Places all around the world are being transformed, restructured, and reinvented to appeal to the international tourism market. Developers, politicians, bankers, investors, hoteliers, and entrepreneurs contribute to reformulating places according to the wants, needs, expectations, desires, and hopes of a global mass of travelers who have the time (and money) to hop scotch around the planet in search of experiences. The question, though, is this: Who benefits from all these changes? Do these new tourist places really only benefit powerful politicians, developers, and investors? Or do they serve society* in some larger sense?
Karl Polanyi, in a much lauded book that is getting its fair share of attention in these days of economic malaise, argued that the economy should, ideally, serve the interests of society. Proponents of the self-regulating market basically argued the reverse: that society should in effect be structured according to the supposedly rational logic of the market. These same sentiments continue to be promulgated by economists, politicians, and pundits today–these are the proponents of the “free market” who seek to fix the economy by cutting it free from the mores of government, rules, and regulations. Such an arrangement, for Polanyi, was particularly troubling: “Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of a society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in economic systems” (2001:60).
Tourism development is a particularly relevant case in which specific places are made to serve the demands and needs of wider economic markets. Since my research is in Mexico, I tend to focus on places like Cancun, Acapulco, Chichen Itza, and Los Cabos–but this argument applies elsewhere as well. Tourism markets go through trends and fads, just like any other market. One of the most prominent trends in Mexican tourism development these days focuses on luxury and exclusivity (see Berger and Wood 2010). Los Cabos, which is exemplified by the coastal tourism city of Cabo San Lucas, may well be one of the new models of tourism, with its focus on high end hotels, marinas, restaurants, and golf courses.
The place where Los Cabos sits today was once little more than a relatively small fishing community on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. This was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, it has been reshaped–geographically, economically, and architecturally–to attract tourists from around the world (although most come from the United States). While Los Cabos may indeed bring a certain amount of jobs for Mexican workers (many of them migrate to tourism zones in search of work), make no mistake: it is a place that has been designed to cash in on market trends. Tourism zones cater to tourists, and they tend to benefit the politicians, investors, and developers who own the land, businesses, hotels, marinas, and golf courses where those tourists spend their money.
These places may be known internally as idyllic, beautiful, and desirable destinations, but they are also notorious for their high socio-economic inequality, if not outright social segregation (see Lopez et al 2006; Clancy 2001; Castellanos 2010; Hiernaux 1999; Wilson 2008). Places like Cancun and Los Cabos are literally ringed with colonias–urban or semi-urban neighborhoods, settlements, etc–where the standards of living are far below that of the tourism zone itself. This arrangement is by no means accidental, since these communities service the tourism sector through low wage jobs (see Castellanos 2010 for some specific insight into this relationship). These are the kinds of images and realities, of course, that you aren’t going to find in airline magazines. But they are just as much a part of “the tourism experience” as the sandy beaches and comfortable hotels, even if the vast majority of tourists have no idea. It’s all part of the structure, so to speak.
At this point you may be thinking: Ok, I know where you’re going with this. You might think that I am just another “critical anthropologist” making the argument that tourism development is “problematic,” and that we need to rethink it, and so on. Maybe we can move past that at some point. I am not against tourism development per se, and I am certainly not going to claim that all tourism development is somehow exploitative, negative, and unwanted, or that local people are always passive victims of the grist mill that is economic development. In fact, many people that I have talked to in various parts of Mexico have some pretty optimistic or hopeful ideas about the potential of tourism development.
Yes, tourism is full of complications and problems, but for many people it translates to opportunities, money, and jobs. The problems arise when communities or places are completely restructured or transformed according to external ideals, desires, and expectations. So, in a sense, it often comes down to politics and power: the ability (legally, socially, economically) to fully participate (or not) in the development process itself. This is based upon what I have seen (and read) so far–and these are exactly the kinds of issues that I will be exploring in my upcoming fieldwork.
All of this comes back to the issue Polanyi brought up way back in 1944: should the economy serve society, or should we allow society to be restructured in such a way that it serves the needs and whims of the economy (i.e. the market)? In the case of many tourism developments in Mexico, what happens to places like Cancun and Los Cabos when market trends shift? What happens when places become passé, when they not are no longer the hot destinations? What then of all the hotels, marinas, and other structures that were specifically designed to appeal to one moment in time? What happens to all of the people who migrate across the country to find work in or around the tourism industry when the flow of moneyed travelers dries up? In essence, these tourist spaces are examples of ordering society according to the logic of the market, rather than the long term interests or needs of society (communities who bear the brunt of tourism, etc) on the whole.
I don’t really have any firm conclusions at this point, since many of the issues and questions that I am dealing with here need more empirical and ethnographic investigation. But I find this idea of making places according to market trends–rather than the needs of community and society–to be particular interesting and useful. Landscapes and communities throughout Mexico–and beyond–are in the midst of dramatic transformations that seek to remake places to draw in tourists. These tourists are in reality an abstract mass of traveling consumers whose tastes are both fickle and constantly in flux. One day a place can be a tourist “hot spot,” and the next it can be almost completely forgotten (reminiscent of the plot in Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach“). Polanyi–and the contemporary economic anthropologists who are following in his tracks–are definitely on to something here: the ways in which we think about and enact society in relation to the market isn’t just some abstract, theoretical issue.
So who is served by tourism development in Mexico? Well, let me put it this way: If tourism development is only geared toward satisfying the exogenous desires of tourists (i.e. market demand), with little concern for the interests of communities themselves, it seems that society will indeed be served–as curious, quaint, nostalgic tidbits to be consumed like a daily special and then unceremoniously cast aside when the next best thing arrives on the map. As Polanyi argues: a society subordinated to the unfettered whims of the market, rather than the reverse, is nothing more than a recipe for conflict, inequality, and, ultimately, disaster. In the global shell game that is international tourism development, the interests and long-term welfare of society should be a primary concern–rather than the market–since the much idealized “free hand” of Adam Smith sure isn’t going to provide any jobs when formerly desirable places like Cancun (and, someday, Los Cabos) are no longer gracing the headlines of the latest trend-setting travel magazines, TV shows, and web sites.
*Why yes, this is indeed a not so subtle reference to a famous short story and an episode of the Twilight Zone, all at once.
Berger, Dina, and Andrew Grant Wood. 2010. Holiday in Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press.
Castellanos, M. Bianet. 2010. A Return to Servitude. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Clancy, Michael. 2001. Exporting Paradise. New York: Pergamon.
Hiernaux, Daniel Nicholas. 1999. Cancun Bliss. In The Tourist City. Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein, eds. Pp. 124-142. New Haven: Yale University Press.
López-López, Álvaro, Judith Cukier, and Álvaro Sánchez Crispín. 2006. Segregation of Tourist Space in Los Cabos, Mexico. Tourism Geographies Vol. 8(4): 359-379.
Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Wilson, Tamar Diana. 2008. Economic and Social Impacts of Tourism in Mexico. Latin American Perspectives 160 35(3): 37-52.