San Felipe appears unwilling to repeat Holbox’s mistakes

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Bathers enjoy a beach at San Felipe. Photo: Diario de Yucatán

Two tropical fishing villages are polar opposite when it comes to addressing the coming tourist economy.

Tourist-friendly Holbox has grown fast, maybe too fast, in the last 10 years.

But over the state line to the west, tiny San Felipe has resisted giving away too much to visitors.

While Isla Holbox sold off its ejidal lands to the highest bidders, San Felipe privatized its land, investing in livestock, says Dr. Julia Fraga Berdugo, a researcher at the Department of Human Ecology of Cinvestav Mérida.

Golf carts and bikes, not cars, on Holbox’s sandy streets. Photo: Huffington Post

In San Felipe, workers service the fishing boats during “rush hour.” Photo: Getty

Dr. Fraga Berdugo led a team behind a documentary, “Marine Paradises: From Fishing to Tourism.”

Pretty Holbox Island, facing Cancun’s backyard, has embraced tourists with a number of hotels and restaurants.

But San Felipe resists being anything other than the fishing village it’s always been.

Today, Holbox is not possible without Chiquilá, where cars park or let off tourists boarding the ferry to the island’s port. They’ve kept the town unpaved, and colorful murals abound, achieving a Margaritaville vibe.

San Felipe, Yucatán. File photo

But down the coast is a more restrained, workaday community.

“… San Felipe is a fishing village seldom visited by travelers.” writes Lonely Planet. “It’s notable for its orderly streets, cheery Caribbean feel and painted wooden houses. With its laid-back air, this is a good alternative to staying in Río Lagartos. … Just looking out the windows of the town’s main hotel you can see white and brown pelicans, terns, cormorants, great blue herons, magnificent frigate birds and jabirus (storks).”

When talking about San Felipe, the researcher says that this Yucatecan port is at a crossroads: Fishing is in decline, but locals appear to consider tourism only begrudgingly.

“The people of San Felipe say they want to have tourism, but regulated and controlled by them,” says the Cinvestav Mérida scientist, adding that too much tourism could wreck the community.

San Felipe and Holbox, a study in contrasts. Staff graphic built on a Google map

“Both communities are concerned about the arrival of sustainable tourism and, at least in San Felipe, they warn that they need to impose many restrictions where there is ecology, increased environmental education and a rational use of marine resources and know-how. That is to … maintain their way of life and their community’s pre-Hispanic characteristics,” she said.

Holbox has been plunged into a series of problems because of its rapid exponential urban growth, loss of virgin beaches, pelicans, mangroves — and its happiness, independence and quality of life, according to the documentary.

Many of Holbox’s original inhabitants are destined to emigrate, she said.

And the island has not kept up its infrastructure, causing shortages of drinking water, unreliable electric power service and garbage collection problems.

Dr. Fraga Berdugo and her team perceives two classes of Holboxeños: One group that was happy to sell off the communal farm lands to make tourism possible, and another group that hoped to leave those lands to their heirs.

There are also two kinds of foreigners: Those who come to respect this paradise and those who would be happy to make money at the expense of ecology and ancestral customs.

Source: Diario de Yucatán

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