Without a doubt, the Sea of Cortez / Gulf of California is one of the world's most incredibly pristine and environmentally sensitive regions. It was called the "Aquarium of the World" by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and has been a relatively hidden secret for most Americans, except folks from Southern California and Arizona. With the rapid growth of cruising around the world and especially out of west coast cruise ports like San Diego and Los Angeles though, more and more cruisers are wanting to explore beyond just the "Mexican Riviera" ports like Cabo, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta. Lucky for the cruise industry there is a fantastic port waiting to join that all-star list, La Paz - along with others, including Loreto, Topolobampo, and Guaymas. Unfortunately this is a challenge since there is no way to avoid having a negative environmental impact when you bring 10's of thousands of visitors into a pristine area on a weekly basis.
So Are Sea Of Cortez Cruises A Bad Idea?
Ultimately the decision to open this part of the world to an increased number of cruise visitors is up to the the residents, the Federal government of Mexico and states like Baja Sur, Sinola, and Sonora. Cruise visitors however, also need to have a deeper understanding of exactly what they are embarking on and realize that this is not the Caribbean where decades of high-impact tourism has made an undeniable imprint on what was once a land of pristine beaches and coral reefs. Even lines such as Norwegian - one of our favorites in terms of sensitivity to environmental issues - had an accident this month that may have resulted in destruction of some reef areas. Damage to the environment is simply unavoidable, no matter how good your training and technology may be.
There are some shining lights though. We see companies like MSC taking new approaches to sustainability such as their development at Ocean Cay. There, they have reclaimed an abandoned industrial site and are building a foundation to help educate and enlighten guests on the importance of marine preservation and indeed how previous damage can be restored to improve the future for everyone. Even Carnival has added eco-tourism and education to their excursions in certain areas to help guests gain a greater appreciation for the environment that they are exploring.
My perspective is that bringing more visitors to this part of the world can be a good thing if it is managed in a sensitive way, similar to how Alaska is evolving. There, we see native corporations now taking the lead and controlling their destiny rather than being exploited by others. They are developing tourism projects like Icy Straight Point that are both true to their indigineous culture as well as good for the environment (or at least not as exploitative as the industry has historically been).
Unfortunately though, unlike Alaska which is relatively wealthy and well governed - Baja Sur, Sonora, and Sinola as well as Mexican generally - are more poor and often suffers from corruption. This leaves the area vulnerable to being exploited by people simply looking to make money and forcing even many tourism leaders to become polarized against allowing further cruise industry development in the region. This is unfortunate because for these projects to succeed it requries careful cooperation and negotiation between both sides to ensure a positive experience for guests as well as the migrating whales, millions of sea creatures, and of course the residents of this area.
Negative Environmental Impacts Are Unavoidable
I'm in favor of responsible tourism and I think among various options out there, cruises can be a great option. The problem is that when something goes wrong ... it usually goes wrong in a big way and gets blown up in the press and social media. Here are some of the environmental impacts that cruise companies will have to adress to keep this part of the world as beautiful and vibrant as it is currently.
Whale Strikes - every few months you find a story of a ship hitting a whale, sometimes they even get stuck on the bow and it is discovered once they arive in port. This happens in NYC and it happens in Alaska. It will happen in Baja as well since locations such as the waters around Loreto and La Paz are prime breeding grounds and nurseries for many different types of marine mammals as well as whale sharks.
Exhaust Fumes - Air quality is monitored and certain types of emissions are controlled around waters of United States and Canada but laws don't operate the same way in Mexico. While cruise lines say they do what they can to reduce emissions everywhere they travel, this isn't always to a level most cruisers assume or expect.
Water Pollution - Just like withe air quality, water pollution is an issue as well. Here's a post from La Paz last year citing existing cruise fuel waste problems in the bay of La Paz. Just as above, there are various regulations but laws are difficult to enforce in Mexico and not all cruise lines are committed the same way in terms of reducing discharges from the vessels.
Trash Disposal - While cruise ships are very good at waste disposal from activities on-board, dropping 5-10,000 people off in a port will generate an enormous amount of trash from paper wrappers to plastic utensils to just simply laminated tourist brochures. Mexico is not known for proper waste disposal as it is and this will only make things worse.
Water Clarity - Anyone who has ever visited this area knows how stunning the water can be. It is crystal clear but with an increase in not just ship traffic but also excursion activities such as jetski, snorkling boats, etc. the water will not stay the same. While this can often be limited to specific areas, there is a danger that the places that draw visitors will actually be damaged or destroyed by them if not enjoyed responsibly.
"Other Impacts" From Excursions - Much of the attention in term of environmental impact is placed on the cruise lines. However, that's only one part of the story. Busses to take tourists on excursions, trucks to haul supplies, cars to transport workers will all contribute to an increase in air pollution too. Likewise, more tourists going to beaches, hiking, riding atv's, and other popular activities contribute negatively to the environement with impacts ranging from increased errosion, damage to plant and animal life, and even wear and tear on the roads which will need to be replaced more frequently.
These things can all be addressed. Cruising works succesfully in places like Alaska, so it can't be said that it is impossible in Baja. However, we simply need to acknowlege that this isn't a situation where we can sail up the Gulf of California to La Paz and other cities and drop off thousands of thirsty tourists looking to kick back with a margarita and enjoy a day of fun in the sun. We need to address the envirnmental issues and have plans for both reducing the impact as well as dealing with accidents as well as disasters when they happen.
