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Tourism and the Transformation of Daily

Life Along the Riviera Maya of Quintana


Roo, Mexico
By
Oriol Pi-Sunyer and R. Brooke Thomas
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Resumen
En el espacio de menos de dos décadas, los habitantes de Quintana Roo han tenido
que enfrentar cambios radicales ocasionados por el turismo de masas. El turismo se ha
convertido en la industria dominante y esto ha puesto en marcha un ciclo de desarrollo
turı́stico y de migración masiva de otras partes de México y del exterior. Una región
que no hace mucho tiempo se consideraba el territorio más marginal de la nación, hoy
atrae millones de turistas de todo el mundo, la mayorı́a de los Estados Unidos y Europa.
En un contexto de cambio acelerado y control empresarial, la vida de muchas personas,
incluso la población maya, es altamente imprevisible y estresante. La expansión del
turismo se ha desplazado recientemente a Tulum, una ciudad que está emergiendo
como una localidad de pequeños, pero bien cómodos, hoteles. [México, Quintana Roo,
turismo, globalización, maya, migración, impacto ecológico]

Abstract
In the space of less than four decades, the inhabitants of Quintana Roo have had
to manage radical changes brought about by mass tourism. Tourism has become the
dominant industry and this has set in motion a cycle of resort development and massive
migration from other parts of Mexico and beyond. In the context of accelerated change
and corporate control, life for many people, including long-established Maya, is often
unpredictable and stressful. Tourism expansion has recently shifted to Tulum, a town
currently emerging as an upscale tourist location. [Mexico, Quintana Roo, tourism,
globalization, Maya, migration, ecological impacts]

The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 87–109. ISSN 1935-4932, online ISSN
1935-4940. 
C 2015 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/jlca.12110

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 87
Introduction

This article covers ethnographic work conducted between 1990 and 2009,
focusing on the impacts and implications of the tourism boom along the 127-
kilometer-long strip of coast between Cancún and Tulum. It is both a longitudinal
study, summarizing findings over almost two decades of investigation, and a dis-
cussion of how changing circumstances influenced our research agenda.
After preliminary visits in 1989 and 1990, we followed changes through three
stages of summer fieldwork. Phase 1 (1993–94) examined the impact of differ-
ent forms of tourism on Maya villages and resort service communities. Phase 2
(2000–01) shifted attention to the town and tourist destination of Tulum. Here,
we sought out the principal groups influencing change and examined their role in
resource conflicts. Phase 3 (2008–09) took one of these conflict arenas, environ-
mental protection versus intensified development, and explored the seriousness of
environmental degradation. In essence, our research demonstrates how tourism
alters everyday life, contributes to the complexity of rapid change in an increas-
ingly diverse setting, and how these processes are influenced by national policy
and global economy. Methods included participant observation, interviews with
local and regional key informants, questionnaires, and focus groups.
Tourism and its offshoots have come to influence, even define, most spheres
of local life. It is a reality that cannot be avoided. When we initiated this research
(Daltabuit and Pi-Sunyer 1990), it was already evident that the Cancún model
of large-scale resort development was progressing south along what would later
be called the Riviera Maya. Other anthropologists working in the area reached
similar conclusions regarding the effects of tourism in a region that prior to these
changes had remained secluded for centuries (Anderson 2005; Balam Ramos 2010;
Hostettler 1996; Juárez 2002a,b; Kintz 1990; Sullivan 1989; Velázquez-Ramı́rez
2006). We approached this task with the clear recognition that economics and
politics do not constitute distinct phenomena and that we “cannot understand any
social system without knowing how both power and production are organized”
(Chase-Dunn 1989:107). We have also paid attention to the work of researchers
who approach globalization in a comparable manner, particularly in the context of
situated cultural practices (Krause 2009; Nazarea 2006; Scudder 1992; Pi-Sunyer
1998).
In the course of this research, we made use of a number of concepts and ap-
proaches and are fully in agreement with George Marcus’ observation that “The
conduct and outcome of fieldwork are less a matter of training in method, or
specific techniques of inquiry and reporting, than of participating in a culture of
craftsmanship that anthropologists embrace” (Marcus 2009:3). Similar method-
ology is offered by Unni Wikan who emphasizes the “increasing awareness of the

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importance of political economy” (Wikan 2012:25). We share this sense and our
approach to environmental issues is guided by political ecology: a concern regard-
ing inequalities in access to, and management of, environmental resources, and
support of indigenous ecological practices (Anderson 2005; Martinez-Reyes 2009,
2014; Moore 2005). Obviously, we could not see into the future, but as Stanley
Barrett expressed it “Human society is in the process of being transformed to a de-
gree possibly not seen since the Industrial Revolution. The process can be summed
up by the term globalization” (Barrett 1999:258). Inevitably, we were bound to
witness change and its outcome, and understanding this rapid transformation and
its consequences is the central theme, the core issue, of this essay.
The far reaching changes we discuss have influenced the lives of all residents,
but two interrelated factors, the ecological impacts and consequences of tourism-
driven development, guided much of our work. It seemed to us that this expansion
could well have deleterious environmental consequences for a luxuriant coastal
ecosystem.1 It is important to recognize that the changes taking place in the state
of Quintana Roo also reflected profound changes taking place in Mexican society.
Mexico’s economy has been shifting to services and the manufacturing of items
such as cars, computers, and appliances. As Sharon O’Neil, a Senior Fellow at
the Council on Foreign Relations explains, with these economic changes “came
significant social changes, especially the rise of Mexico’s middle class” (O’Neil
2013:55). She also notes that the World Bank and other international institutions
reach similar conclusions. This matters because the national context is invaluable
for a balanced ethnography, and major shifts in the class system tell us a great deal
about the direction that a society is going. It is a relevant statistic that in the 1970s,
the typical Mexican family included seven children. Today, most women have only
two (O’Neil 2013:56). This reminds us that well over fifteen years ago many young
Maya couples considered two children to be the ideal family, and would encourage
their daughters to finish school before they even thought of getting married.

