Making tourist destinations: To serve society?

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[1944].  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.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

6 thoughts on “Making tourist destinations: To serve society?

  1. It is nice to see an economic anthropology approach to tourism, and one which addresses the relationship between economy and society. I would expect, however, that one answer to the question of who benefits from the changes wrought by tourism or who is served by tourism development is the people and companies that own the tourism ventures that provide the opportunities, money and jobs for people living and working in and around the tourist areas. In the case of Los Cabos, I would be interested to know who owns the hotels, restaurants, airlines, and companies providing activities for the tourists, and how much of the money generated by tourism remains in Los Cabos.

  2. Thanks for your comment Mark. I have been reading more and more economic and political economic anthropology, and it’s all seeping into my thinking quite a lot. Good stuff. As for your question about where all the $$$ goes in Los Cabos, that’s definitely something I need to put some time into finding out during fieldwork, especially since these kinds of questions have more than tangential relevance to my research in other parts of the peninsula. I do know that much of the development in Los Cabos is private and foreign, so I imagine there is a good amount of “leakage,” as they call it. Again, I need to get more specific numbers and info about this though.

  3. Nice to see another interesting post on tourism in Mexico, Ryan.

    A few random thoughts:
    It seems to be you are trying to inform yourself properly about this theme, but I would caution you not to throw different tourism destinations into the same bag. Case in point, the logic of the tourism market, and indeed the history of tourism development, in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera have very little in common with Los Cabos. Even though most high-end tourist destinations in Mexico took off as a result of federal government-sponsored initiatives in the 70s and 80s, the subsequent ways in which each one of these emporia unfolded requires careful nuancing. For instance, Los Cabos is massively geared to American tourism, rather than Mexican. This means that high and low seasons, qualifications for hotel workers and the amenities that different hotels and spas offer are different from those in Cancun. More importantly, Los Cabos and various other parts of the Baja peninsula have become engulfed in a massively speculative real estate market; they’re hot property for ageing ‘gringos’, and this is also affecting the way local socioeconomics plays out.

    Re the sources of investment and ownership in Los Cabos. Predictably, there are a growing number of directly foreign (mostly American, but also Spanish) companies involved. Some of these are well-known establishments which first made their name in the slightly saturated markets of Vallarta and Mazatlán. In the case of Cancún, there are definitely large amounts of local (Yucatán politicians and cattle farmers) and international (Catalonian, for instance Barcelo, and also Italian) investors involved. It is notable that in both places – along with Acapulco, Huatulco or Veracruz – the derivative effects of the growing drug-smuggling problem in Mexico have taken as much hold as elsewhere. I am thinking here of large-scale money laundering and such (the laudering of drug money through front companies engaged in the services sector, mostly restaurants and hotels, is massive, and I mean really massive, in Mexico today).

    For more specifics on the breakdown of monies and ownership, as well as the overheated realty market and the increasing involvement of American buyers and middlemen, in Los Cabos, you might start in the archives of the Mexican fortnightly newspaper, ‘Proceso’. They ran a cover story on this issue about two years ago…sorry I’ve just quickly trawled through their online archive but can’t seem to bring up the desired number. Still, they are chock-full of data on this, so it may well be worth your while to carefully look through their search engine.

    On more anthropological fronts, I have just been reading a recent PhD thesis by a Mexican graduate of El Colegio de Michoacán regarding the gradual and recent transformation of a sleepy backwater in Holbox (pronounce ‘holbosh), Yucatán, into a high end, boutique hotel type of place (I was just there for holidays and was intrigued with the tourist market, which is just beginning to take off).
    The author is María de los Ángeles López Santillán, and the title of her thesis is “Metamorfósis del Paraíso. La producción de la Isla Holbox como destino turístico del Caribe mexicano” (2010). You should be able to get it through an inter-library loan with ColMich or El Colegio de México. It is a very thorough piece of research which begins to address the current gap in domestic anthropological research on this issue. More importantly, it reveals important data regarding the very complex issues that underlie the manner in which small landowners (ejidatarios) are either marginalized and pushed off their properties when their locality comes in for high end tourist development, OR they become complicit in the way others are pushed off. To complicate matters worse, this whole campesino issue is heavily marked by ongoing tensions between equally impoverished mestizo vs. indigenous Mayans.
    I could go on and on, but if there is one thing I recommend you look at closely is this whole way the ejido, indigenous landowners and marginalized mestizo affairs play out in relation to tourism development. Also, FYI, keep an eye out for local groups of tourism-related workers who create micro-communities in Los Cabos and elsewhere that encourage training in certain sectors and send their money back home (often to Central Mexican villages). These then become important drivers for localized economic migration and skills training.
    Hope all that made sense and isn’t overly wordy.

