Tourism Development in Quintana Roo, Mexico

This essay is an outgrowth of our work in Quintana Roo on the impact of tourism on the Maya communities of this previously very remote Yucatecan region. These communities are experiencing intensified pressures to participate in the tourism industry as it undergoes a shift from highly localized resort development to a mode that increasingly stresses the marketing of the physical and human environment, including the archaeological remains of pre-Hispanic Maya civilization. This is a relatively complex scenario in which mass tourism, itself of quite recent origin, is not so much being displaced as supplemented by new, "soft-path" offerings.

The tourism situation needs to be seen as a whole, but some important questions can be posed on the shifts currently taking place. First, will the further penetration of tourism result in improved material and social conditions for the local population? Second, will these communities be given an opportunity to play a significant role in determining their own future? And, related to the latter question, can the Maya generate sufficient political power to protect their property rights and minimize the social and cultural costs of tourism? There are no simple answers to these questions, but we do have sufficient information to permit informed debate. In short, the history of economic and political penetration in this area does not augur well for the future welfare of the Quintana Roo Maya.

Tourism Development in Quintana Roo

From the beginning, the expansion of tourism in this part of Mexico (an earlier phase of small-scale tourism at Cozumel and Isla Mujeres falls outside the purview of this article) has been very much the work of national and international agencies and institutions, both public and private. By the same token, the benefits expected from such development have, for the most part, also been assessed in terms of national needs and priorities. Fundamentally, local people and local resources have been approached as elements to be "managed" by planners engaged in macroeconomic strategies.

Here, as in competing markets (primarily the Caribbean island nations), early studies and projections calculated the economics of tourism to be virtually all gain: sun, sea, and sand were to be transformed into a diversified economy, foreign currency, and jobs; even rustic and "exotic" ways of life could, if presented in the right light, be converted into tourist attractions. Understandably. Since planners are unlikely to be rewarded for gloomy forecasts, any negative economic and social aspects of tourism development received short shrift.

In most cases, though, rapid tourism development does carry economic and social costs, including the distortions wrought upon the lock economy by inflation and the displacement of such local industries and livelihoods as farming and fishing. As for the social price, a cost that is unlikely to figure in economic projections, this often includes the growing economic marginalization of the peasantry - basically, their transformation into a local underclass working for uncertain wages. Among the cultural costs are the progressive loss of a sense of identity and place, the displacement of local cultural models by metropolitan or hegemonic ones, and, in many instances, a sociocultural breakdown that manifests itself in factionalism, heightened levels of domestic conflict, and increases in alcoholism, delinquency, and prostitution. These dislocations - social, cultural, and economic - typically go hand-in-hand with - indeed, are in large measure a reflection of - new correlations of power that tend to transform the local population into a servile class catering to the needs of foreign visitors.

Questions of this nature were probably not very much on the minds of Mexican and international policy makers when they undertook the large-scale tourist development of Quintana Roo in the early 1970s. Remember that the touristic model in vogue at the time was the integrally planned beach resort, a self-contained entity so "international" in flavor that one development was very much like another regardless of the country it happened to be situated in. This, fundamentally, is the Cancun phenomenon, except that in the case of this huge complex the planners enjoyed the singular opportunity of being in a position to design a system totally devoted to tourism without really needing to consider the constraints and limitations commonly imposed by such factors as established communities and competing economic demands for land, labor, and resources.

That the emergence of Cancun has been dramatic goes without saying. In the early 1970s, it was an isolated fishing village with 426 residents. Today it is comprised of two "zones": the hotel strip, with some 40 major hotels (offering a total of 16,805 units), and a "service city," Ciudad Cancun, of approximately 300,000 inhabitants. It has also been a remarkably capital-intensive enterprise: one can well understand why both the government and private investors want the project to be an economic success.

