By Matilde Córdoba Azcárate, author of Stuck with Tourism: Space, Power, and Labor in Contemporary Yucatán

Chances are that you have been a tourist, traveling to experience new things, learn from others, encounter new landscapes and emotions, and give back or rediscover your inner self. And chances are that you have also “suffered” from tourism – its prices, its stereotypical cultural, gendered, and racialized representations, or the pollution it creates in oceans, rivers or mountains where tourists eat, sleep, shop, swim, dive, ski, hike, or camp. You may even have worked for the hospitality industry, as a bartender, a volunteer, a guide, or rented your house to tourists. 

We are all impacted in some way by tourism. The current pandemic has made this even more vivid by showing how much national economies and contemporary lifestyles depend on getting people to move for pleasure, and the consequences of putting this privilege on hold.

In my new book, Stuck with Tourism: Space, Power, and Labor in Contemporary Yucatan, I tell the story of how tourism became one of the most powerful vectors organizing the predatory geographies of late capitalism and how we all ended up “stuck in it.” I do so by drawing on ethnographic evidence from the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula, a region voraciously transformed by state tourism development over the past forty years. 

Contrasting labor and lived experiences at the beach resorts of Cancún, protected natural enclaves along the Gulf coast, historical buildings of the colonial past, and maquilas for souvenir production in the Maya heartland, my book shows how tourism development works by trapping and capturing people in paradoxical moral regimes

For those who work for the industry, such as low-wage service workers, city planners, and government officials, participating in tourism is necessary to make a living, to govern, and to open up spaces of hope. Tourism, they say, has brought “progress.” By progress some mean access to food, shelter, electricity or potable water, a seasonal job, education, housing and modern services. For others, tourism is the possibility, often the only possibility, of avoiding migration and staying at home living according to valued inherited socio-cultural practices.

But all of these opportunities come at a cost. Tourism creates entangled futures of exploitation and dependence. It extracts resources, labor and health, trapping people’s livelihoods and imaginaries in a present ruled by short term consumption trends, while fueling environmentally unsustainable and socially inequitable forms of flexible production, distribution and labor. 

Stuck with Tourism focuses on how the tensions of these paradoxical moral regimes feed a sacrificial logic that is at the heart of the patterns of uneven, gendered and racialized domination and ecological neglect that tourism creates in its wake. 

The following passage is excerpted from pages 54 – 56 of Stuck With Tourism.

As noted at the outset of this chapter, the success of Cancún as a leading tourist destination in the global market depends to a great extent on minimizing the potential contradictions between tourists’ lived experiences of Cancún and its brand image in the tourist market, which conditions tourists’ expectations.

Minimizing this friction between reality and representation requires daily toil. For example, inside the gates of hotels, workers are trained in what to say and what to do to keep tourists captive and to respond to marketed imaginaries of escape. Tourists are offered the official tourism map of Cancún, which does not contain any visual or narrative reference to Cancún City. At some resorts, maids, waiters, bartenders, cleaners, and staff other than those working at the front desk are instructed not to share information about the city’s services beyond the resort. In these face-to-face encounters, hotel workers emphasize that it might be unsafe if guests were to venture outside of the hotel property. These representations and interactions secure the Caribbean imaginary of a self-contained leisure island “out of place” by preventing tourists from venturing and circulating outside enclosed spaces of tourism consumption. As a North American young woman and health professional who regularly visits Cancún’s resorts put it in an interview for this research, “When I come to Cancún I want to feel in paradise. I don’t want to be bothered with poverty or suffering. I just want people smiling around me, I want happiness.”

I interviewed several tourists during my fieldwork, like Monica and Javier, a couple visiting Cancún from Guadalajara, Spain, for their honeymoon, who did not know that Cancún was part of Mexico. When they learned this, they became concerned about their safety and tried to book their day-trips to Chichén Itzá and the nearby Biosphere Reserve Sian Ka´an through international providers based in Spain. Their experience is far from unique and reflects larger efforts by the federal government to disassociate Cancún from Mexico in branding campaigns.

One of the key sites to secure the continuity between imagined and lived reality of the tropical paradise at all-inclusive resorts and high-rise condominiums is the beach, which has to be kept as close as possible to the paradisiacal image advertised in brochures. “Beach guards” play an important role in upholding this image; they usually stand at the border between one resort and the next, keeping unwanted visitors out of the enclosed beach perimeter. They constantly surveil people walking along the beach, verifying whether they are wearing the hotel’s identifying bracelet, either by visual identification from a distance or by conducting “stop-and probe” interviews of passersby. Guards also keep pedestrian vendors away from guests lounging on the hotel’s beach hammocks and under its hut-like umbrellas, restricting vendors’ circulation closer to the water (as this is still public, federal land).

These practices re-create, through repeated performance, the boundaries of a predatory tourist geography organized around racial and socioeconomic profiling. As pointed out earlier, for many locals and tourists, the fear of the public embarrassment of being stopped while walking on the beach effectively deters them from using public areas, which are de facto privatized. However, while these practices of profiling and monitoring are acknowledged as wrong and unjust, they are generally accepted as necessary sacrifices in exchange for gaining access to the benefits of the tourist industry and enjoying its possibilities. Leonardo, a thirty-five-year old interior designer from Guadalajara and regular visitor to Cancún’s beaches, elaborated in an interview about being stopped at the fence of the resort where he was staying: “I am used to being stopped. I am just used to it. I am brown and the people working in the hotels just think I do not belong. . . . They ask for my wristband and identification and then they let me in. . . . They never apologize. . . .I do not think they are racists or something. They just do what they are told to do and I just come the same way!” His words are an example of how tourism has advanced through a sacrificial logic that becomes accepted and internalized as part of daily life. This same logic is reproduced within the hotels by the workers.