Tourism and its Repercussions

Change of the type we are discussing—global, national, and local—can severely


disturb established patterns of life. The tourism phenomenon was altering the
lives of Maya agriculturalists in a variety of ways. For example, a growing number
of Maya men from communities in the interior were seeking employment in
building construction and road building along the coast. What they earned helped
support their families at a time when cash was increasingly necessary to supplement
what could be harvested, collected, or hunted. Furthermore, Maya villagers were
rapidly moving into a cash economy, partly due to a succession of storms and
bad harvests, but also because of lifestyle changes and the attraction of consumer

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 89
goods: medicines, school books, TV sets, soft drinks, and other processed food.
Outside employment was regarded as a mixed blessing. For many households,
such strategies of coping carried a price measured in uncertainty and even fear
of culture loss. However, this was not a universal response and others welcomed
the opportunities offered by wage labor. Indeed, one could argue that the shape
of lived experience was being materially and imaginatively reconfigured through
tourism, not just for tourists but also for local residents (Bruner 2005; Clifford
1997).
The transformation that was underway took highly visual and material forms.
We were witnessing the expansion of the Cancún model and the small town
of Tulum was growing by leaps and bounds. In a 2002 interview, an American
businessman living and working in Tulum commented in awe that: “This fucking
town is not experiencing a boom, but something more like a goldrush. It’s a
cataclysm, what else? This is the fastest growing 50 kilometers of coast in the
world! They are going to develop this as fast as they can.” The changes underway
were bound to have consequences for everyone in the area. True, Maya people
had over the centuries proved themselves to be highly adaptable and resilient
and could count on a long history of migration and displacement.2 However, the
current nature and tempo of change is unparalleled for this part of the world.
Quintana Roo has a distinct and little known history. It has harbored Maya
communities for millennia, and during the centuries of Spanish colonial rule much
of the area was essentially left to its indigenous people, It was a “region of refuge”
where neither colonial rule nor later the Mexican state had much presence or
influence (Beltran 1979). Aside from the establishment of refugee communities
resulting from the War of the Castes, matters did not change significantly until the
late 19th century (Balam Ramos 2010:31–36; Goñi 1999:30, 81–86; Macı́as Zapata
2002:15–18). People from the outside world continued to be viewed with distrust,
and much of this territory remained Indian domain.
The ethnographer Alfonso Villa Rojas opens his pioneering study of central
Quintana Roo with the observation that “For three centuries of Spanish rule this
region was virtually unknown . . . Later, it served as a place of refuge for the Maya
Indians who, in 1847, rebelled against the domination of the whites” (Villa Rojas
1945:iii).
Since the 1950s, there have been a number of ethnographies on the Maya,
both in Mexico and further south. Central to the genre are the contributions of
Robert Redfield (Redfield 1941, 1950, 1960; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934) who in
the course of more than thirty years laid the foundations of peasant community
studies, particularly with respect to economic and cultural change. In the adjacent
state of Yucatán, intensive research focused on the community of Chan Kom, first
visited by Redfield and Villa Rojas (1934) and followed in later years by a succession
of anthropologists. For our purposes, the most significant study is Alicia Re Cruz’s

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groundbreaking The Two Milpas of Chan Kom (Re Cruz 1996). Chan Kom lies
between the Yucatecan capital of Mérida and Cancún, the built-for-tourism city.
The book covers much territory including local politics, property, factionalism,
and the related issues of tourism and migration, since it is primarily the demands
of the tourism industry that have attracted villagers to work in Cancún (see also
Castellanos 2010; Sierra Sosa 2007). In many respects, this mirrors the current
situation in central Quintana Roo with young people increasingly attracted by the
lure of disposable income. The second milpa of Chan Kom is not another field
where corn and vegetables are cultivated, but the wages and benefits derived from
employment in Cancún.
Ethnographic research on tourism in central Quintana Roo was limited until
the advent of improved communications. It was chiefly the coastal highway con-
necting Cancún with Tulum and a growing network of interior roads that made
mass coastal tourism possible and stimulated tourism studies along this coast. In an
article posted by Eugene N. Anderson on his website he comments, “Any Quintana
Roo Maya of my age remembers a time when Maya communities of that beautiful
state were isolated and self-sufficient. Their grandfathers remembered a time when
Quintana Roo was, de facto, an independent country” (Anderson n.d.:1; also see
Hostettler 1996). He notes that at the time of writing, even the villages of the
Zona Maya, the most conservative part of the Maya area, “have entered the global
economy and become incorporated into global politics” (Anderson n.d.: 2).

The Construction of Mass Tourism

In the late 1970s, Mexico launched what some economists term “the tourism
export push” (Clancy 2001:51–53) that brought about a multidimensional shift.
The Riviera Maya now generates about one-third of Mexico’s tourism income,
and tourism has become the country’s most important export industry.3 Hence,
what occurs on this coast is a matter of vital national interest. Understanding how
mass tourism has so profoundly changed lives, prospects, demography, landscape,
and environment requires that we briefly visit the past. As mentioned, a couple
of generations ago much of Quintana Roo was essentially off the map. In 1950,
the total population numbered but 26,967 inhabitants, and as recently as 1960 it
had grown to just over 50,000; of these, about half spoke an indigenous language.
Today, the total population of the state is well over one million, a statistic that
represents a 20-fold increase in the course of half a century (INEGI 2011).
The Cancún model was planned, which was the brainchild of Mexican bureau-
crats and international development agencies (Marti 1985) that owed a good deal
to earlier state-sponsored tourism enterprises in Mediterranean Europe (Sinclair
and Gómez 1996). Following the creation of a brand new resort city was an