In the course of the last 10 years, developments in and around Cancun have profoundly changed the dynamics of Quintana Roo. As the state's leading urban center (and one of the few areas in Mexico generally perceived as offering employment opportunities), it has attracted a multitude of workers not only from Yucatan itself, but also from more distant parts of the republic. The impact of the city and the tourism industry on the surrounding communities, although substantial and bringing with it its share of social and cultural costs, has, for the most part, been indirect. The employment offered by construction has attracted thousands of Maya laborers to fill the lower echelons of the industry. Much of this work is linked to cycles of construction (heavy demand for cheap labor during the construction (heavy demand for cheap labor during the construction phase; few permanent jobs once construction is finished) or influenced by the fluctuating tourist market. It is a pattern of employment that entails minimal costs for the employer or the state. Our assessment of this employment picture is not limited to the observation that the work is generally poorly paid and uncertain. Both of these features have to be put in the context of general household economies; in other words, the peasant household, as the one relatively stable social formation in this system, has to bear the burdens of economic change. Men - and it is particularly men - can engage in temporary wage labor because their wives, children, and other household members remain in the village, support themselves at least partially, and constitute a social and economic safety net when the job market takes a turn for the worse.

This is not to say that this mode of domestic economic organization is in any sense "optimal" for Maya peasants, but it is important to note that up to the present day households and individuals have enjoyed at least some degree of flexibility, some option, with respect to their participation in tourism-related enterprises. What seems for from certain, given political and economic reality, is whether even this limited degree of control - this space of choice - will be retained with the advent of more intensified ecological tourism. To understand why this might be the case, we just first examine briefly the environmental movement as a political force and a powerful cultural construct.

Environmentalism As Ideology

That the "environmental movement," as it is commonly termed, is flourishing hardly needs extensive documentation. A recent issued of The Economist (2-8 September 1989) devotes 17 pages to a special report ("Costing the Earth") on the environment, noting that "never have so many politicians seized so quickly on one idea." Of particular interest is the observation that "in Britain 8,000 people write to the government about deforestation in the Amazon - far more than wrote about starving Ethiopians." Closer to home, two popular magazines have recently published cover stories on the environment: Time's "Torching the Amazon: Can the Rainforests Be Saved?" (18 September 1989) and the special issue of Scientific American, "Managing Planet Earth" (September 1989). Apropos these two publications, the editor of the Anthropology Newsletter (November 1989) finds it worth remarking that "anthropologists are neither quoted nor cited anywhere in the magazines."

Environmental concerns clearly strike a deep chord in the educated Western public. Equally evident is that environmentalism, as a general idea, is sufficiently broad to appeal to such otherwise opposite political constituencies as American conservatives (George Bush as the "environmental president" comes readily to mind) and German Greens. This movement shares important features with comparable social movements and is amenable to the kind of anthropological analysis of modernity that has been used to explicate them.

Environmentalism often utilizes a powerful rhetoric that is virtually identical to that of nationalism. With it, however, comes an element of privileged discourse that harks back to the formulations that gave such authority to development theory, especially as it was applied to the Third World. In both cases, ideology legitimizes interventionist policies. Problems are defined and solutions formulated not within the societies in question but by outside experts who are accorded extensive power and prestige.

Under the blanket of environmentalism, the options open to local populations could be further restricted, for in places like Quintana Roo - if history and experience are any guide - a "managed" environment is bound to translate into an environment managed by outsiders chiefly to satisfy the needs of outsiders. It is a short step from external direction to what can be termed a process of appropriation, by which the physical environment, and within it human societies and historical remains, become subtly redefined as global patrimony - universal property.

"The environment," as commodity or experience, is no less a fantasy than any other image elaborated by the leisure industry. That it has so broad an attraction probably owes much more to the postmodern quest for authenticity - often in the form of reconstructed objects and representations - than it does to bioscientific concerns. Environmental tourism, much like other forms of "exotic" travel, appeals "to the deepest recesses of the Western imagination" (Bruner 1989:440). In this particular fantasy of communion with nature (there are, or course, others), the human element might be viewed as intrusive or redundant. This interpretation could help explain why, as The Economist notes, the public may indeed be more interested in trees than in people. Perhaps, also it sheds some light on the curious absence of anthropological citation in popular accounts of the environmental crisis; after all, the brief of anthropologists is people.

Archaeotourism and "La Ruta Maya"

These issues and questions - fundamentally matters of power and its representative - have been very much on our minds as we consider environmental and economic priorities as defined by outsiders and compare such plans an visions to the realities of life experienced at the local level in Cobá, a Maya village and major archaeological site.

