Is Responsible Tourism Possible in Cancun?

Your Friend the Nomad

Is Responsible Tourism Possible in Cancun?

As someone who cares deeply about ethical and responsible tourism, I typically avoid places that suffer from overtourism and Cancun is one such place.

But given that so many peoples still travel to places like Cancun (hence the overtourism), I wanted to explore if responsible travel is even possible in a place like this.

I was curious to try to answer questions like:

☀ Can you still support local businesses in a place so overrun by giant international hotel brands?
☀ Is there a way to leave a positive impact on the local communities that call Cancun home?
☀ Can we (travelers and vacations) do anything to shift a toxic tourist culture in a place like Cancun?
☀ What small, Mexican-owned local businesses are there to support in Cancun?

I had all these questions in the back on my mind when I recently spent a few days in Cancun at the end of a two week trip through the Yucatan peninsula. I was surprised and encouraged by what I found and I can’t wait to share all about Cancun ethical travel in this article!

Photo of beach in Cancun Mexico

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🌴 My Cancun Favorites 👙

🥾 Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Valladolid: Don’t miss Mexico’s most iconic ruins at Chichen Itza and my favorite Yucatan town, Valladolid! For the best experience, book this VIP private tour from Cancun, or check out this budget-friendly option.

👙 Swim in Cenotes: The Yucatan is home to thousands of gorgeous cenotes (natural sink holes) that make the perfect swimming holes! Rent a car and go explore them!

🏺 Mayan Museum: Learn about Quintana Roo’s Mayan history at this museum, located in Cancun’s hotel zone, then explore the San Miguelito ruins onsite!

🌊 Beach Hop: What makes Cancun so popular? Its beaches! There are many to choose from and each are different—check out a few on your Cancun vacation!

⛵ Boat Adventures: Kayak through the mangroves in Cancun, experience a sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres, or rent your own luxury yacht for the day!

🌺 Where to Stay: Oceanview penthouse with private pool at Nizuc Resort & Spa, swim out suite at beachfront luxury Atelier Playa Mujeres (all-inclusive, adults only), lagoon view suite at Casa Tortugas, or budget-friendly quirky La Villa du Golf à Cancun.

Find more of my Cancun favorites and Mexico travel tips at the bottom of this article!

Ethical Travel in Cancun, Mexico

A Quick History of Tourism in Cancun

In the late 1960s the Mexican government was looking to develop a brand-new resort destination. When Antonio Enriquez Savignac, the head of Mexico’s Fund for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure (Infratur) was later asked what the goal of this project was, the response was simple: “Money, tourists mean money.”

“We knew exactly what we wanted to build: a resort that would attract a massive flow of tourists from the United States… [and] we had to convince the government that tourism was the fastest-growing, most dynamic sector of economic growth in the world,” Savignac explained.

Coastlines across the country were considered, and with no sharks or hurricanes and near perfect weather year-round, Cancun seemed like the most profitable location. At the time, Cancun island was a mostly undeveloped strip of Caribbean coastline with some prehispanic Myana ruins.

Cancun’s development began on January 23, 1970 when the Cancun only had three full-time residents. If you only consider money, the Cancun Project worked. Today Cancun accounts for one-third of the entire country’s tourism revenue. Read more about Cancun’s history in this Yucatán Magazine article.

Major Issues With Cancun’s Tourism Industry Today

When you consider that before resort development Cancun only had three full-time residents, its no surprise that Cancun feels quite disjointed from Mexican and Mayan culture. It was designed some scratch to attract tourists and make money.

But over the course of the last fifty years, this tourist hub has become a home for Mexicans from around the country because of the diversity of work opportunities.

The Mexican government’s original goal with Cancun was to attract American tourists and make money. That goal hasn’t changed in the past 50 years, much to the dismay of the local ecosystems and even the hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers who have move here over the years to find work in tourism.

Some of the issues with Cancun today include:

❌ Destruction of the environment: Environmental degradation is at the core of the sustainability problems posed by mass tourism in Cancun. The small island that is now Cancun’s Hotel Zone, the nearby Barrier Reef, and mangrove forests of Nichupté Lagoon have been overtaken by tourism. Thankfully, there are increasing environmental efforts to protect what is left of Cancun’s nature, including the lagoon being made into a nature reserve.

❌ Toxic party culture and safety: If money was the main goal of the Cancun Project, its no surprise that the Mexican government has gladly supported a party culture that encourages the consumption of alcohol and illicit substances. To take it a step further, the government turns a blind eye to cartel and gang activity in Cancun since tourists come here specifically to party. This means that Cancun often isn’t safe for locals or tourists.

❌ Segregation of locals and tourists: Cancun’s hotel zone was designed to house resorts separate from locals. The Mexican workers, who are necessary for the tourism industry in Cancun, are forced to live far away from their workplaces and make long commutes through traffic daily.

❌ Affordability for locals: Housing costs continually rise in Cancun, making it more and more difficult for locals to live here even though they are needed for the tourism industry.

❌ Scams and overcharging: Ultimately, locals are just trying to get by. The expensiveness of life in Cancun and how much money tourists are perceived to have leads some people to scam and overcharge tourists. I’ve mainly experienced this with Cancun taxi drivers.

