As noted earlier, we recently returned from a week in Cozumel. I had been there once before, about ten years ago. Friends had told me things had changed, but I don't think I fully appreciated the degree of the change until we got there.
Cozumel used to be a diver destination, and that was about it. The vast majority of the tourism to the island was scuba divers. Much of the reef system off the west coast of the island is a national park, ecological preserve, or other protected area. That's great, and very healthy, and the diving is quite spectacular (weather permitting). Much of the economy of the island, therefore, catered to the needs of divers.
The biggest change since my last visit is the increase in the number of cruise ships visiting Cozumel. A decade ago, there were several each week, and the big scandal among divers was that they had dynamited a reef to put in a cruise-ship dock. Today there are three or four such docks, and multiple cruise ships in port every day except Sunday.
The result has been that virtually everything in Cozumel is now geared toward extracting dollars from American cruise-ship tourists. [I'm reminded of a line from a song about Cancun: "Montezuma extracts his financial revenge."] Virtually every price on the island is quoted in U.S. dollars, and dollars are accepted everywhere. I never had to acquire any pesos, although I did get some in change. Nearly everyone on the island seems to speak and understand English very well.
Compared to my last visit to Mexico (when we went to Puerto Vallarta and stayed in the old part of town, not the newer, touristy part), it was almost like not being in Mexico at all. More like being in a sort of Disneyland version of what Mexico might seem like to American tourists, or as I came to call it, "Mexicoland."
Is that bad? Hard to say. The island seems much more prosperous than it did ten years ago, in spite of some of the lingering damage from last year's hurricanes. The town is clean, and the food is good. Even driving through some of the back corners of town (yeah, we took a couple of wrong turns), one never go the impression of rampant poverty. Some parts of town are less nice than others, but nothing awful.
And on the other hand, you have Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway, and a Hard Rock Cafe. Not exactly what I look for when I travel to another country, but I realize some people want that.
More interesting to me is that the locals seem to prey on the cruise ship commandos. They ask you what ship you're from, and apparently they raise their prices accordingly. One diver told us a cab driver quoted him a cab fare of US$6, and when he replied "I'm not from a cruise ship," the cabbie lowered his request to $4. Prices in general seem to have gone up; Cozumel is not a cheap vacation spot. But it appears that it's cheaper for those staying in the hotels than for those who debark from a ship, hit the market square, and take off again.
And my personal complaint is against Royal Caribbean cruise lines, who for some reason feel the need to blast their P.A. system outdoors at 5:30 am as the ship pulls into port (outside my hotel). I can understand making announcements to those on the ship, but it was clearly audible in my room, probably a quarter mile away. Grrrrr.
Ultimately, Cozumel was still a terrific place to visit, and a wonderful place to dive, but I left with this weird sensation that I hadn't really been to Mexico. Walking around the Mission district in San Francisco feels as much like Mexico as walking through most of Cozumel. Maybe that's globalization. But it felt like Disneyland (especially when the Disney cruise ships were in port!).