YUCATAN TOURISM

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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abstract: In the Mid-Twentieth Century when the study of “Modernization” was fashionable in American universities, it was often the Army that was the focus of attention as the agent of modernization in “Underdeveloped” countries. Granted that it was used to prop up dictatorships in countries which had come out of the post-feudal historical phase of chaos which was sometimes mistaken for “democracy”. As such the Army could be a brutal instrument against “human rights,” defined in the strict political meaning of the term. But it was the Army, also, that conscripted the peasants out of their mediaeval environment, taught them to read, trained them to use modern tools, and formed them into a disciplined working force, accountable to time and results. All of this was still elementary, but the Army was usually the only institution in society that undertook this modernization process on a massive scale. This piece is not to praise the Army of underdeveloped countries. Rather, this background is to pose the question of whether tourism has replaced the Army in performing those transforming functions at least in some of the developing countries where the industry is substantial. Mexico might be a good example.

Initiation Rite

There is a special feel to airports in Mexico, especially if you arrive after a long flight from the U.S. in the dead of winter. This is what I felt after we landed in Cancun the other day.  The warm and humid air that stuck to my heavy jacket had that distinct faint scent that defines Mexico for so many Gringos. Let’s call that the scent of “Mexican curry,” a mixture of aromas coming from the food, the plants and flowers, and the sea. For me it conjured up the image of insatiable Gringos munching on fish tacos and drinking Margaritas by the pools of the seaside resorts –dotted by palm trees in the midst of a variety of shrubs hiding green grounds– which they usually populate when in Mexico.

I marveled at the familiar slow pace of life as we moved forward in the cavernous terminal hall toward the immigration window. ‘Salaam,’ said the immigration officer as he leafed through my passport. My place of birth noted in there saved him from the not uncommon mistake of saying hola, thinking that I might be a compatriot. His Mayan face was impassive but he was friendly, unusual for the typical immigration officers you encounter around the world. He used all the six Persian words and phrased he knew at random as he looked me up in the monitor to his side. “People like you coming through here taught me these words, but these are all I know.” Then I was released.

They checked all the bags through metal detectors in the customs gate of the arrival terminal of this airport. The relaxed and smiling young attendants passed us through once the detector machine certified that we had not smuggled any gun or such through the myriads of other security gates at our point of departure.  “Redundancy could not hurt,” I rationalized this bit of post-9/11 world. Not sooner had I thought this that I faced a phalanx of uniformed young men and woman blocking my way to the exit door of the terminal. Dressed in khaki, they stood in formation of six rows. They were soldiers of “scam tourism,” Mexico’s answer to the American used car salesmen.

Although there were gaps of a few inches here and there in their rows, it was almost impossible to pass without physically brushing one or more of them unless you were adept in techniques more often found in running backs on the grid iron. As it was I was tackled by one of the soldiers. “Which hotel,” was his opening salvo. I could not tell if it was a question or a rhetorical. “Thank you,” I said, meaning no either way, as I already had a reservation. Since he persisted, I asked if there was a shuttle to my hotel. Wrong move! This was an opening for him to take me to his desk, implying that he indeed worked for the very same hotel chain. “Here is a map,” was his enticement. When I repeated my question, he said there was no shuttle but he could arrange for one. He posed the threat of the alternative: “Or else, you could take a taxi.”  As his arrangement would cost less than one-third the price of the taxi ride, he now had me hooked to his selling description of it. Presently, a ticketing agent appeared to help him close the sale. My only meek resistance was “How long do I have to wait for this van?”  They assured me that it ran every 20 minutes. Only after I paid the fare and they issued a ticket with the necessary signature and kept a carbon copy (they still use those in this airport), they said the wait would be half an hour more. I was still trying to figure their new math as I walked to the outside of the terminal to look for the van with their logo.

Instead, there I found the logo of my hotel on the polo shirt of another young man in uniform. He was holding a hand-written sign for the benefit of his would-be charges, as did some twenty other such seekers for their respective guests. The puzzle for me was why airport authorities did not allow them, so much sought by their charges, inside the terminal while welcoming the agents of scam tourism.

The young man in logo-ed polo said, “of course,” he would take me to the hotel, “right away after the other expected guests were ready.” Weary now, I asked about the exact cost. “Nothing, it is free,” he said as I looked at the receipt for the $25 I had paid for the other ride that had not yet materialized. I decided to try to get refund. Alas, the authorities had assigned guards to block my entry into the arrival terminal building. From past experience I knew that in Mexico this type of obstacles was negotiable if you did not speak Spanish. Soon I was at the ”Information” desk for my type of tourists in the terminal. Alas again, the woman at the counter did not speak English well enough to help out. She summoned a man who came with me to search for the culprits, whom we found working on a new prey. The woman reluctantly agreed to return my money in return for my receipt which she promptly ripped.