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 91
international airport and the key north–south coastal highway. What we remember
from those early years is the omnipresent atmosphere of “development,” both
in the sense of infrastructure and construction, and in the constant discourse of
“progress.” For planners and bureaucrats in Mexico City, the expansion southward
of tourist venues not only made economic sense and provided employment, but
also advanced Mexico’s image as a modernizing country.
At that juncture, the mid-1990s, we saw development primarily as a state-
sponsored process, a model generated by technicians and bureaucrats, as distinct
from change grounded in the history and experience of local society (Escobar
1995:51–53). Not much later, we would develop a more acute sense of global pro-
cesses, or as Escobar (2007) phrases it, “post-development.” This can be described
as a critique of the harm—economic, political, cultural—that mainstream devel-
opment paradigms have visited in countries and societies, and how this approach
may be countered (Rahmena and Bawtree 2005). Already in the 1990s, one of the
complaints voiced by Maya villagers was that it was becoming increasingly difficult
to collect wood and thatching material in neighboring forests. One explanation
offered was that these items were being diverted to tourism construction in order
to give beach bars and theme parks the proper tropical ambiance expected by
tourists. But such concerns seem almost frivolous compared to the loss of land and
resources that a community suffers when the government requisitions vast areas
for mega-complexes (Escobar 2008). Without doubt, the single largest govern-
mental appropriation was the establishment in 1986 of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Reserve, a 1.3 million acre expanse of forest, mangrove, and beach. Communities
now adjacent to the reserve had relied for centuries on the forest and its bounty
(Martı́nez-Reyes 2009).
Many residents in Tulum and elsewhere attribute this rapid transformation,
and all the consequences it can bring in its wake, to migration from other parts
of Mexico and sometimes from abroad. But the massive migratory movement,
whether internal or external, responds to something universal: the felt needs of
people in search of a livelihood. Of course, mass migration to an area has obvious
social consequences. Today indigenous people are a decreasing presence in their
ancestral land, and this trend is unlikely to change. Essentially, much of the state
has undergone a transformation into a tourist zone of hotels, resorts, theme parks,
beach clubs, and gated communities. In observations regarding what he terms
“liquid modernity” that addresses contemporary consumer society, the sociologist
Zigmunt Bauman depicts a world in flux characterized by changes in time and
space, where “power can move with the speed of the electronic signal” (Bauman
2000:10), “industry is geared increasingly to the production of attractions and
temptations” (Bauman 1998:78), “and the consumer is a person on the move”
(Bauman 1998:85). Here, he is discussing a world system of hypermigration of
people, capital, information, and commodities, and with this comes high levels

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of risk and uncertainty (see Vaccaro and Beltran 2007). In our case, the primary
commodity is the physical space and its uses. With some exceptions, the human
flow comes from two directions: relatively well-to-do members of what is termed
the “developed world,” and management and labor catering to the tourist trade.
Any serious discussion of tourism in Quintana Roo requires that we consider
the broader tourism situation. Quintana Roo tourism is a relatively recent phe-
nomenon, but tourism in Mexico has a long history. Florence Babb (2011:92),
citing the historian Dina Berger, argues that in the 1920s, “revolutionary elites
were able to market the image of revolutionary Mexico and make it compatible
both with the goals of the revolution and with desires for good neighborliness
with the United States” (Berger 2006). Their aim was to create an image of a mod-
ernizing and safe, yet exotic, destination. From the cosmopolitan to the exotic,
there is certainly much to see and experience. It is not surprising that the World
Tourism Organization (UNWTO) ranks Mexico in tenth place globally with re-
spect to arrivals (23.4 million visitors in 2011), and second only to the United
States for hemispheric tourism. This puts Mexico in a strong position to compete
with South American and Caribbean countries.
Beaches and forests, particularly the former, are the bread and butter of tropical
coastal tourism. Quintana Roo also offers numerous ancient Maya locations, one
of them the Tulum archaeological site minutes away from Tulum pueblo. This
rather modest site has become one of the most visited prehispanic locations in
the Mexican Republic. The reason is simple: it is within easy driving distance of
Cancún and next door to an expanding Tulum. What has made it iconic and a cash
cow for the Mexican state is the setting: an accessible Maya “ruin” overlooking the
azure Caribbean.
Our argument is that this space, and many others, can be turned into ideal
settings for the elaboration of representations, visual and otherwise, of an exciting
present and an exotic and mysterious past (Pi-Sunyer 2002). Indeed, Quintana
Roo, since the mid–19th century, has attracted scores of archaeologists, which
accounts for a good deal of its current appeal. This situation supports Malcolm
Crick’s observation that “The imagery of international tourism is not, for the
most part, about socioeconomic reality. It is about myths and fantasies” (Crick
1989:329). The tourism industry, together with state agencies, not only offers what,
in another tourism context, has been termed a “parallel universe” (Van Beek and
Schmidt 2012:2–3), but manages to hide the reality very well. The latter is often
accomplished by controlling access to given spaces, something evident in both the
enclosure of beaches and in the routines of guests lodged in self-contained resorts.
Another way of conceptualizing this situation is that of the “tourist bubble,” con-
sisting of all those arrangements—government agencies, airlines, hotels, museums,
personnel, and so forth—that receive guests and protect them from having to face
uncomfortable realities (McCannell 1992).

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 93
We are not suggesting that such hostelries constitute the sole available lodgings
in Quintana Roo. Also, it is not accurate to assume that tourism employs only
relatively unskilled service workers. We interviewed several individuals and families
of quite modest backgrounds who had managed to make a good living working
in tourism-related services or as successful storeowners. Furthermore, as we will
later discuss, there are those who have become wealthy almost by chance.
Tourism, and particularly mass tourism, is a labor-intensive business, so it is
hardly surprising that at least from the early 1990s the macroeconomics of Mexico’s
southern border began to resemble conditions on the northern frontier. At both
geographic poles, most people lived by selling their low-skilled labor. However, the
full picture is more complex: within a context of generalized poverty, extreme and
growing economic inequality became the norm. In addition, indigenous people,
who generally lived in the interior, were increasingly both pulled and pushed into
this tourism-based labor market. At that juncture, the early and mid-nineties, we
were working mostly in interior Maya villages and also studying resort service
communities comprised mostly of Maya residents.4 Much of our work went into
understanding the social and economic consequences of tourism, still a relatively
novel phenomenon in central Quintana Roo, and on a range of related and signif-
icant issues including ongoing changes in diet and health. In the process, we were
able to talk to our neighbors, share food and stories, and discuss the telenovelas we
often watched together (Pi-Sunyer and Thomas 1997, 2001).
None of the above is fully comprehensible without reference to the enor-
mous power—economic, political, and ideological—of the tourist industry. If the
population of Quintana Roo has increased dramatically, it is because of tourism
demands, and that so many people desperately sought work. The figures, made
available to us by a municipal authority, indicated that in 2008, more than eight
million visitors (of whom 6 million were foreigners) came to Quintana Roo:
roughly eight tourists per local resident (Ayuntamiento de Solidaridad 2005). We
have every reason to believe that since the number of tourists, migrants, and for-
eign residents has grown, pressure on the environment and biodiversity has also
increased. Nationally, tourism now generates a fourth of Mexico’s foreign revenue
(Hernandez-Coss 2005).
In Quintana Roo, tourism has taken on all the characteristics of a mono-
crop and as is often the case in such situations, managed to reconfigure not only
employment practices but also spatial relations and the physical environment. If
Michel Foucault could pay a visit to the Riviera Maya, he would not be surprised
at this example of how power is deployed in the modern world, and is most clearly
manifested by “the distribution of bodies in space” (Foucault 1977:202).5
Even rapid change on this scale takes some time. Changes along what would
become the Riviera Maya were not so much incremental as the result of the
implementation of a specific hospitality model. Prior to these developments, many