Why Is The Spotlight On La Paz?
When you take a look at the existing ports of call in the Mexican Riviera, there's little space to develop a port in the style many cruisers expect. When it comes to the rest of the Sea of Cortez there is little, if any cruise facilities at all. La Paz sits in a perfect position to add on to either Mexican Riviera cruises or Sea of Cortez cruise itineraries. They are also one of the region's better organized local governments and are already making strides to protect and improve the environemnt such as the recent construction of an LNG terminal to fuel power generation stations in Baja Sur. Potentially this could be expanded to also fuel the next generation of LNG ships as well. Solar power is also extremely viable here too.
Fair or not, Caribbean-style cruise ports with shops, pools, bars, and corporate brands are popular ... and more importantly they make a lot of money. Cities like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan are already built up around the spots where cruise ships currently dock. However, it isn't focused on the cruise visitor so much as general tourism or container freight transport. While you could relocate the container port in Mazatlan and maybe build out some better shops and such in Puerto Vallarta it would be pretty silly since the joy of those ports is that they are so close to the REAL city environemnt with plenty of shops and bars to enjoy. In Cabo, there's no chance of building a pier and every inch of space is already consumed by resorts.
While La Paz is a good sized city, like Ensenada, there is a large amount of space that could be developed to turn it into a fantastic tourist attraction for Sea of Cortez cruises.
In fact, Puerto de Pichilingue - approximately 17km from the city of La Paz has already awarded a contract to ITM Group for a 25-year concession with a 15-year option to build out the $60m project that could quickly be one of the hottest cruise port destinations in Mexico and certainly among those ports available here on the west coast.
Highlights of their plan include two berths for Oasis-class vessels, an aquarium titled "Under the Sea", which will focus on the marine ecosystem found in the Sea of Cortez, artisan markets, free transportation shuttles to the beach as well as downtown, free wifi, food vendors, and even a car rental station.
The Caribbean already has several developments like what it seems they have planned for Puerto de Pichilingue - Costa Maya, Falmouth, and Amber Cove, so this isn't really a pie-in-the-sky concept. It is something that has already been done many times and is successful ... over there.
Unfortunately for La Paz this will completely change the dynamic of this city of 250,000 that plays more to the wealthy yacht-owner crowd as well as land-based resort guest than guests packed into ships carrying as many as 6,000 guests. In fact, the most recent Oasis-class vessel from Royal Caribbean can hold as many as 6,988 guests, MSC Cruises World Europa can carry 6,774, and Carnival Mardi Gras tops out at 6,500 passengers. Even Norwegian Encore's 3,998 passenger capacity, currently largest cruise ship sailing on the west coast, would be a massive influx of people if they are planning for as many as two vessels at a time here!
It is only a matter of time before MSC, Carnival, or Royal Caribbean brings one of their larger ships to this market. With plans for a dramatic expansion of the cruise port in Ensenada and the Puerto de Pichilingue development in La Paz, that day could come sooner than many people expect.
La Paz Is Already More Popular With Cruise Lines Than You Might Think
During the pandemic it wasn't unusual to find two or more vessels anchored in La Paz bay. This seemed like a strange place for them to hang out compared to off the coast of California or even Puerto Vallarta. The reason for this though was that this was one of the few places where the local government allowed crew to get off the ships and get some time walking around on hard ground again. No, the crew couldn't go into town but they were allowed on one of the islands there.
I can't help but think that this activity helped create a sense of closeness between the municipal governement and the cruise lines as well as local business leaders who could sense the potential for millions of dollars of commerce to flood into the community.
La Paz / Puerto de Pichilingue Is Just The Start
Assuming Puerto de Pichilingue is successful and it attracts the number of guests that they hope it will, this will change the face of Baja, Mexican Rivieria, and obviously Sea of Cortez cruises. Pacific Mexico needs a "beach break" port but frankly La Paz isn't where I'd develop it. It is undoubtly one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world and while that is the draw ... humans have a tendancy of screwing stuff up.
Assuming that this project is successful, I can see Loreto (150 miles north of La Paz) trying to build something to attract more cruises as well. Or if not them, other towns across from Baja, like Los Mochis / Topolobampo will seek to build new facilities to attract more guests. Even Rocky Point / Puerto Penasco has wanted to attract small cruise ships to home port there and offer Sea of Cortez cruises. This may seem like a strange spot - sitting at the very top of the Sea of Cortez. However, it is only a 4-hour drive from Phoenix and Tucson and has an airport that could be easily accessible to pretty much anywhere in the South West.
Sea Of Cortez Cruises Will Become More Popular But We Need To Be Responsible About It
I think most of my friends on the cruise line side of the conversation are sincerely doing what they can to make all aspects of cruising more sustainable. However, I implore my friends who see themselves as protectors of the environment to look for ways to work with the industry as well as their local governments. You have an opportunity to shape the future of tourism in the region. This isn't a matter of keeping ships out - but how to let them in with the best experience possible. Look for ways to funnel revenue from the increased tourism to support restoration efforts, improve roads, migrate away from coal and even LNG power and move to solar instead. Use the time that guests visit your towns to tell the story of a new Mexico, introduce guests to a people who are proud of their beautiful land and crystal clear waters and invite the guests to be a partner by taking knowlege and ideas back with them to share with friends.
While most cruise regions around the world are already established, here we have a chance to do something different.
I hope we can all work together to build a bright and vibrant future together because this is absolutely one of my favorite parts of the world and I look forward to sharing it with friends!