❌ Greenwashing: Tourism companies pretend to be sustainable while doing more harm than good. One example is the “ecoparks” in and near Cancun which are basically theme parks for adults where animals are exploited for entertainment.

The Big Question: Is Traveling to Cancun Inherently Wrong?

Given the major issues that mass tourism has caused in Cancun, is it unethical to travel to Cancun at all?

I think a lot of people would say yes, but I disagree. With a few exceptions, I don’t think it is wrong to travel anywhere. I believe its more about how you travel than where you travel.

I think being an ethical traveler has to do with consciously trying to (1) positively impact local communities and ecosystems, and (2) reduce the negative impact of tourism in the place you visit. If you make some efforts to do both, you’re practicing responsible tourism.

The problem with responsible tourism in a place like Cancun is that it can be difficult to leave a positive impact because everything is set up for you to funnel your entire vacation budget to international hotel brands, restaurants owned by foreign investors, and corrupt tourism companies that care more about increasing earnings than they do about paying fair wages and protecting natural ecosystems.

If you want to be an ethical and responsible tourist in Cancun, you’ll have to go against the flow and put some extra energy into planning your trip. I think I can help you, though, as all of my Mexico travel guides (including my Cancun travel guides) are written from the perspective of someone trying to be a better tourist. In my guides I always prioritize promoting locally-owned hotels, tour companies, and restaurants, especially the ones that are focused on sustainability.

Ways to Positively Impact Cancun’s Community & Natural Ecosystems

🌴 Support organizations that protect natural ecosystems or give back to the community: Intentionally choose to work with organizations that are doing good locally.

🧳 Participate in Pack for a Purpose: A select number of Cancun hotels have partnerships with Pack for a Purpose, a program that allows travelers to bring essential supplies in their suitcase for a local charity. Each hotel is partnered with a local organization and the specific supplies needed are listed on their Pack for Purpose page. Simply purchase and bring the supplies in your suitcase then give it to the hotel staff upon arrival so the hotel can deliver them to the charity. I think you can participate in Pack for Purpose even if you aren’t staying at one of the participating hotels, just bring the supplies to the hotel lobby.

💸 One-time donations when you travel: Create a category within your travel budget for giving back and then use that money to donate to organizations doing work locally. Siestas for Fiestas Foundations is working to end poverty in Cancun.

Ways to Reduce the Negative Impact of Tourism in Cancun

🚮 Clean up after others: Take the concept of ‘leave no trace’ one step further and clean up after others instead of making locals do it. Plan in advance and carry a plastic bag to put trash in!

💰 Vote with your money: Ultimately, the way we spend money creates change! Supporting local businesses creates a demand for them and truly does make a difference.

🗣 Educate others: Share about ethical travel with your friends, family, and people you meet while traveling! If you’re traveling with a group, encourage each other to book a locally-owned hotel, choose ecotours, and avoid foreign owned restaurants.

text reads also see Unique things to do in Cancun with person kayaking through the mangroves in Cancun

Locally-Owned Cancun Hotels

Disclaimer: I’ve done my best to identify locally-owned hotels in Cancun, but I could only find two. If you know of more, please let me know!

🐢 Casa Tortugas: This colorful boutique hotel is one of my favorite places to stay in Cancun, with a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the tranquil Cancun lagoon. Check current prices.

🌿 Hotel El Rey del Caribe: Budget-friendly downtown Cancun hotel with a beautiful lush garden and pool that makes you quickly forget you’re in the city! Check current prices.

Locally-Owned Cancun Restaurants

Although international chain restaurants have taken over a lot of Cancun’s Hotel Zone, there are still an abundance of locally-owned restaurants throughout Cancun. It can sometimes be difficult to tell which are locally owned, but generally restaurants in hotels tend to be owned by the hotel, and most downtown Cancun restaurants are owned and run by locals.

Here are some incredible locally owned restaurants in Cancun:

🌮 La Casa de las Mayoras (My favorite!): This excellent locally-owned restaurant serves the best food I’ve had in Cancun. Led by a female chef, they focus on traditional Mexican food and offer lots of vegan (and non-vegan) options that bring serious flavor! This is the place to go if you want a taste of real Mexican food!

🥥 The Pink Coconut: I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of this popular vegetarian restaurant on Cancun’s Hotel Zone. He’s a local musician who grew up in Cancun and wants to make vegetarian and vegan food more accessible here.

🥑 Lonchería El Pocito: According to The Eater, Mexican chef Manuela Uch has been serving Yucatec cuisine here since 1988. Originally it started as a lunch spot for Mexican workers but today it attracts tourists as well.

🌿 Icaza Cocina de Herencia: This woman-owned restaurant is a great brunch spot situated in a gorgeous lush garden setting.

🌽 Street food: It really doesn’t get more local than this! You’ll find street food all around downtown Cancun, but if you’re looking for a starting place, I recommend heading to Parque del Artesano or Parque de las Palapas. Note: Parque de las Palapas was closed for construction last time I was in Cancun. I’m not sure when it’ll reopen.