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beaches were often unoccupied, although the shore was used by Maya residents
as a source of food (fish, shellfish, turtles, and turtle eggs) and for the scavenging
of cordage, wood, and other items washed ashore. Fertile land was deeper inland
where slash-and-burn agriculture could be conducted.
The reorganization of space and population required levels of funding that only
an alliance of governments, corporations, and international financial institutions
can generate. The developmental model we are discussing, from airports to hotels,
is by definition massive in scale. Large hospitality complexes typically follow a
clear pattern: the state provides infrastructure, and big tourism builds complexes
of remarkable similarity: all-inclusive resorts geared to a specific clientele.6 Some
things are evident: while these resorts are in Mexico, they could be situated in
almost any tropical sea-and-sand locale. David Picard accurately describes what
comes close to a global template: “The space inside these complexes invariably
included a swimming pool, a garden with restaurants, bars, shops and diverse
entertainment spaces. The gardens also . . . . staged a lush nature with different
types of tropical flowers . . . . and access to the beach” (Picard 2011:144).
By the early 2000s, the coastal strip from Cancún to Tulum was being described
as “the kingdom of all-inclusive hotels and wholesale tour operators” (Clancy
2001:128). Regardless where such complexes are situated, it is difficult to say what
the clients were learning other than a sense of privilege and the joys of a garden of
delights. This world of contemporary mass tourism, this space of imagining, is well
described by Kellee Caton as “a site at which individuals and groups encounter one
another . . . lugging with them the cultural baggage of their heritage, ideologies,
and past experiences, and then attempt to make sense of one another” (Caton
2012:123). Such sense-making encounters have consequences that are ideological
as well as material and help constitute the world in a particular shape. As she notes,
the shape of tourism imagery is strongly influenced by travel-related mass-media
formats including guidebooks, travel brochures, and television programs. Much of
this material reinforces a quasi-colonial conceptualization of a binary world divided
into modern–traditional, us–them, and western–nonwestern components. This,
in her opinion, constitutes “the darker side of tourism as a realm of imagining”
(Caton 2012:123).

The Maya Past–Present

This kind of tourism development is not only voracious in terms of labor, land,
and materials, but capable of drastically reworking cultural relations and socioe-
conomic structures (Pi-Sunyer 1992). Long before the advent of mass tourism,
Maya people in Quintana Roo had experienced the massive appropriation of land
and resources. In 1937, the inhabitants of Tulum, then a small Maya hamlet,

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 95
were forced to cede the archaeological site to the National Anthropological and
Historical Institute (INAH), a government agency. This was not just displacement,
but the loss of a sacred site that attracted pilgrims from Maya communities far
and near (Balam Ramos 2010:76–77; Goñi 1999:163–168). Some decades later, the
people of Cobá lost a good deal of their productive land as INAH took control of
its archaeological site and environs.
If the Maya were the first in this area to experience the impact of a modernizing
state, the phenomenon is now general and involves many more players. It is a
complex, tense, and often contradictory situation, difficult to unravel. Change is
coming from many directions, and not just locally. For example, Maya migrants
today make up more than a third of Cancún’s population (Castellanos 2010).
Tulum and the Riviera Maya are still areas under active development with almost
every available beach built upon.
How do people manage, or attempt to manage, these drastic and powerful
shifts and changes? With respect to Maya residents, especially village dwellers,
there are established mechanisms that retain considerable efficacy. These include
norms of reciprocity and social solidarity observed by Diego de Landa, the 16th
century bishop of Yucatán and an early student of Maya culture. He noted that
Maya people had “the good habit of helping each other in all their labors” (Landa
1941:98). Nancy Farriss in discussing the colonial experience stresses that “The
need for a mutual support system remained as strong under colonial rule as ever,”
and that “the idea was also to spread the risk and burden among all the corporate
members” (Fariss 1984:256). Ellen Kintz, writing on Cobá (a nearby village to
Tulum), shortly before our initial fieldwork there, commented on the same spirit
of reciprocity but as a customary behavior on the wane.

“Collection of goods and the redistribution of items (particularly food) was an


economic pattern that enhanced security for all families . . . . The economic web
that collected and centralized goods and redistributed the excess ensured that
no one starved. This redistribution system of economically important goods was
formalized under ritual circumstances that traditionally occurred throughout the
yearly cycle.” (Kintz 1990:138)

As noted previously, communal agricultural work has increasingly been su-


perseded by wage labor employment, and this trend is likely to continue. Based
on our household survey, already in 1994 at least one-third of able-bodied men in
Cobá looked for employment outside the community, and an estimated 40 per-
cent of working-age villagers derived some income from tourism. What has not
taken place in Cobá and other interior villages is an abandonment of agriculture.
Individual and family plots are still tended, and while the ethos of redistribution
has lessened, it has not disappeared.

