PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Maria Chuc celebrated her twelfth birthday with her family by eating Burger King on the beach in the famed Mexican getaway of Playa del Carmen. Until recently, the local family usually only went to beaches that were farther away and not laced with hotels and restaurants, even though they lived in the seaside city.
But that changed last week when the Mexican federal government passed a law that guaranteed public access to beaches that landowners have long dubiously claimed are private.
“I think (the law) is good. Before you couldn't walk around here and you couldn't even get in," said Maria's father, Henry. "You definitely couldn't come and spend time.”
Under the new law, the family was able to enjoy their burgers and fries while hiring a man with a guitar to sing a birthday ballad for Maria's special day, without worrying that beachside businesses would run them off the sand.
Prior to the recent change, it was common for hotels and restaurants across the country to hire guards and set up barriers to keep people off the beaches, which they wanted to reserve for their paying guests, much to the dismay of local residents.
The long-simmering issue of beach access rights boiled over in Playa del Carmen in February when two Mexican tourists were arrested and detained for allegedly sitting in a part of the beach that a restaurant claimed was private property.
But after a video of police forcibly removing the young couple went viral across Mexico, the incident reignited the long-standing national debate about general access to the country's many beaches. Days later, the local government publicly apologized to the two lovers, and the federal secretary of tourism, Miguel Torruco Marqués, took to Twitter to clearly state that "in Mexico, the beaches are public."
In the months that followed, the issue took on extra importance during the coronavirus pandemic because public beaches were closed in much of the country and the only people able to enjoy them without risk of penalty were tourists - usually foreign - who were staying at resorts with direct access.
In an effort to finally solve the issue, lawmakers began drafting the new law that officially passed on October 21. The legislation establishes large fines for hotels, restaurants, and other property owners who don't comply with allowing public access to all stretches of the beach.
While Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula became the public face of the issue in 2020, the new law is now in effect across the nation.
Victor Sanchez, who sells ceviche along the Playa del Carmen beach, said he's happy about the change. In his opinion, it's better that the beaches aren't perceived as private because it made them only accessible for tourists staying at the hotels, and not local residents.
"I see people enjoying (the beach) more," said Sanchez since the law has passed. In his opinion, the beaches belong to "el mexicano, it's for the people."