Behind the Tourism Curtain in Cancún and the Riviera Maya
Foreign-Owned Resorts in the Mexican Caribbean Are Built on the Backs of Exploited Workers
By Mariana Simões, Sibi Arasu and Thomas Quirynen
Class of 2010, School of Authentic Journalism
March 4, 2010
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO: It is six in the morning. As the sun rises, a group of twenty men sit together besides a central plaza. Many of them have backpacks between their feet and some have brought working tools. They rarely speak to one another while staring at the road, where at any minute, they hope, a contractor will pull over and require their labor for the day. They are unemployed albaniles, or construction workers, and this is their only hope to get some money for the day.
This scene could be happening in any area deeply affected by the economic crisis. But in Playa del Carmen, a coastal town located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo just south of Cancun, it reinforces a stark contrast. Throngs of foreign tourists are just two blocks away, bathing in the sun and tasting gourmet cuisine served by luxury hotels.
“Jobs are scarce now,” says José Louis Bolanos, one of the laborers sitting at the square. He has been a construction worker for eight years, so he knows how to pick the right employers. When a man jumps out of a nearby white van to recruit five of the 20-plus workers that are gathered around the vehicle, Bolanos doesn’t move. “The man in the van cannot be trusted,” he says, noting there is a good possibility that the workers who jumped in the van would not be paid. In the past, the same contractor offered him work for the week and didn’t show up during the last work day, and left Louis Bolanos without any money.
Sitting besides him, Daniel Paz Gomez, from the impoverished state of Chiapas, has a vacant stare that he tries to hide when talking to prospective contractors. Paz Gomez hasn’t been able to see very well since he accidentally spilled thinner into his eyes while trying to sniff it. Paz Gomez is 27, and after 12 years of living in Cancun, the injury seems to be the only thing he gained from working in the construction industry in the tourist region. “I could never save money because everything went on parties,” he says. In Cancun, cheap alcohol and makeshift drugs are available both to tourists and workers. Now he plans to get out of the area – but doesn’t even have money to eat lunch.
Following the financial crisis and a recent swine-flu scare, the tourism industry in Quintana Roo has been seeing a downturn in business and huge unemployment. In Cancun, jobless rates grew from 3 percent to 9 percent in 2009, according to the Office of the Mayor – and so did harsher working conditions for laborers in the state.
Cancun is a city of immigrants, where the poor —usually from impoverished states in southern Mexico and from Central America— come to with the hope for a better life. As a result, it’s been estimated that there are more than 50 native languages spoken in Cancun today.
Louis Bolanos says he rarely see the beach. While tourists can be observed enjoying imported wine and good tequila from their hotel verandas, local workers are stopped by policemen and face up to 36 hours in jail for minor infractions like drinking a beer on the street. “I’ve been arrested many times,” he says. “But I prefer to stay in jail rather than pay the fine, which is over 1,000 pesos.”
The two faces of Quintana Roo
One key issue in the state is the inequality that comes with a high concentration of wealth. The resorts function on what they call an “all inclusive policy,” where food, drinks, entertainment and lodging are all included for an affordable price to foreign tourists – especially those who come from countries deeply affected by the crisis. In 2008, 67 percent of tourists who came to Quintana Roo stayed in five-star hotels, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Another 14 percent go to four-star facilities. A one-night stay at a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen costs about $480 at this time of year, and that includes access to chain restaurants, high-end stores, and massages along the coast.
A world away from white sand beaches of Playa del Carmen is the workplace of Ruben Cahan, a Mayan who works as a vendor in a small shop that sells ponchos, sombreros and other tourist souvenirs, just a few blocks away from the tourist epicenter on the coast. Cahan says that business is difficult in this area. “They tell us that the locals’ shops are too far away,” he says, noting that the hotels give away hats and shirts to tourists anyway.
Astrid Cavazos, one of the managers at the Porto Royal hotel in Playa del Carmen, admits that local business that can’t afford to be near the coast line can’t compete with the resorts, “because the prices of everything we sell inside the hotel are so cheap.” She explains that “other hotels in Cancun and Playa del Carmen are like mini-cities that trap the tourists within the confines of the hotel.”
Walking along the coastal strip filled with shops in Playa del Carmen, Canadian tourists Alana Smith and Donny Smith announce that they have not had to use a word of Spanish since they arrived, because at the resort they are staying at the “staff makes an effort to speak English.”
“At the restaurants waiters are not allowed to speak Spanish even amongst themselves,” says Alejandro Eguia Lis Luis, a community organizer and coordinator of the Tzol K’in Center for Culture and Environment, a group that aims to promote a sense of community amongst the poor people in Cancun.
Arturo Ek Rodriguez, a bellboy of Mayan descendant who works at one of the hotels, says he had to apply to many different resorts before finding a job. “I was told I’d have to have a certain height to get the job, and that I did not have the profile to work there,” he says. “You’ve got to be fair-skinned and tall, more like an European type.” Along the coast line, the only testament to the Mayan culture of Quintana Roo can be seen with plaster decorations depicting Mayan statues and artwork.