Like so many Quintana Roo communities, Cobá was, until quite recently, outside the general orbit of travel and tourism. This isolation - due in part to difficult communications and a general absence of natural resources attractive to developers - lasted until the opening up of Cancún and the related program of road building and infrastructure expansion. Although Cobá is atypical in that it is situated within the boundaries of a very large archaeological complex (from which it takes its name), it closely resembles other villages in its traditional subsistence forms, which include slash-and burn agriculture, the exploitation of forest resources, and some small-scale animal husbandry. These livelihoods, in the context of pre-Cancún demographics (the 1960 federal census gives the total population of Quintana Roo as slightly more than 50,000), posed little threat to either the natural environment or to historical remains. In short, much that now makes Quintana Roo so appealing as an ecological treasure house and location of well-preserved Maya antiquities is attributable to environmentally benign patterns of subsistence and the aforementioned inaccessibility.

What bring the tourists to Cobá are the remains of a major Classic Maya metropolis. The site covers an extensive area (perhaps as much as 100), but only a fraction of this vast has been cleared for easy access; most of the ruins remain covered in thick vegetation. Dominating the zone is Nohoch Mul, a 42-meter-tall pyramid, the highest such structure in Yucatan. The combination of some excavated major structures, hundreds of mounds awaiting exploration, and a setting that evokes an earlier ear of archaeological discovery is particularly appealing to the tourist who prefers to view ruins or walk trails in relative tranquility. Even though almost 50,000 visitors now come to Cobá in the course of the year, its physical layout (long distances between major archaeological groups, jungle-screened paths) does much to perpetuate a sense of seclusion.

As a segment of an industry that is becoming in creasingly specialized (offerings today cater to tastes ranging from sex tourism in Thailand to conducted tours of World War I battlefields), the product purveyed at Cobá may perhaps be called "archaeotourism," a relatively serious from of cultural tourism. Most visitors come from Cancún and invest the better part of a day to tramp through the site; some take the opportunity to watch the large variety of birds and butterflies that make their home in the forest and in the nearby lakes and wetlands. Most of these tourists arrive in buses accompanied by licensed professional guides. Cobá is also the location of a French-owned hotel complex, the "Villas Arqueologicas," designed with special care to fit the rustic setting. This hostelry offers its guests first-class accommodations and what is reputed to be some of the best cuisine in Yucatan. Affluent, educated, and dressed in fashionable expedition gear, the visitors who lodge at the Villas clearly represent the upmarket end of the business. Altogether. Cobá is as close to a soft-path archaeological tourist location as one is likely to find in southern Mesoamerica. As such, we can examine it not only as a specific case but also as a portent of what further expansion of this niche could entail for the region and its people.

At Cobá the disruptive effect of outside forces antedates by some years the beginnings of organized tourism. Prior to 1974 and the beginning of intensified archaeological research, the villages had been left pretty much to their own devices. Shortly after 1974, the core of the archaeological zone - a very extensive area - was expropriated by government decree and designated a national park. This land, close to the village, was not only conveniently situated but also had some of the most productive soil for milpa (i.e., slash-and burn) agriculture. To compensate the Cobá farmers for this loss, the government gave them legal title to some 7,000 hectares of forest. Later, after an all-weather road was constructed linking Cobá with the main Chetumal-Puerto Juarez highway, more land was taken from the villages to build the hotel.

These arrangements were not the end result of some process of discussion and negotiation among all affected parties but were a series of unilateral "solutions" arrived at by the authorities. Their legal basis was the convenient premise that "real" ownership of the land was vested in the "nation" rather than in the local inhabitants. Just as villagers had no say about the disposition of land, so were they not consulted about the advisability of building a tourist facility; nor for that matter, were they offered any role in helping to determine how, and for whose benefit, the hotel should be run.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the recent history of tourism and archaeology at Cobá is punctuated by a series of protests and recurrent confrontations between the authorities and members of the community. Interestingly enough, villages are far from being totally opposed to tourism. Some are pleased that foreigners come to visit the area; Some are pleased that foreigners come to visit the area; others recognize that tourism has meant more local jobs (about 19 percent of the economically active population has found tourismrelated employment, virtually all of it at the minimum-wage scale of US $3.50 per day). True, the community as a whole has received some tangible benefits, among them a government-built health center and a truck donated by the hotel. But talking all these elements together, and including also some small-scale entrepreneurial activity, the consensus is that tourism has brought relatively few advantages. From the village perspective, the problem is much less tourism per se than a situation that denies local people any role in the tourist trade other than that of unskilled labor.

