Photo: Marisa Martinez Tarran/Shutterstock

How Tourism Has Destroyed Mexico's Yucatan Coast

Yucatán Sustainability
by Michael Miszczak Jun 2, 2014

From Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico’s northern Yucatán coast is rapidly turning into one huge resort. Some of these expansive, decadent getaways for (mostly) Americans and Europeans are “all-inclusive,” meaning food and (bottom shelf) liquor are included in the price of your stay. You can drink and eat to your heart’s content. Hundreds of thousands of vacationers flood these resorts every year, ingesting, imbibing, soaking up the sun and exclusive private beaches.

Fair enough, right?

“Playa Del Carmen is dying. The all-inclusive resorts are killing it,” Diego tells me during an interview for JustaPack. Acutely intrigued by this statement, I met up with him a week or so later to learn more.

The “First World” has entered towns like Playa del Carmen, introducing hard capitalism, and turned what used to be a quiet fishing hamlet into a thrumming, throbbing beach town filled with boutique shops, pricey restaurants, and obnoxious booming nightclubs. The growth has been rapid and is nowhere near finished. The locals have adapted to this new way of life, and ply all sorts of services to the outsiders. You walk down the main tourist strip and are offered everything from clothes, massages, food, “buy junk you don’t need before you leave” (according to one witty salesperson), and drugs. Always ends with the drugs.

“I got the party, the real stuff. Marijuana, coke, X. I got it all.”

As you can imagine, this has led to a sharp increase in violence and theft in the area, as where drug dealers roam, roams strife and danger. One example Diego mentioned was the sharp increase in bicycle “muggings.” You slow down on your bike at an intersection and barely even perceive the danger before you’re knocked to the ground, perhaps beaten, and have your bike taken. This happens in local areas as the police are busy patrolling tourist areas.

Locals suffer; we relax and party. Familiar story.

Now say you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort. You might leave the grounds one of the four or five nights of your stay. You normally are a few kilometers from the main tourist areas, so take a taxi into town. You certainly aren’t buying food or liquor, which are probably the top draws of Playa’s tourist strip, 5th Avenue. Yeah, you might buy some trinkets. Or you go to the brand new Gucci / Levi’s / Prada / Nike / Forever 21 stores and buy some shit there.

The competition for the leftover scraps is fierce. This leads to every local establishment having a tout or two outside, hard-selling the goods / services offered. They make eye contact if they can, turn your head with any comment that might grab your attention, and then swoop in. The sell is desperate and at times bitter, since they only get paid if you actually spend some money. They aren’t selling local culture or handcrafts, either — they’re selling imported bullshit from China. T-shirts with logos and stupid quotes like “I like to fart – Playa Del Carmen” and cheaply manufactured “Mexican” sombreros dominate the retail landscape.

Remember that your presence has contributed to an insanely rapid and mostly negative change in the local way of life; let that humble you.

Mexican citizens can buy vacations at Mexican all-inclusive resorts on layaway. Basically, they pay the price over the course of a year or two, take a long bus ride from Mexico City, and find themselves in a little private piece of heaven, away from the bustle, crime, and pollution of that sprawling urban monstrosity. Since they have probably been putting most of their vacation money away to pay for the all-inclusive resort, they’re unlikely to spend any money during a trip into town. The locals of Playa are really bitter about this type of tourist, seeing it as a betrayal from their own kind. The “all-inclusive Mexicans” are frowned upon more than any other sort in Playa.

The all-inclusive resorts rarely hire locals. They offer unpaid internships to Mexicans from all over the country who have gone to hospitality school, importing them for their knowledge of English and other languages, and for their education. This freezes out the locals almost completely, as many of the best paying jobs are in the hospitality industry. Nor do the locals see any sort of profit sharing from these places. The all-inclusive resorts pay a tax (or a bribe, depending on how realistic you want to be about it) to the national government. One would think the resorts would give SOMETHING back to the community. Nope. Aside from some infrastructure they barely use, the locals get nothing.

Oh, wait, they DID get a Walmart! Lucky them, huh? Freshly built, this gigantic megastore is the all-inclusive resort of shopping. It sells everything and features prices that are mostly beyond reach of locals. One-stop shopping is highly convenient and Walmart, as it’s done everywhere, has laid its insidious roots, managing to put all sorts of other locally owned shops out of business.

There’s talk of building a gigantic shopping center near Playa Del Carmen, called the Dragon Mart. The investors in this project? The Chinese, with some American support. They are paying the government millions of dollars in “taxes” for the right to do so. An estimated 5,000 jobs will be lost, while only 4,000 new jobs will be created.

Except that The Dragon Mart will, in all likelihood, be importing Chinese workers. As Diego put it, “We are about to have a China Town in Playa.”

Our very presence in these places has a direct influence on the way of life of its inhabitants. Sometimes we bring a healthy change with us, but mostly we superimpose our way of life in an unhealthy fashion.

So, when you come to Playa, or decide you want to visit the horrific Cancun, or other popular tourist destinations like Maui, Bali, or Costa Rica, stay somewhere other than an all-inclusive resort. Remember that your presence has contributed to an insanely rapid and mostly negative change in the local way of life; let that humble you. You will pay less for your stay if you book a 3- or 4-star hotel and eat and drink at local establishments. Trust me, you will still have a great time. The food will be better, the liquor won’t be bottom shelf, the cervezas will be just as cold — you will actually experience a new culture and its people. Most of all, you can proudly know that you didn’t directly contribute to the suffering of the local population whose home you’re calling your vacation playground.

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