On the hotel shuttle, I waited for the last guest to fight his way through the phalanx. The driver said it would take 45 minutes to the hotel. I sat back and viewed the passing traffic. The road was good and the direction signs were new, green, and in English. Every quarter mile there was a police car parked at an angle with the siren lights of green and red whirling above it. Nobody offered any explanation. We came to a long row of shinny new buses parked on the side of the road. I asked for an explanation for this. The driver’s response was not comprehensible, but provided enough of a clue to remind us of the international climate change conference which was wrapping up just about this time near Playa del Carmen. We saw no “diplomats,” as the driver referred to the delegates; just as we did not “expect to see results,” as a louder cynic among us volunteered.

Nor did I expect the detour that the driver now made into the parking lot of a 7-11 store. ”The Grand Maya Palace Hotel charges $12 for a bottle of water,” my fellow passengers told me, “we could buy it for a fraction here.” I joined them and picked up a bottle that was four times the size of regular ones and brought it to the counter. The others had already brought theirs. These were the biggest water bottles I had ever seen; they dwarfed mine. Noticing the virtual shock which was my reaction, one in the group explained “I am staying here three days.” I was staying seven days, so I too went back and chose one of those water tanks.

Out of Proportion Resort

Our hydrological trophies were nothing compared to the size of our resort. This property measured in kilometers rather than acres. Beginning with its faux Mayan gate everything here was of the imagined Mayan empire proportions. The small number of guests you found were lost in the maze of pools, gardens, and buildings. My room was in the eighth huge building from the reception area. In addition to the obligatory bars inside the pools, you could quench your thirst and appetite in Mexican and many other restaurants that boasted cuisines from several regions of the world. The Italian restaurant doubled as French for the two weeks that it had a “French guest chef.”  He was a jovial fellow and we chatted after dinner when he came to touch our table. He told me about the travail of organizing a “first class French milieu” as well as eatery in a most “unfamiliar environment.” The space he ended up with looked more like a hybrid of an English pub and a Gentleman’s club with pictures of old Mexico and equally out of place artifacts curiously imprisoned in glass cabinets. The “fine dinning” here had a sampling of the chef’s Swiss French dishes but did not exclude pizzas and New York style steaks.

The resort’s insistence on catering to all shades of tourists produced the spectacle of a restaurant offering all manners of Asian cuisines in one outsized menu. We were received by a hostess with features you see in an ordinary Mexican but with some needles sticking from her hair to make her look authentic in a Japanese kimono. When she walked, she did not shuffle properly. Our group of eight indulged by ordering dishes from the five corners of Asia. Only one waiter was assigned to us, as there was a shortage of waiters whose command of English could compensate for our ignorance of Spanish. The exorbitant prices on the menu only raised our demands for commensurate service. The gap was unbridgeable.  We flustered the waiter who had not yet mastered the complicated play-book of this restaurant. There was a large distance between the restaurant’s pretensions and its capabilities. Its work was not computerized. The waiter had to write the orders in long-hand, take them to the kitchen counter at the other end of the large hall, pick up the dishes as they were prepared and deliver them to our table one by one. As a result our food arrived haphazardly: main courses were served before appetizers, some of us finished their meals before others were even served their first course, and one of us ended up getting none of his orders when all had finished. As things were now clearly over the waiter’s head, we called for the manager. He was oblivious of the problems as the waiter had chosen to cover up and not disclose the reasons for our discontent. The manager offered free deserts, but we settled for the waiver of the cost of appetizers. It was then that the manager said that the price of his largesse would be borne by the waiter. As justification for this “policy” of the resort, the manager said that the waiter “had refused more training that would have prevented all this. He was too proud; he said he had already learned everything. Now he has to learn the lesson of this episode. We will recover the cost of the appetizers by withholding that amount from his wages –about the equivalent of two days of wages. That is what I, myself, had to suffer once; and since then I have not made the same mistake.”

Modernizing Tourism

Our resort was replicated in various transfigurations in the monumental hotels and condominiums north of here, clustered around Cancun, and south, around Playa del Carmen. We gave up trying to tally the innumerable rooms they seemed to have. However, the red clay bicycle and pedestrian trails that lined the outer limits of their golf courses, separating them from the road, were eerily bereft of users. The golfers were not in evidence either. Yet the construction of new hotels seemed only to have slowed down, not abandoned. The proof that a large number of tourists were expected was also in the army of persons mobilized to serve them.

