Swim with the dolphins. Feed the fish. Touch baby turtles. Watch quail eggs hatch on cue, ahead of closing time at the aquatic theme park here that is the Maya Riviera's most popular commercial attraction.
Communing with nature has long been the big draw for many of the 3 million tourists who visit this coast each year to vacation on alabaster beaches lapped by aquamarine waters along the Great Maya Reef.
So many get so close to the fragile flora and fauna on the Caribbean shore, which is now encrusted with resorts from Cancun to the overrun ruins at Tulum, that the natural jewels are at risk of destruction. The coral is dwindling and the turtles are dying out.
That is why the latest large-scale tourism venture proposed for this trampled playground -- a pier for cruise ships that would bring additional day-trippers by the thousands -- has incited an unlikely alliance of opponents. They include environmentalists, Maya rights activists and early-bird entrepreneurs eager to protect the part of paradise they have already tamed for the tourist market.
"Our entire ecology has been 'concessionized,' " said Aniseto Caamal Colon of the indigenous-rights group Yuxcuxtal, which means "green life" in Mayan. The group sees the pier project as a threat to the sea life, land and lifestyles. "The indigenous people who are supposed to benefit from development are being left along the wayside. We can't even go to the beaches anymore because the only access is from private resorts."
Environmentalists and business interests are opposed to the project not so much for its ecological shortcomings as for its contribution to the cumulative risks posed to the 220-mile coral reef, the second largest after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Although no one development is blamed for the dwindling coral and sea life, tourism and the facilities built to accommodate the throngs are cited in environmental impact reviews and studies detailing the damage, such as one conducted late last year by the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
"The government usually grants permission for a project on condition that the environmental problems are resolved, but not one project in this area conforms to those laws and conditions," said Araceli Dominguez, who runs a small, eco-friendly hotel in the nearby town of Playa del Carmen. "All we can do is say, 'No more.' "
Dominguez is spearheading resistance to the pier project, leading the region's first broad-based effort to put an environmental foot down after 30 years of resort construction. She is confident of winning because of support from Cancun's business leaders, who are using their considerable resources to push the federal environmental agency for another review. They also have influence with the local municipality, where a pending building permit is the remaining obstacle to the start of construction.
"It's quite funny to see these developers we are usually fighting against bringing out refreshments and helping us put up loudspeakers at demonstrations," Dominguez said.
The battle is against Puerta Cancun-Xcaret, also known as Home Port, a joint venture between the theme park's owners and Carnival Cruise Lines, the biggest player in the luxury cruise industry that combined deploys half its global fleet to the Caribbean.
Once in full operation by 2007, the pier and terminal would be a home port offering departures for cruise ships four times a week and day visits for more than two dozen others. That is expected to bring 800,000 more tourists a year to the already-bustling shores of Quintana Roo state, the eastern flank of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Home Port's promoters argue that cruise ships will be visiting anyway and that failure to build a departure base will only serve to reduce Mexico's share of the fastest-growing sector of the tourism market. A few cruise ships already make day visits, docking at a gravel port a few hundred yards south of the proposed pier.
Miguel Quintana is majority owner of the Xcaret theme park and holds a 70% share of the Mexican half-stake in the Home Port project, which would put cruise ship passengers within walking distance of his current investment. While park attendance would surely benefit from its proximity to the cruise ships, Quintana said the pier is needed to make Mexico a player, not just a provider.
"Cruise ships have been visiting the same 12 Caribbean islands for more than 50 years," he said in defending a new route. "This is very attractive for Spanish-speaking Europeans, and as the only home port that is not in the United States, passengers won't need U.S. visas, and that opens the market immensely."
The project will benefit the Maya Riviera communities, Quintana said, because Carnival has promised a share of its disembarkation fees to the local government to invest in education, public works and health care. Most towns along the coast are slums screened off from the luxury resorts by landscaping and fences.
Quintana acknowledges that outside the 200-acre Xcaret theme park, the 1,300 jobs it provides have done little to raise living standards for the local population, which is 80% Maya. In fact, argue indigenous-rights activists, the park and other huge construction projects serve only to attract unskilled jobless to the region, making it more populous and poorer.
While greater Cancun grew over more than 30 years from a fishing village to a city of 700,000, the Maya Riviera stretching south has sprung up in little more than a decade. Xcaret and the adjacent town of Solidaridad together had fewer than 15,000 residents before the park opened in 1990. Now their combined population is 150,000.
The park is an undeniable economic success, drawing 800,000 visitors a year despite the hefty day-pass fee of nearly $50. But activists contend it is a veritable monument to the subjugation of nature to satisfy the fickle tastes of tourists.
The park is built along the Caribbean's natural coves and beaches and stretches inland to accommodate sprawling displays of re-created Maya village life, traditional sports and cultural shows, and tanks and aquariums holding creatures in the aquatic equivalent of a petting zoo. Many Yuxcuxtal activists and defenders of sea life protest the presentations as artificial and distorted.
Much of the wildlife at Xcaret gets a helping hand from human keepers. Turtle eggs laid along the beaches are collected and kept at 12 seaside nurseries, with some of the offspring conscripted to stock the lagoons and tanks at the park and others freed to the sea once they reach 1 year old. Dolphins are lured to befriend swimmers by regular feedings, as are multitudes of fish that crowd around the sea stairs built to assist visitors.
The purveyors contend that they are supplying what visitors want and that the attractions are in harmony with the regional beauty that is their stage.
Macaws, which are the park's greeting committee as they perch in primary-colored plumage alongside flamingos at the entrance, are raised in captivity from eggs found abandoned in the wild, said park publicity director Ana Aguilera.
"Macaws are bad mothers," Aguilera said. "They run off and leave their eggs at the slightest noise or disruption."
Likewise, she said, the region's turtle population would have died out by now if the park's wildlife experts weren't collecting and protecting the eggs that would be vulnerable to predators if left on the beach.
Opponents of the pier project accuse the developers of endangering not just the environment but the economy as well.
Abelardo Vara, president of the Hotel Assn. of Quintana Roo, argues that travelers destined for the cruise ships will cut into the capacity of Cancun's airport, taking up airline seats and landing slots. That, he argues, will reduce the number of visitors who can get to the region's 46,000 hotel rooms.
With 80% of the local economy dependent on tourism, any drop in occupancy could mean a loss of jobs, spreading misery through the region, which generates 40% of Mexico's tourism revenue, Vara argued.
"Cruise ships don't have locally based employees, so they don't pay the same taxes we do, and that will hurt community development budgets throughout the country," he said. "Cruise ship passengers don't stay in hotels, they stay in their staterooms. When they come ashore, they might buy a beer or a T-shirt, but for the most part they spend their time and their money on board."
Fernando Garcia, head of a hotel chain and chief market analyst for the Cancun tourism industry, is as armed with figures proving Home Port would cause economic doom as Quintana is equipped to show its potential to enrich the region.
"They say it's only 30 boats per week, but that's 30 times 1,000 floating hotel rooms competing with the 46,000 we can't even fill now," Garcia said.
With a glance toward the half-empty Cancun behemoths and the possibility that Playa del Carmen might be building itself out of the get-away-from-it-all market, another local businessman worries that Maya Riviera residents already have killed the goose that lays their golden eggs.
"What do we do in 20 years when we have no more coral and no more turtles and no more fish?" asked Alberto Leonard, who rents diving gear. "What will happen is that no one will want to come here anymore and the tourism industry will simply move on elsewhere."