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Another tool deployed by Maya people for managing the strains of uncertain
times also harks back to the past. It takes several forms, but all have their roots in the
religious practices that emerged following the Spanish Conquest (Farriss 1987:583;
Megged 1996; Sullivan 1989; Warren 1998:145). An important characteristic is the
way that time is conceptualized, in particular the role of the past in understanding
present and future. This “remembering” is also related to the mid–19th century
“Talking Cross” Maya uprising that began in central Quintana Roo and came close
to defeating the Mexican army. Talking Crosses proliferated, and the archaeologist
Michael Coe saw one inside the Tulum archaeological site (then a local shrine) as
recently as 1948 (Coe 2011:258). Mexican control was not established until 1901,
but this faded during the subsequent decades. Today Maya religious practices
have come under pressure from another direction: foreign missionaries, mostly
American and evangelical. In some instances, this has caused serious community
divisions

Friction in Tulum

Whether in villages or in the rapidly expanding town of Tulum, we continued to


conduct ethnographic work with a critical concern for global connections. How
the global influences the local, and the local responds, is discussed at length in
Anna Tsing’s Friction. Friction, she writes, aids us in understanding the unex-
pected and apparently contradictory: “how emergent cultural forms – including
forest destruction and environmental advocacy – are persistent but unpredictable
effects of global encounters across difference” (Tsing 2005:3). She does not believe
that the effects of globalization can be predicted in advance, but argues the case
for the importance of studying peripheries as particularly valuable locations for
understanding the global thrust of capital. Friction serves as a valuable tool for
understanding change, cultural form, and agency, particularly in “contact zones,”
or what Tsing terms “zones of awkward management,” which Quintana Roo cer-
tainly exemplifies. It does not necessarily imply a clash of cultures, but rather a
way of understanding the unpredictability of change in the making.
In and around Tulum, a clear indication of friction is how the privatization
and commoditization of land, and the transformation of communal land into
private property, has led to the massive sale of former rural leaseholds. As might be
expected, the result is a decline in farming, and a notable increase in the number of
affluent former cultivators. In fact, many ejido members gave up serious farming
long ago, and the little now grown is essentially of symbolic relevance. It is hard to
predict how long this new wealth will last, but currently it is reflected in expensive
houses being built and the shiny SUVs and pickups that adorn Tulum’s streets.

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 97
But the story has another level of complexity. In his comprehensive ethnog-
raphy of present-day Tulum, Yuri Balam Ramos documents the extent to which
the Maya community has been influenced by the economic and demographic
transformation experienced by the town. Perhaps expectedly, one assumes
that indigenous people are “traditional,” however, Maya residents seized the
opportunity to benefit from a very significant change: private ownership of what
had been communal land (Balam Ramos 2010:288). He discusses in detail the
nature of this decision. Some lots that were distributed were substantial and close
enough to the town proper to constitute prime real estate. Many possibilities
presented themselves. For example, a portion might be sold and the proceeds
invested in stores and other small businesses. Balam Ramos makes two other
important observations: in some respects, the Tulum Maya may have been
successful because they were there from the beginning and as such were members
of the Tulum ejido. Second, he argues that for all the change that has ensued, this
population remains traditionally Maya in much the same way as such interior
communities as Chumpon and Tixcacal Guardia, all dating back to the mid–19th
century Maya uprising. This argument (see Balam Ramos 2006; Juárez 2002a) is
consistent with our interviews in the Maya barrio where we lived.
Friction is also reflected in different modes of being and belonging. The Tulum
Maya are an integral part of the social and civic fabric, and have considerable
political influence, but here the Maya comprise a decreasing percentage of the
population. It is true that the Tulum Maya manifest a clear attachment to place.
Countless times Maya friends have explained to us that Tulum is a Maya settlement,
a distinct place with a distinct history. But regardless of the fact that it holds special
meanings, and even sacred qualities (it shelters one of the five Maya churches
in Quintana Roo), deep human feelings are at times confronted by social and
demographic realities. This was most clearly, even brutally, expressed by a young
Maya neighbor. After explaining in some detail the significance of the yearly Maya
fiesta, and the number of Maya visitors that it attracts from other communities,
she looked at us and declared: “In twenty years there won’t be any Maya in
Tulum,” by which we understood that the Mayaness of the Maya barrio would be a
memory.

Maya in Imagination and Reality

The Maya and their neighborhood have a role in tourism and a place in popular
imagination. More than anything else, their perceived function as conceptualized
by other residents is that of giving the town and the area a cachet of authenticity and
antiquity. In this respect, both the Maya community, its church, and the Tulum
archaeological site function as an imaginary. In much the same way as Quetzil

98 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


Castañeda discusses the place and role of the Chichén Itza “ruins,” here too, “Maya”
can be understood as a palimpsest that is “continuously read, written, rewritten,
and overwritten by diverse practices and multiple texts” (Castañeda 1996:98).
Phrased somewhat differently, the way that “Maya” is generally conceptualized has
little to do with the past, and much more with the present.7
In the Tulum area, Maya themes are deployed and elaborated in a variety
of ways. Examples are countless and range from Maya-themed jewelry in the
gift shops and the use of Maya motifs in official architecture, to the activities of
New Age pilgrims celebrating Maya spirituality and seeking the secrets of “Maya
power.” Also, Maya concepts and forms inspire local intellectuals, particularly
artists and writers. It is notable that most of those so moved by the Maya past are
not themselves Maya, and do not claim to be.
More broadly, the majority of the people we talked to, including resident for-
eigners, viewed the Maya presence favorably. This perception was evident in both
casual conversation and formal interviews, and sometimes was offered sponta-
neously. It seemed to us that a Maya population, and of course the archaeological
site, gave the locality—which on our initial visit in the 1980s was little more than
a truck stop—a degree of significance that it would not otherwise have achieved.
Concurrent with our recent ethnographic work, our colleague Magalı́ Daltabuit
undertook a household survey supporting our impression that most residents felt
an attachment to the town. The survey of Mayan and non-Mayan households
carried out in 2008 showed that 78 percent of respondents identified with Tulum,
while 17 did not, and the rest were uncertain. Furthermore, the longer people had
lived in Tulum, the more they were likely to feel attached to it. This research pro-
vided us with other significant information. Thus, of those surveyed, 34 percent of
respondents (and 71 percent of upper income individuals) worked in the tourism
sector, a statistic that takes on further significance since almost 40 percent of the
sample identified themselves as housewives, leaving 26 percent (66–40 = 26%) for
nontouristic occupations.
The population of the town has grown to 18,233, while the municipal pop-
ulation that includes surrounding villages is 28,263 (2010 census). In 2000, the
town had 6,733 inhabitants, about a third of its current population. The demo-
graphic profile has not changed much: typically young, many recently arrived, and
often minimally educated. In the survey, some 25 percent of those over 25 years
of age had attended elementary school, and about the same portion had received
secondary education. What we have, therefore, is a growing town, still quite new,
where most people work long shifts for relatively little money or sense of security.
In fact, insecurity (inseguridad), a term with many meanings, was by far the major
problem identified in the survey: 35 percent of the respondents chose this cate-
gory as the most serious issue in town. Given this profile, what is perhaps most
remarkable is a general optimism for the future.