When I went for a walk early in the morning I noticed four men mowing the small lawn facing my room, each with his own separate mower. Two others were watering the shrubbery surrounding it, and two more were trimming the ones yet to be watered. This crew was supervised by a foreman who had a clipboard and a pen in his hands. They were all in uniform. The walkie-talkie on the foreman’s ear connected this group to others. The crews elsewhere on the property, in the shops and restaurants and around the pools, demonstrated the same fact: many semi-skilled workers were trained, disciplined, and held accountable in an organization formed for the benefit of tourists who paid high prices for their service.

This picture contrasted with what was on display in the dusty unpaved streets of the villages and small towns nearby where those workers had come from. There, houses in various states of disrepair, constructed with mismatched corrugated walls attached to mud-brick crumbling structures showcased dark rooms with few windows where in daylight a small television set projected flighty scenes in blue lights. Children played in the garbage strewn dirt narrow passages between the rows of homes. The dominant smell of cooking was of burning lard.

Transformation of Puerto Morelos

Kelo said he was 21. “That is my nickname, for Izakael.”  He dropped out of school some time ago but with the English that he had learned there he was being helpful in the business of his father and uncle. Between them, the brothers owned three boats in which they took tourists snorkeling in the national park off the village of Puerto Morelos.  Kelo was in charge of sales to foreign tourists which he conducted on the steps of a rickety staircase connecting a restaurant to the beach. “Watch out,” he said when I leaned on a loose wooden arm you held onto when going down those steps. Kelo said the boats cost about 20,000 dollars and with the “engines for 5,000 dollars each” they were the capital assets of this business.  The pilots were paid 250 pesos a day which was about 20 dollars. The pilots made about 100 pesos a day, additionally, in tips from the tourists they took to the sea .  Most of the customers came from Canada, “Quebec,” Kelo said. The next largest group was from the US.  Mexicans hardly came to him and he did not see many European tourists.

Canadians are often easy to recognize here as they seem to like wearing a T-shirt, a cap, or some other article of clothing with the red maple that is their country’s logo. In Puerto Morelos the bookstore that sold English language books was owned by a Canadian couple. The woman was sitting behind the computer at the front of the store in a small alcove that served as her office and also allowed her to check out the action in the village square. I asked her how she got her books. “We drive to the States and buy them and drive back.”  A newspaper write-up posted at the entrance said that she and her husband were from Calgary and had been in the high tech media business before they came here a few years ago and bought the bookstore. The slow pace of life in Puerto Morelos appealed to them. Like the rest of the villagers they would take a siesta in the afternoon and come back afterwards to reopen the store. I asked her how business was these days.  “Slow,” she said and I detected a note of boredom in her voice.  Another store next door was owned by another expatriate, a woman who advertised her “fashion” clothes in English . I did not get to meet her as she had gone to her siesta.

Kelo also said that business was bad these days which were usually prime time, being in December. He said this was because of the Climate Change conference. Would-be tourists feared that “it would be crowded and expensive here because of the conference. Normally there would be 200,000 people in Cancun on these weekends. Last weekend there were only 20,000.”  In Puerto Morelos’s village square the row of empty taxis attested to the lack of business.  Their drivers were sitting idle chatting in the square at the point where Jose Maria Morelos street ended.  The namesake of the village, Morelos, was the priest who early in the 19th century led the Mexican War of Independence against Spain.

I asked Kelo what people in Puerto Morelos did for a living.  He said they were all working in tourism.  “In the past this was a fishing village.  Now you can’t fish here for fifty miles by fifty miles because it is a protected maritime national park.”  Tourism had sharply increased the price of real estate. I asked Kelo how much it cost to buy a house. He said “it is very expensive now, maybe 2 million pesos.”  That was more than 150,000 dollars. I went to see some of those houses.  Many were simple structures.  There are now some 11,000 people living in Puerto Morelos.  Some are newcomers.  Cesar, a salesclerk, had come from Acapulco “to work here”.  He had his job because he spoke adequate English.  “I have learned it on the streets,” he told me.  He did not speak the “language” of his wife who was from Puerto Morelos. “They speak Mayan here,” which was different from the dialect spoken in Acapulco.

There was a middle school right at the beach.  When I was there the students were in recess. They stayed in the school yard, playing. A couple among them were young lovers who came and sat at the edge of the water, which was pristine blue green and waived by a gentle breeze. They were just talking at first, but a while later when I passed them again the boy had his arm around the girl’s waist.  Three other school girls now walked by. I asked them if they went in the water often.  “Never,” one said after consulting with the others.  Her American English was impeccable.  She said she lived in Florida for seven years.  Her parents had “worked there.”  She said she liked living in Florida better but “the sea was nice here.”  When I saw them next a few minutes later, the three girls had climbed the lifeguard’s stand and were sitting up there .

