Wednesday, December 1, 2010
In the two decades between 1930 and 1950, Mexico emerged as a prime playground for foreign tourists, many of whom descended on the burgeoning Pacific resort town of Acapulco. The effects of this boom were multiplex: developers acquired communal lands--almost always through shady maneuvers, slums housing service workers sprouted outside the shiny tourist districts, new construction destroyed pristine ecosystems, and the country's cultural heritage began a long journey toward commodification.
Over time, Mexico has established a diverse tourism industry, moving beyond golden-age beach resorts--though, as the 1970s creation of Cancun illustrated, never totally abandoning them either--to promote historical sites such as Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, traditions such as Day of the Dead, and 'typical' towns and cities such as Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende. This permeation of tourism is both the result of fervent government promotion and a reflection of its importance: around 7% of the country's GDP.
On a personal level, it is difficult to navigate both the moral and aesthetic waters of Mexico's tourist industry. Some tourist kitsch is easy to identify, such as cheap obsidian knives at a pre-colombian archeological site, but elsewhere it is more difficult. The country's renowned culinary tradition was recently awarded world heritage status by UNESCO, but what does that mean for a street-corner taco vendor? The struggle is in the search for authenticity, for something not produced or performed for foreign hands and eyes; an attempt to locate a culture that has not been packaged for export.
Tourism's effect on Mexico is irreversible and ongoing, and it is not wholly pernicious. At best, it produces a syncretism that is as uniquely 'Mexican' as any supposedly 'timeless' cultural heritage. At worst, it produces a steady stream of cheaply made handicrafts and staged performances. At the end of the day, however, the tradition of tourism is inseparable from the country's history.