Beverly is a tourist from New Jersey who didn’t want to give her name. She comes to Mexico every year with her husband and daughter. When they visit, they check into all-inclusive resorts where the “staff is extremely accommodating” and they take advantage of the activities, restaurants and shops that their hotel has to offer. But as they prepare to board a cruise ship headed to another beach along the Riviera Maya in the state, she shows she hasn’t seen much beyond 5th Avenue. Even so, they feel they have gotten to know the region very well and they were definitely satisfied with their experiences.
“We love Mexico” Beverley enthusiastically and “we’ll be back again.”
Too far from God
“This is little Miami,” says Alejandro Luis, as he drives through the 17-kilometer stretch that is the hotel zone in Cancun, where the cost of a room for one night can be anywhere between $300 to $5000. Driving through the region, there is not a stone out of place or the slightest sign of any blemish on the roads or on the sidewalks. All of the lawns are trimmed to perfection and even the bus stops are lit up, which is an uncommon site in other parts of the city. Starbucks, Hard Rock Café and an assorted delight of various chain stores appear along the stretch, and the only thing out of place in the hotel zone are the municipal police, who drive around wearing bullet-proof vests. “We live too far from God and too close to the USA”, Alejandro Luis adds.
A brainchild of the then-president of Mexico Luis Echeverria, the hotel zone was built in the 1970s, when Cancun was only a quiet fishing town. In 1975, no more than 2,000 people lived in the region. Less than 35 years later, the population has reached 1 million people. The urban growth rate in the Cancun region is about 9 percent per year, one of the highest in Latin America, according to the Office of the Mayor. With the goal of bringing in tourist dollars and providing employment, residents from all over Mexico came to Cancun to work in the booming tourism industry. The idea was to build no more than 200 hotels and 1,700 hotel rooms so as not to impact the environment. Nowadays there are over 56,000 hotel rooms, according to the Office of the Mayor.
A few minutes from the hotel zone, after driving past the gated condominiums where the rich of the city live, the line of five-star hotels begins to shrink away into the night sky. Most of the dozens of irregular “regions,” or ghettos, are concentrated in the northern end of the city. One of them is Colonia Maracuya. Located behind a mega mall built around a year ago in the region, Colonia Maracuya is home to more than 200 families today.
Despite it’s impoverished state, the people living in the colonia are trying to make it as healthy a neighbourhood for themselves as they can. The road signs, which were put up along the mud roads by the residents of the area, are an example of the community working together. Despite facing constant threats from real estate agents, who want to connect the two manzanas on either side of the colonia, the people have managed to hold their ground and keep away those who are interested in taking over their land.
“This is our mall,” says a local resident, pointing to a two-bit shop that offers everything from biscuits to medicine. Another example of the work the people have put in to develop their area are the water tanks which are visible in front of almost every house in the colonia. Despite all of the signs of good work though, what brings reality back into context are those sights that are part of the everyday life in any ghetto. For example, the people of Colonia Maracuya have to burn plastic or grass everyday to keep the stench from the municipal garbage dump from engulfing their neighbourhood.
“I come from the province of Veracruz,” says Rubi Argaez, a long time resident of Maracuya. “I came to Cancun with my two daughters hoping that we will have a better life here, but after being here for so long, the illusion has disappeared,” Working in the construction industry, and also as a maid at times, Argaez says she manages to earn just enough to support herself and the education of her two daughters. Even so, she had a lot of trouble admitting her children into a school, since many schools require a certificate ascertaining proof of residence, which is not available to her.
She was forced to stop working directly with the tourism industry because of the long working hours – a waitress, she points out, can be asked to work double or triple shifts when a hotel is busy and rarely has a chance to say no. “I was afraid to leave the girls alone at home in the evenings,” she says.
Another darker side of Cancun can be found in the increased number of suicides that have been reported in recent years in regions like Maracuya. Quintana Roo now has some of the highest suicide rates in the country, according to Celina Izquierdo, a professor at the Observatory of Violence and Gender at the University of Cancun, who found that there were 126 reported suicides in 2009, 77 of which were in Cancun. “Jobs in which people have no security, high mobility, and low salaries, generally confirm a rate of hopelessness that can precede the suicide,” Izquierdo says. The study shows that over 80 percent of those who committed suicide work in low-income jobs with 25 percent of them being albaniles.
Alcohol abuse is equally high, according to Izquierdo. In 90 percent of the cases she investigated, those who committed suicide were under the influence of alcohol when they did it. “The frustration is so high that people cannot see a way out except from killing themselves,” Izquierdo says. What’s more, the university claims that for every suicide, there are at least another 17 attempts.
For Lzquierdo, the culture of inequality is the key: “It’s not just tourism. It could be an oil exploitation plant, for instance, that prompts inequality. And there are urban factors. There are luxury quarters by the beach while there are few public spaces for the population to access the beaches that aren’t restricted by the hotels.”
Nowadays, Lzquierdo says, there is only one beach in Cancun that can be easily accessed by regular Mexicans.
“You are required to smile and say that it is your pleasure to serve them,” says Equiá Lis Luis, himself a veteran hotel worker at tourist resorts around Mexico. “We trick them into thinking everything is happy.”
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