From there, on this clear day, they could probably see the Xcaret Park,  along this stretch of the Caribbean coastline , called Riviera Maya , and designated as a zone for tourism development. That park was where I saw the most Mexican tourists. They were students, apparently on subsidized field trip, given the high cost of admission, or alternatively, affluent adults. The park, named after the “small inlet (xcaret)” which once served the Mayans as an ideal location for navigation in commerce, claims to be “eco” friendly. Its appeal, however, is that of a theme park. A subterranean sluice, created by using lots of concrete to shape sinkholes formed by eroding collapsed cave ceilings over underground rivers, is a major attraction. We were dressed up in life-jackets to swim the shallow water through the park to the beach that was powder white with coral sand. Here you could go snorkeling by simply walking into the pools built by semi-circular breaker walls in the Gulf water. The view of the water and its shores from many of the park’s eleven restaurants was spectacular. You could also view the giant turtles in their coral pools inland or ride the dolphins in their swimming pools. Various kinds of parrots welcomed us in their small garden. We passed actors in Mayan regalia on the way to an evening show built around Mayan legends. The crowd had just dispersed around a large field after an equestrian show. The program sheet promised them next a demonstration of an old “Mesoamerican ball game”. A tall pole was erected on the side of the field for performance later by “famous flying men,” from the town of Papantla in Vera Cruz. On the way out we could not miss the fully stocked souvenirs and handicraft stores where coral products were proffered as a unique specialty, just on the side of a cabinet that featured quail eggs hatching chicks as you looked.

Sale at Breakfast

“Please give us your major credit card,” the woman behind the counter said. She was assigned to process us toward the free breakfast which attracted the owners of the time-shares since with attendance they would receive a 10% discount on the charges for food and beverage they incurred while in the resort. The credit card requirement was an indication that you were expected not to leave the breakfast free of charges.  It was hoped that you would buy some form of real estate, even if it was merely upgrading what you already had.

Our sales agent held back as we finished filling out the forms.  Slim and blonde, she had the nose of her ethnic background. With an accent, she called Mexico “my home,” even though she had just come back from two years in her native Poland to attend to her “sick father.”  She emphasized that she was not with the time-share division but with the “real estate” division. She wanted us to “transfer” our time share to “equity,” although she did not quite explain the difference. She concentrated instead on enumerating the disadvantages of time-share ownership. “It is good if used properly but,” she said, “if you don’t use it there is liability,” by which she meant the “maintenance fee” that the owner would have to pay.  She did not call us owners; instead we were “members.” Not only that, we were “special” because, due to the length of time we had been members, we were one of the few selected to benefit from the “transfer special” which was available, “only today.”  She said “my developer, Daniel Chavez, knows he loses money by the transfer.” He has decided to do this, however, “because in the future he would not be building any more time-shares like yours.” The result would be “even less chance for getting your reservation at the time and place you like.”

After this introduction, we were taken to the breakfast buffet.  “You may take as many plates as you want, but you may only go once to the buffet tables,” our host salesperson said. She was conserving our time for the productive benefit of the sales pitch. I asked “how long have you been working for Mr. Chavez?”  She was surprised: “how do you know that name?”  Only a few minuets had passed since she had mentioned the name, but she had been too absorbed in her task to remember.  She replied “two years.”  I asked if she had ever met Chavez.  “Only once!  I saw him in a meeting but just from a distance.”  Her tone was almost reverential.  She now informed us of the “good news” that the “OPS, those who hassle you to sell time-shares in the airport, will be removed from the airport as of the beginning of the year.  This is because tourism was already hurting due to bad press about the drug war and before that the Swine flu.”  She continued:  “Tourism is very important to Mexico. It is the second biggest source of income, after oil. The OPS annoyed those tourists who did come.  They complained.  In this market they could not be tolerated.”  She said: “So Daniel Chavez decided to remove them from the airport.”  She quickly corrected herself: “I mean President Caldron of Mexico decided.”  Mr. Chavez’s stature in her world, however, was unmistakable.  “We are the biggest resort owner in Latin America.”  The “we” she was referring to is Chavez’s empire. He is the only owner the resort’s employees knew.

Our salesperson now became concerned about sharing all this information with us.  When she saw me taking notes, she asked anxiously, “what are you doing?  How come you know all these things?” I had thought that was what she wanted people to do.  She had said in her beginning introduction: “My job is to give you information so that you could make an educated decision.”  She now chose to give us visual evidence to push her sales efforts.  Chavez’s empire has many levels for his guests.  Our time share was one of the least luxurious. The one she took us to was one of the most luxurious. It was called Grand Bliss. It had spacious rooms, and several large areas to contain water: a hot tub, a Jacuzzi, big bathtubs, and a “pool” in the patio. The patio and the rooms were orientated away from the Gulf of Mexico which was just beyond the temporary fence. “This design was prudent in this hurricane country,” she explained.  I had to catch my shuttle to the airport now and she did not seem displeased at the prospect of my departure.

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