This is not to imply that the Maya peasants of the area have achieved a sophisticated understanding of either the structure of the tourism industry or of national economic priorities. But they are fully aware that their opinions are not solicited and that the limited benefits they have received have come at considerable cost, and typically as concessions in the wake of spirited protests. Furthermore, tourism, and in particular the Villas Arqueologicas enclave, brings into stark contrast the quite separate - yet so proximate - worlds of native people and visitors. Outside the hotel compound is a life where poverty remains the norm and the future, an all its dimensions, is far from secure; inside is a world of plenty - of tennis courts and swimming pools, bathrooms with unlimited water, and self-contained electrical systems. The people of Cobá, perfectly aware of these difference, are perhaps too polite to comment on the grotesqueness of the situation.

If villagers have a clear sense of the opposing worlds of visitor and local resident, the average tourist, for a variety of reasons, has far less awareness of the contemporary Maya. One reason is that these Yucatecan communities are not renowned for the type of ceremonial activity that so attracts tourists to other parts of Mexico. Probably more important is the fact, verified on many occasions, that many visitors to Cobá simply are not aware that the impressive Maya ruins were built by the ancestors of the local peasantry and the people who now occupy strictly servile positions. Although this ignorance is not chiefly the fault of the tourist, it does illustrate the degree to which the seen and experienced is a highly edited reality.

Also unknown to the visitor, and to many with a more intimate knowledge of the area, is the fact that even a relatively small hotel can have a significant impact on the environment. The Villas Arqueologicas produce those well-known adjuncts of development:garbage, sewage, and sundry other pollutants. As is too often the case, the enclave was built without adequate provision for the disposal of these residues. At Cobá, sewage and other contaminants end up in the local lake, a source of water for the community. The assault on the environment, not to mention the public health issue, is still not very obvious, but the lake is certainly becoming degraded. In due course pollution will take its toll on the birds and other wildlife in the area. Needless to say, the very last thing that the visitor imagines is that presumably pristine environment he or she has come to explore is already suffering from the ills of civilization.

Is Cobá the shape of things to come? there is a good case for stating that this same model of tourist development - but on an altogether vaster scale - is being contemplated for the whole Maya area. Earlier in 1989, the presidents of the five countries (Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico) that share jurisdiction over Maya territory announced a massive development plan designed to bring tourism to ancient sites and hitherto pristine areas of Central America (Washington Post 12 September 1989). This scheme, designated "La Ruta Maya," includes a projected 1,500-mile road - the ruta of the plan's title - linking these five countries and providing easy access to the interior.

The most detailed discussion available of La Ruta Maya is in the October 1989 issue of National Geographic, which not only includes a major report on the project by the magazine's editor, Wilbur Garrett, (1989), but two other Maya-related articles and a special "Maya Traveler's Map" to complement this extensive coverage. What is particularly significant about this beautifully produced number is the extent to which it illustrates several of the issues raised here. The extensive coverage and magnificent photographs tend to reinforce the notion that tourism is not only benign, but that it is a positive force for the preservation of the Maya, both ancient and contemporary, and that much the same holds true for the viability of actual and projected nature and biosphere reserves. "Environmentally oriented tourism" is to be the engine of change - "jobs and money to help pay for preservation" (Garrett 1989:446) - and the mechanism that will bring the Maya, who "live in poverty outside the economic, social, and political mainstream," fully into the twentieth century (Garrett 1989:435). What Garrett does not address in any detail or with much rigor is the conditions of this incorporation: the benefits are taken will have to "include today's Maya in both planning and profits" (Garrett 1989:436) and, in contrast to Cancun-style developments, "the Maya Route plan suggests greater local ownership and management of more modest facilities" (Garrett 1989:441). In all fairness, Garrett not only interviewed high government officials but also the director of the Natural History Institute of Chiapas, who remarked to him that "Even if an area is set aside for conservation, some future president could still give it to one of his relatives." Unfortunately, Garrett pretty much dismisses this sage observation by observing that the director "may underestimate the power of the environmental movement" (Garrett 1989:436).

