Traffic figures at the Puerto Escondido airport are a good indicator of the phenomenal growth of the tourism industry, a trend that is unlikely to change given the airport’s expansion and authorities’ expectations for international flights.
But the impact of more people coming to enjoy what is now an international destination is a cause for concern among many.
With the intention of further growing the tourism industry, the expansion of the Puerto Escondido International Airport was announced in 2020. But only recently has there been evidence that the project is going ahead.
In 2022, 729,000 passengers passed through the airport, a whopping increase over the 525,000 passengers in 2021 and well over the previous record of 407,000 in 2019, bringing big changes to what was once an off-the-grid surfer’s paradise.
Earlier this year, Governor Salomón Jara confirmed the goal to bring international flights from the U.S. and South America, noting the pivotal role that Puerto Escondido has in the economic growth and development of the state.
Some additional information about the new airport was revealed on the weekend in a report by the newspaper La Economista. The head of Mota Engil México, a private company that is developing the airport alongside federal airport operator ASA, said the project should be finished by September of next year.
“The numbers in Puerto Escondido are surprising,” said Javier García Bejos, citing the growth in traffic. ” … we want to reach a million; this will generate jobs, more tourism.”
The renovation includes solving some problems, he explained, such as the rehabilitation of the runway and the addition of security strips, which will allow the airport to be certified for international operations.
“The airport will have more than 14,000 square meters to accommodate 700,000 passengers. It is an investment of 2 billion pesos [US $116.9 million] . . .” García said.
The upgrade project and the creation of new airport operating groups under military control will also improve connectivity within the country, said ASA general director Javier Villazón Salem.
“The objective is to better interconnect the regions of the country …” with more direct flights, he added, explaining that these types of improvements could relieve saturated airports like those in Mexico City and Cancún.
The Puerto Escondido airport will be operated by the Mexican Tourist Airport Group, one of the three new entities that will be agencies of the armed forces.
However, while aviation officials are excited about the airport expansion, many residents are concerned over the possible negative consequences and the theme has been a hot topic of debate on social media.
In an Instagram post several weeks ago, SOS Puerto, an environmental organization that would like to see Puerto become a sustainable tourism destination, gave a snapshot of some of the advantages and disadvantages of the airport expansion. On the negative side the group listed gentrification, increased pollution, and the displacement of indigenous communities. As for the advantages, SOS noted improved infrastructure and wider cultural promotion and exchange.
Responses to the SOS post were overwhelmingly against the new airport.
Major concerns shared by community members included the current lack of infrastructure such as efficient sewage treatment, shortage of water, and an unhygienic landfill. Commenters noted the inability of officials to handle the increase in population that rapidly followed the pandemic.
For SOS, “comprehensive environmental and social impact studies are essential” for responsible expansion of the airport but there is no evidence that such studies have been done. The federal government has paid little heed to the requirement for environmental studies for projects such as the Maya Train and the new oil refinery in Tabasco, where construction began without the required approvals.
But the government has also billed the Puerto project as the first sustainable airport in Mexico. According to reports, architect Alberto Kalach plans to use solar energy technology and an energy-efficient design.
Tour company operator Jaciel Peña of EcoAdventures has concerns over the airport but sees it as being preferable to the new highway to Oaxaca, now scheduled for completion at the end of this year.
“Jet fuel is one of the largest contaminants in the world, so that’s not cool, or clean. But I’ve read . . . that the intention was to create a sustainable airport or at least have thermal energy and solar energy as well . . . I hope that’s their approach.”
Like many who rely on the tourism industry to make a living, Peña sees benefits in attracting more tourism, particularly in the creation of more jobs for locals.
But again like many others he too is frustrated by the lack of government initiative to deal with the growing plastic pollution problem exacerbated by rapid population increase. He knows that a lot of problems can also accompany irresponsible growth in the tourism industry. “It’s a double-edged sword. And, it is getting dirtier [in Puerto].”
There is also some nostalgia for the way things were.
After living here for 15 years, Peña misses the quiet.
“I definitely feel a little sad remembering what [Puerto] was . . . But it’s part of change. What can we do? . . . It’s a part of life. You have to adapt . . . But it’s tough.”
El Sol de Puerto