Cancun EcoTours & Reputable Local Tours

🐊 Nichupté Lagoon Kayaking with Conexión Nativa Cancún: My FAVORITE thing to do in Cancun! Kayak through the tranquil mangrove forests of the lagoon with an excellent local tour company dedicated to sustainable tourism in Cancun. Book here.

🦜 Cancun Birdwatching with Contoy Excursions: This private birdwatching tour is a full day of ecotourism fun as you search for migratory and endemic birds in and nearby Cancun. Book here.

👙 Muyil River Float Day Trip with Best Maya Tours: The natural lazy river at Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve is one of my favorite day trips from Cancun. This private tour included roundtrip transport from Cancun with a local guide. Book here.

🌮 Cancun Street Food Tour with Cancun Food Tours: Immerse in downtown Cancun on this locally-led food tour. It’s a great way to support a variety of local businesses and learn from a local guide. Book here.

Cancun lagoon kayaking

Cancun Tourism FAQs

How many people travel to Cancun each year?

9.5 million people flew into Cancun International Airport in 2022. It is the most busy airport in the country, with the second most busy airport being Mexico City International Airport, which had 4.2 million arrivals in 2022. It is worth mentioning that visitors flying into Cancun airport don’t always stay in Cancun as it is a popular airport for vacationers heading to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Valladolid, Cozumel, and even Belize.

Are there any locally owned hotels in Cancun?

Yes! There are a handful of locally owned hotels in Cancun, including Casa Tortugas on the Hotel Zone, and Hotel El Rey del Caribe in downtown Cancun.

Are there Mayan people in Cancun?

Cancun island was historically a small fishing village with a few Mayan settlements. However, the local Mayan population fled deeper into the Yucatan peninsula during colonial times. Today Cancun does not have a traditional Mayan village, but there are Mestizo and Mayan people who moved to Cancun for work.

How many people live in Cancun?

According to government data, there were 934,189 people living in Cancun in 2020.

Where to Stay in Cancun

👙 Atelier Playa Mujeres: Escape to the secluded beaches north of Cancun and stay at this luxury resort in a room with your own swim-out pool! This is an all-inclusive, adult-only resort.

🌺 Nizuc Resort & Spa: Stay at Punta Nizuc, which is known to have the best snorkeling in Cancun! This resort has a beautiful property and many rooms have private pools!

☀ Casa Tortugas: Stay in a lagoon view room at one of Cancun’s best boutique hotels, located conveniently in the hotel zone.

🌿 La Villa du Golf à Cancun: This quirky budget-friendly boutique hotel is situated in a quiet neighborhood with a beautiful pool and garden.

Getting Around Cancun

🚕 Taxi: I’ve taken a lot of local taxis in Cancun and usually have a positive experience, but every so often a taxi driver tries to rip me off. Be sure to ask for the price before you get in the car so they can’t overcharge you!

🚘 Private shuttle: Many tourists choose to book a private shuttle from the airport to their hotel. Ask your hotel about this option.

🚌 Public bus: Cancun has a surprisingly good bus system with busses running between the hotel zone and downtown every few minutes. The busses are cheap ($12 pesos), safe, and efficient. I also highly recommend ADO buses for regional travel between Cancun and other parts of Mexico!

👟 Walking: Some parts of Cancun are walkable, but it is very spread out. If you only need to travel short distances between your hotel and the beach, walking is always a great option!

🚙 Renting a car: Renting your own car is the best option if you want to explore more of Mexico outside of Cancun. Compare local rental companies here.

🚌 Guided tours: If you don’t rent a car, you can still visit other parts of Mexico on day trips with a local guides. I usually book tours through Viator and have always had a great experience—I always read reviews before booking to make sure I’ve chosen the best possible tour.

My Favorite Things to do in Cancun

🥾 Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Valladolid: Don’t miss Mexico’s most iconic ruins at Chichen Itza and my favorite Yucatan town, Valladolid! For the best experience, book this VIP private tour from Cancun, or check out this budget-friendly option.

⛵ Boat adventures: Kayak through the mangroves in Cancun, experience a sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres, or rent your own luxury yacht for the day!

👙 Swim in cenotes: The Yucatan is home to thousands of gorgeous cenotes (natural sink holes) that make the perfect swimming holes! Rent a car and go explore them!

🏺 Mayan Museum: Learn about Quintana Roo’s Mayan history at this museum, located in Cancun’s hotel zone, then explore the San Miguelito ruins onsite!

🌊 Beach hop: What makes Cancun so popular? Its beaches! There are many to choose from and each are different—check out a few on your Cancun vacation!

More Yucatan & Quintana Roo Travel Guides

✨ The Ultimate Bacalar Itinerary: 1-7 Days in the Lagoon of Seven Colors

☀ The Perfect Valladolid, Mexico Itinerary: 1-7 Days

🚤 Ultimate Guide: Muyil River Float and Mayan Ruins

🛵 The Ultimate Guide to Renting a Scooter in Cozumel

🐢 How to Visit Xcacel Beach Turtle Sanctuary Near Tulum

Cancun Travel Guides

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