La Ruta Maya is very much in the tradition of top-down economic planning. For all the pious invocation of "participation," it remains fundamentally a scheme designed to bring about often contradictory national goals - economic development and, in the words of an agreement signed between the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala, cooperation "in the conservation of the natural areas of the border zone" (Garrett 1989:438). That the plan is designed to appeal to a new generation of "eco-tourists" is quite evident. At least according to National Geographic, one has to envisage a network of touristic attractions linked not only by motor roads but by such "low-impact alternatives" as river boat, mule, foot trail, and monorail and cable car. One can reasonable ponder whether these tourists, gazing down from their cable cars, will be any more aware of the realities of local life than are most visitors today. An evermore critical concern is whether such a scheme will bring significant material and social benefits to local people.

Any doubts that the quality of life of the contemporary Maya will improve as a consequence of La Ruta Maya are primarily due to the lack of evidence that the relations of power between the Maya people and national elites have changed. Not only is the whole scheme the product of distant government economic planning; it also vividly exemplifies the subordinate status that the Maya have held since colonial times. The Maya, political fictions to the contrary, still have little say in their own destiny.

Tourism development in the Maya zone can hardly do much to improve the life of local people unless it is accompanied by major changes in the political and economic orders. The problem here is not unlike a similar, and perhaps better known, economic stumbling block: the difficulty, in the context of Latin American social and economic relations, of establishing viable, modernized, family farms linked to the national economy (as is the case in Japan and Western Europe). Basically, the potential Maya tourism workers are likely to find themselves in a campesinos; or, to be specific, occupying positions at the bottom since there is no other economic "space" for them. An increased volume of tourism will simply peripheralize the Maya even further, transforming them into a rural proletariat.


1 A review of the intellectual process that led to the emergence of development as a pseudoscientific theory would take us too far afield. For an up-to-date and provocative overview of modernization and its ideological implications, see Binder (1986). Case-oriented critiques are offered by Bodley(1988).

2 Fundamentally, Maya peasants lacked the advanced technology and resources to do much damage to the environment, which is not to claim that they lived in some kind of "natural harmony" with the world around them. What is quite evident is that today the sculpture and architecture of the ancient Maya are being destroyed at an alarming rate by acid rain that comes from the Pemex Gulf Coast oil refineries. Since in Mexico anything touching Pemex is a politically explosive subject-the nationalized company is an important source of employment, patronage, and hard currency-the acid rain issue has received remarkable little official attention. The rain forests of southern Mesoamerica are also at risk from the same emissions (Wilford 1989).

3 The present community of Coba dates to the beginning of the century and the movement of a few Maya families to the vicinity of the site. During the period of the chicle boom (1920s and early 1930s), more people moved into the area to tap the forest resources. Later, some farming families arrived from the densely populated region around Valladolid, in central Yucatan (Thompson, Pollock, and Charlot 1932; Villa Rojas 1945). At no point during these decades were the use rights of the inhabitants questioned by higher authority. Today the village has a population that fluctuates around 650.


Binder, L.

1986 The Natural History of Development Theory. Comparative Studies in Society and History 28(1):3-33.

Bodley, J.H., ed.

1989 Tribal People and Development Issues. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Bruner, E.M.

1989 Of Cannibals, Tourists, and Ethnographers. Cultural Anthropology 4(4):438-445.

Garrett, W.E.

1989 La Ruta Maya. National Geographic 176:(4):424-479.

Thompson J.E.S., H.E.D. Pollock, and J. Charlot

1932 A Preliminary Study of the Ruins of Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Publication 424. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Villa Rojas, A.

1945 The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo. Publication 559. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Wilford, J.N.

1989 New Threat of Maya Ruins: Acid Rain. The New York Times (Science Section). 8 August. pp. C1 and C11.

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