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The struggle to preserve Isla Holbox

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A whale shark in Isla Holbox. Photo: Getty
A whale shark in Isla Holbox. Photo: Getty

It’s been a long process, but Holbox is headed toward Pueblo Mágico status under a national “magic town” program that acknowledges its natural beauty and diverse ecosystem. Once an official Pueblo Mágico, Holbox (pronounced hole-bosch) will have access to federal support, but will also be accountable to maintain the qualities that earned it this distinction.

Moreover, fresh from holding off massive Cancún-style development, Isla Holbox is replacing its urban development plan with a Sustainable Tourism Management Plan.

These initiatives are ignited by the fight against developers to dredge its lagoon and bring higher-density resorts to the fragile 21-square-mile sandy enclave of fewer than 1,000 people.

 {Video: See amazing footage of Isla Holbox’s massive whale sharks }

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

A 2.5-hour drive and a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancún, Holbox is part of a national park reserved for flamingos and mangroves, but is legally still open to large development. About three dozen small hotels and guesthouses, rustic or luxurious, cater to tourists. On Holbox’s sand-covered streets, there are no cars. People shuttle around on golf carts, aiding a laid-back “anti-Cancún” vibe.

It’s not all peaceful, however. The island has been in the center of a complex legal dispute between developers and longtime residents who are asserting their rights as holders of revolutionary-era communal lands, known as ejidos.

But developers insist the sales were legal and clear and suggested in a statement that the ejidatarios are trying to shake them down for more money than the original price of about $388,000, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In June, a group of local communal landholders blockaded the Holbox town hall to protest plans to dredge their shallow lagoon for a boat channel that would support a new complex consisting of three hotels and an estimated 872 residential units that would have been built on a spit of land now populated only by mangrove trees and flamingos.

Just a few shallow-draft tour boats travel the lagoon between the island and the mainland each day. More boat traffic with larger vessels could hurt the slow-moving manatees that inhabit the lagoon. Or do they? Developers maintain there are no manatees in the area, but activists say they frequently are seen there, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Environmentalists also say Mexican law protects mangrove trees that would need to be cut down for the project.

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