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 99
Drawing from a combination of interviews, youth focus groups, and the
household survey, we can venture some general statements. Not surprisingly, the
most evident one is the significance of class and education in the environmental
perceptions of respondents. For example, while many town residents are some-
what aware of the exceptional natural environments of forest and coast, they are
for the most part disengaged from debates related to the politics of development
and environmental degradation. For them, issues such as trash pick-up, water
contamination, and sewage disposal, and crime taking place outside their doors
come up as the most significant environmental problems. The rejoinder is likely
to be that problems of this sort need to be solved by the authorities. On the other
hand, residents of the beach (geographically separated from the town), who are
more affluent, foreign, and associated with resorts, are keenly aware of natural
environmental degradation and most likely to be activists
In his ethnography of Tulum, Balam Ramos differentiates between four distinct
ethnicities (his term) in the composition of Tulum’s population: Mayas descended
from the original insurgent Maya settlement whom we have termed “Tulum Maya”;
Maya people who are relatively recent migrants from the state of Yucatán and else-
where; non-Maya Mexicans from other parts of the country; and finally a substan-
tial number of foreigners, predominantly Europeans and North Americans (Balam
Ramos 2010:129–130). This breakdown certainly reflects history and origins, but
here and elsewhere migration and self-making in a multiethnic space generally en-
tails changes and coping in relationships and affiliation. For all this variety, there
is a good deal of interaction between people of similar age and education but also
between ethnicities
Tulum has changed a great deal in a generation. A place that not long ago
lacked basic urban facilities now has a bank with international connections, two
substantial supermarkets, a new hospital, and a sewage disposal system in the
planning. The registry of the local Chamber of Commerce includes more than fifty
restaurants and around thirty small hotels concentrated along the Tulum beach.8
There are numerous small grocery and convenience stores that stock packaged
food items, soft drinks, and beer, typically industrial products with long shelf lives.
However, there are but seven outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables and this is
attributed to a deterioration in diet, particularly that of school children who were
in many cases significantly overweight. We mention this because a good deal of
our initial research focused on diet and health in villages that had recently become
accessible to commercial traffic.
In our last two years of research, we made a special effort to interview town
women on a variety of matters, but mostly about their quality of life. On the issue
of food and diet, many complained of the lack of fresh and affordable fruits and
vegetables, and how difficult it was for a working family to provide their children
with a healthy diet. They also stressed the high price of meat. Some claimed that the

100 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


supermarkets had driven out small businesses such as neighborhood greengrocers.
The fact of the matter is that low-income women in Tulum are challenged to
provide their families with healthy meals.
What we witnessed in both town and country is not only dietary
deterioration—increased calories, salt, and fats—but also the overwhelming influ-
ence of global brands. This, needless to say, is not something peculiar to Mexico, but
typical of the reach of transnational corporations. A good measure of this process
is supplied by the highly successful marketing of Coca-Cola products (Leather-
man and Goodman 2005). A couple of decades ago, the yearly consumption of
Coca-Cola in Mexico was 280 eight-ounce servings of Coke products per capita.
The most recent figure (2010) is no less than 675 eight-ounce servings for every
Mexican. It is more than remarkable that per capita consumption of Coca-Cola
products in Mexico is now about twice what it is in United States.9
In a recent article, Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, and Deborah Gewertz
examine changing foodways in Papua New Guinea, and specifically the dietary role
of a relatively new product for the area, instant noodles. Noodles form part of a
set of “contemporary foods that are widely available . . . have worldwide reach,
and appeal (in different ways) to wealthy and poor” (Errington et al. 2012:20). All
may be thought of as updated versions of such long established “hunger killers” as
sugar, tea, and coffee (Mintz 1985). What is novel is the argument that a product
of this type may, as they claim, “serve as an antifriction device” (the play on Tsing’s
concept is clear) in the sense that it can “grease the skids of capitalism as it extends
its market reach” (Errington et al. 2012:20). In Tulum, canned bean, premade
tortillas, and Coca Cola are similarly relied on by working-class parents with time
constraints.

The Ecological Imperative

There is no question that Tulum and Quintana Roo, in general, are thoroughly
embedded in a socioeconomic system that is both exploitative in many senses of
the word and based on a single product: the hospitality business. This in turn
is dependent on an already impacted natural environment. A decade ago, the
economist Michael Clancy noted with respect to official development plans that
“Equally necessary is to consider which factors are ignored by policymakers when
they set their goals. At the top of the list were environmental and social concerns”
(Clancy 2001:68–69).
In their recent study of the environmental movement in Quintana Roo,
Magalı́ Daltabuit and Carlos Meade (2012) approach this and related issues from
the perspective of engaged political ecology. They point out that it was not until
1988 that Mexico passed broad-based environmental legislation; it remains the