  4. Carlos,

    Thanks for another great comment–I definitely appreciate your insights and thoughts about all of these issues.

    “It seems to be you are trying to inform yourself properly about this theme, but I would caution you not to throw different tourism destinations into the same bag.”

    Agreed–Los Cabos is definitely a very different situation. Good point. This is exactly the kind of issue that I need to work out more fully as I get into some of the details of these histories. Los Cabos is an interesting case because San Jose del Cabo started off as one of the state-backed tourism poles, but the arguably more successful part of the zone (Cabo San Lucas) was the result of much more private investment and development. And the latter seems to be the model for some new developments on the peninsula.

    “For instance, Los Cabos is massively geared to American tourism, rather than Mexican. This means that high and low seasons, qualifications for hotel workers and the amenities that different hotels and spas offer are different from those in Cancun.”

    Ya, from what I have read and seen while visiting both places over the last few years, Los Cabos (mostly CSL) is geared more toward exclusive, luxury tourism rather than family-oriented tourism (like Cancun). This is the argument that Berger and Wood make in their 2010 book as well: Los Cabos is heading in a very different direction, one that emphasizes luxury rather than “being in Mexico” per se.

    “More importantly, Los Cabos and various other parts of the Baja peninsula have become engulfed in a massively speculative real estate market; they’re hot property for ageing ‘gringos’, and this is also affecting the way local socioeconomics plays out.”

    Definitely–this is one of the main issues that initiated my research in this area actually. Land is a huge issue. As places like Los Cabos have gained more renown and cache, so to speak, the land values in numerous places throughout the peninsula have skyrocketed. Then local communities are either priced out of their own land, or divided when it comes to selling property for development. All of the speculation has lead to numerous conflicts over land, development, titles, etc. You’re definitely right on the money about this.

    “For more specifics on the breakdown of monies and ownership, as well as the overheated realty market and the increasing involvement of American buyers and middlemen, in Los Cabos, you might start in the archives of the Mexican fortnightly newspaper, ‘Proceso’.”

    Awesome. Thanks for this source–this is exactly the kind of info that I need to track down! Thanks, also, for the tip about López Santillán’s dissertation. I definitely need to read that–and several other publications by Mexican scholars who are doing really good work on these kinds of issues.

    Thanks again for the comment. All of this is really interesting and definitely very useful. I appreciate you taking the time to post this!

  5. Very interesting topic, Ryan, and one I’ve been thinking a bit about myself. I’m currently doing my graduate work in archaeology in the Pacific (Fiji), where tourism is understandably prevalent. The issue of a location being totally remade to fit the tourist’s expectations hit home for me last month, however. My host family on the tiny remote island where I was working began talking about plans for generating tourism in one of the neighboring villages. The island has several villages, a grass airstrip which is serviced once a week by a twin-prop plane (depending on weather), and a jetty for receiving large cargo ships. There was a lot of buzz about building guest housing, clearing hiking trails, and providing activities and amenities that tourists want…all of it brought to the forefront by our archaeological survey that was generating some very interesting sites.

    I found myself torn. On one hand, my enthusiasm for archaeology and Pacific culture propel me toward wanting to share them with everyone. On the other hand, I would hate to see that lovely island turned into the tourist resorts with “village visits” and “cultural shows” that are so common on other islands. And yet, this wasn’t an outside effort by American or Australian corporations or big hotel chains. This was a vision of a few people who live on the island and are looking for ways to simultaneously share their culture and beauty of natural resources with others while improving their own economic situations. It’s hardly a secret that tourism brings in a TON of money for Fiji, and who can blame people for wanting a piece of the action?

    Big, interesting, relevant questions for many areas of the world, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about your work as it progresses!

  6. Mallory,

    Thanks for the comment–you bring up a lot of points that highlight how complex “tourism development” can be. It’s not like it’s an easy choice and you can be simply for or against it. There are always drawbacks, but then there are also potential benefits.

    “It’s hardly a secret that tourism brings in a TON of money for Fiji, and who can blame people for wanting a piece of the action?”

    Exactly. That’s the difficult part about the whole thing. Ya, there’s a bad track record for a lot of tourism development, but not necessarily for all of it. And, as you say, there is often a promise of jobs and other economic benefits, and in plenty of cases there are lots of people who are pretty optimistic about development. It’s never simple, that’s for sure.

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