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world to experience marine life. While the reef is heavily protected, in recent years an influx of snorkeling and diving tours has

If snorkeling is high on your bucket list, Alltournative’s Snorkel Native Park should be your go-to responsible tourism choice.

The company is part of a project to rebuild the coral reefs through a process called fragmentation, which consists of breaking the coral into smaller polyps which helps stimulate tissue growth at a faster rate. The coral nursery run by Alltournative isn’t open to the public but it’s a noble effort being put forth by the company to do their part to ensure that the reef is around for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.

Should you go snorkeling with Alltournative they will ask you to wear no sunscreen due to the toxicological effects it has on coral bleaching.

The company is very transparent about their social and environmental policies and work closely with Maya communities to “reach social and economic development but also to prevent logging and hunting in the areas visited by tourists through excursions in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan.”

They released an impressive and detailed sustainability report and are EarthCheck certified.

Ready to visit Mexico? Contact us to plan your trip and explore the city in the Green Suitcase way.

*Content produced in partnership with CIIC PR and The Quintana Roo Tourism Board


[1]. 2017 IFC Report. Retrieved from https://www.earth-changers.com/blog/2018/9/5/zero-waste-in-hotels


[2] The Riviera Maya Times. Retrieved from http://therivieramayatimes.com/sectur-to-promote-areas-of-sustainable-tourism-development-in-quintana-roo


Misty is the owner and founder of Green Suitcase Travel. She is a consultant, travel writer, and all-around travel maven. When she is not traversing the world, spreading the news about sustainable travel, she is in Nashville, Tennessee.