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 101
basis of Federal environmental policy. The law itself, and its amendments, should
offer ample protection to linked and hence vulnerable habitats such as the forests,
mangroves, beaches, and a coastline girded by the 600-mile-long Mesoamerican
Reef.
The whole area has a distinct geology. Since there are few lakes or streams,
rainwater sinks rapidly through the porous limestone rock to form a network of
underground channels, ultimately leading to the sea. Since the earliest human
settlements, cenotes, sinkholes that result from the caving in of the surface rock,
have provided access to this indispensable resource (West 1964:72–73). The system
constitutes an extensive subterranean network forming one of the world’s largest
aquifers that provides potable water to inland and coastal communities. Given
its porosity, it is also easily contaminated by dense habitation, dumps, and golf
courses, and in due course these waters join the ocean at juncture points such as
lagoons and mangroves, vital spawning grounds for aquatic life (Daltabuit et al.
2006; Daltabuit et al. 2007; Daltabuit and Meade 2012).
Environmentally important or fragile areas often lack adequate protection, and
Daltabuit and Meade examine three contemporary environmental disputes, one
involving the actions of a raw materials company that dug into the limestone to
the degree that machinery damaged a network of ancient Maya caves with wall
paintings as well as the reef. At that juncture, the government began to take notice.
Much the same was the case with the long fight to protect a beach that is a major
turtle nesting ground, and finally, the urban development plan for the expansion
of Tulum to 125,000 inhabitants, more than a sixfold increase (Ayuntamiento
de Solidaridad 2005; Consejo Municipal de Tulum 2009). Odd as it may seem,
this important proposal had not considered that Tulum sat above the endangered
aquifer. Already the area below the town is severely contaminated and this water
flows to the nearby mangrove and ultimately into the turquoise Caribbean that
attracts so many tourists. In referring to killing the goose that laid the golden egg,
the goose here is the linked yet fragile environment.
Part of the problem is administrative–governmental, but we can add corrupt
practices and close links between developers and politicians. The main issue is
the control and oversight of a voracious tourist industry, but there are plenty of
other matters that require attention. An important one for an emergent activist
civil society is the role of asymmetrical relations “where decisions remain in the
hands of a small elite composed of high federal and state officials and a con-
sortium of directors from major national and foreign corporations” (Daltabuit
and Meade 2012:128, our translation). Two examples stand out: one the taking
of a public beach by a large Spanish hotel firm, and the second the sale of the
University of Quintana Roo’s research area to a high-end development complex.
Neither of these could have could have been executed without state government
intervention.

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The authors proceed to explain the consequences that such a situation entails.
Like other third world countries (their term), Mexican environmentalists carry
out their work in a context dominated by a “hegemonic discourse of sustainable
development formulated and promoted by international agencies including the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, bodies that essentially support
neoliberal policies linked to transnational capital” (Daltabuit and Meade 2012:129;
see Mignolo 2012, our translation).
We have heard similar complaints. Such reactions, particularly from those
directly involved in conservation programs, should be seen as a signal that some-
thing is fundamentally wrong with the implementation of these projects. A political
ecological perspective addresses the relationship between humans and the envi-
ronment in a complex web that often encompasses economic, cultural, spiritual,
and political processes. This is especially the case for indigenous groups that may
have resided for generations adjacent to the Biosphere Reserve. Too often, the role
of international environmental NGOs in such contexts takes a neocolonial form
(Agrawal 2005; West 2006). Working in the small Maya community of Tres Reyes
abutting the biosphere reserve, Martı́nez-Reyes (2014; also Macip 2012) describes
the failure of a state-sponsored wildlife management program due to a lack of co-
herence between the objectives of the state, NGOs, and the community, but, most
significantly, problems arose from ethnic relations that reproduced conditions of
inequality. Martı́nez-Reyes, however, does not foreclose community-based envi-
ronmental projects. Now that the NGOs have been evicted, villagers can carry out
their own conservation plans. The merging of environmental interests with social
justice concerns presupposes that people and communities always have been an
integral part of the environment.
The history and recent experience of the Yucatán Peninsula make it abundantly
clear that a healthy environment is vital not only for the ecosystem, but for the
well-being and security of the coastal area and its inhabitants. A strong barrier reef
acts as a giant buffer ameliorating the impact of wave action on the beach during
hurricanes. Similarly, the mangroves behind the beach provide a first line of coastal
defense against wind and waves. Also, the Biosphere Reserve is not only a very large
protected space, but can be thought of as a haven for every kind of local animal
other than humans. Unfortunately, like so many public projects in Mexico, it is
severely underfunded and hence, unable to legally defend its land rights against
luxury homes being built along the beachfront.10
The efforts of the environmental movement in Quintana Roo, and the success
it has achieved in protecting threatened locations take us back, if indirectly, to
the matter of inseguridad. Fear is often a component as in inseguridad ciudadana,
the lack of safety in public spaces. However, there is also inseguridad of other
forms such as economic anxiety (jobs, income, etc.), and the growing frequency
of catastrophic storms, particularly in rural communities lacking storm shelters.

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 103
Present–Future

Our initial interest in a context of apprehension was related to the behavior of some
of our closest Tulum friends. We were not naı̈ve, but initially found it surprising
that so many intelligent and knowledgeable people shunned active politics, even at
the local level, when so many problems needed addressing. When we asked them
about this, they generally explained that if they ran for office, people would believe
they were involved in corrupt practices. This was such a common response that,
when asked by the municipality to write a report on our work, we drew attention
to the phenomena (Geddes et al. 2005).
We were considering the links between tourism and politics, particularly as
a potential source of corruption and enrichment. As explained by John Gledhill,
“Mexican politicians appear to have become increasingly tied into the world of
drug trafficking and money laundering” (Gledhill 2000:116). Under these circum-
stances, it is understandable that our friends avoided participation in anything
related to politics.
Also, we should not underestimate the profound social trauma that Mexico has
undergone during the last decade, and particularly since 2006 when then-President
Felipe Calderón declared war on drugs and drug cartels. The Caribbean coast of
the peninsula has long been a receiving point for drug shipments, but in the last
decade gangs, crime, and brutal drug-related killings have been spreading south
from Cancún. The human and psychological costs have been enormous, and in
the interval the conflict has taken some 150,000 lives in the country (Executive
Secretary of National Public Security System 2013). Living close to such events can
be disturbing at many levels. Stephen Lubkemann, an anthropologist who studies
war and violence, likens the experience of living through frightening and confusing
times as “analogous to the experience of being slowly overtaken by a patchy fog in
which banks of mist, varying in their inscrutability, are punctuated by patches of
clarity” (Lubkemann 2008:157).
The future may be more promising. There was a change of administrations
when, in July 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto won an overwhelming victory for the
presidency. In the opinion of two well-positioned Mexicans, one a former foreign
minister, and the other a publisher and editor, Mexico is ready for major political
and social change. With respect to the increasingly unpopular drug war, in all
likelihood there will be a strategic shift designed at “concentrating scarce resources
on combating violence – preventing kidnapping, extortion, and murder – rather
than on capturing kingpins or interdicting U.S.-bound drug shipments” (Aguilar
Camı́n and Castañeda 2012:28). Perhaps what matters most is that Mexico is
poised to enter an “age of agreement” that would end “the culture of impunity”
that for long has been part of the political system. This would entail focusing on

104 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


enforcement of the legal system in support of greater social and environmental
justice.
While one can not predict the future, one can look for local evidence of a shift
in the direction indicated. One measure of this in Tulum is the proliferation of
small- and medium-sized businesses, everything from bridal stores to coffee shops,
and pleasant side-street restaurants to diving outfitters. The clientele is diverse, and
while it includes tourists, one sees more and more local customers.
Concurrently, Tulum may be undergoing an interesting shift in the composition
and image of local tourism. Small, upscale beach hotels have received a good deal
of attention. What is being advertised and written about are the pleasures of the
exotic and the comfortable: “You might call Tulum ‘Ko Samui-lite’, a strip of beach
and jungle peppered with stylish haute-bohemian huts that are off the grid” (Green
2009:TR8). In much the same mood, Bob Morris describes a similar landscape, and
proceeds: “And welcome to Tulum, a destination so popular with the fashion crowd
this time of the year that it almost feels like Fashion Week” (Morris 2012:ST1).
Clearly, this is hardly the Lonely Planet crowd, nor those who congregate in all-
included Riviera Maya hotels. No doubt trying to capitalize on a trend, the Mexican
tourism authorities have been placing Tulum-themed advertisements in American
periodicals, including a two-page spread featuring the Tulum archaeological site in
the April 16, 2012 New Yorker, and a similar ad in the May 20, 2012 New York Times
Style Magazine. Altogether, this seems to point to a tourism that is less massive, less
damaging to the environment, and much more likely to benefit the local economy.
While a range of tourist venues and attractions is a welcomed shift in that it
offers greater choice to visitors and the opportunity to participate in the tourist
trade for the owners of relatively small businesses, it does not significantly change
the dominance of the development industry over matters of environmental and
social justice. As such, it probably does not significantly change income distribution
and other factors such as the standard of living, including education and access to
adequate medical care. We pondered these inequalities with reference to different
components of the population, specifically relatively recent Maya migrants from
Chiapas, hotel workers, and the established Maya, both in the countryside and in
Tulum. As for the Maya, the issues are not only economic, but also cultural and
political. Postrevolutionary ideology reframed Mexican identity as a hybrid nation,
and mestizage (race mixture) as highly positive. First promoted by José Vasconcelos,
a Mexican writer and philosopher, in his 1925 book, The Cosmic Race, the ideology
lives on. While certainly this position challenged scientific racism, it also failed to
consider the position of indigenous people today. The matter can be framed very
simply: the demographic changes have added a large number of Spanish-speaking
residents. The language of education and everyday life is Spanish. The pressure on
the Maya to merge increases day by day.

Tourism and the Transformation of Daily Life Along the Riviera Maya 105
Acknowledgments

Research for this article was supported by grants from the Wenner-Gren Founda-
tion for Anthropological Research (Grants #5618, #6627, and GR. ICRG-74) and
several Faculty Research Grants from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
We thank our colleagues and collaborators, Magalı́ Daltabuit, Henry Geddes Gon-
zales, Yuri Balam Ramos, Carlos and Ekab Meade, Valeria Cuevas, and especially
Claudia Avendaño for their assistance and contributions to this article. We also
thank the students from the University of Massachusetts, Universidad de Yucatán,
and the Universidad de Quintana Roo who were involved in different phases of
this project. Finally, we thank the people of Tulum and surrounding communities
for generously sharing their opinions and concerns regarding the ongoing changes
in their world.

Notes

1 Ecological concerns included the prospects for the extensive and fragile Mesoamerican Reef, sec-

ond only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, especially in the advent of a growing population, continuing
resort development and plans for much expanded cruise ship visitations.
2 This now includes several hundred thousand Maya living north of the U.S.-Mexico border (Burns,

1993; Loucky and Moors, 2000).


3 Depending on the year, petroleum exports or tourism constitute the principal export.
4 Cobá, Punta Laguna, Akumal, Ciudad Chemuyil, and Tres Reyes.
5 The 1970s was a period replete with development conferences, including the World Conference

in Mexico.
6 While tourism is “international” in the sense that tourists come from around the globe, they do

so very unevenly. In Mexico, nine of ten foreign tourists originate in the United States, a population
with a rather low tolerance for the genuinely foreign and culturally distinct.
7 Castañeda’s argument is that the large, and carefully restored, Maya site of Chichén Itza in

Yucatán can best be understood as a “museum” of Maya culture, a construct of archaeologists and
other specialists. While it is touted as “authentic,” it has much in common with a reenactment and, of
course, satisfies the needs of the many tourists it attracts.
8 These small hotels are strung along the Tulum beach (not the Riviera Maya) or across the beach

road. They cater mostly to fairly affluent visitors, Mexican and foreign. In many respects, they are the
antibig resort.
9 Our figures are taken from the chart “Per Capita Consumption of Company Beverage Products”

published by The Coca-Cola Company in 2011. The products include soft drinks other than Coca-Cola,
but Coca-Cola is king.
10 It is a hopeful sign that such an important environmental area as Sian Ka’an has received official

protection and been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. We have visited it several times and
continue to be surprised at the limited number of tourists it actually attracts. Our impression is that
most of the effort goes into protection and management. Much more could be done, and not at great
cost, to make this huge natural area a must-see location for eco-tourism visitors. If this is a crown jewel,
it should be treated as such.

106 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


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