Tourism—The Costs of Keeping Huatulco Afloat

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 9.49.30 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Back in December, at the start of high season, the cover of The Eye featured an aerial photo showing tons of beachgoers floating at the edge of sea—in boats, on paddleboards, hanging on pink plastic inner tubes. Over the scene was the somewhat sinister shadow of a jetliner—presumably bringing another load of tourists. Of course, whether you think the impact of tourism is salutary or sinister depends on what you want from your resort.

In the beginning

What Mexico wanted from tourism was to improve its economy. In the 1960s, Americans were predicted to be crazy for beach vacations, so Mexico’s central bank went flying around in search of empty beaches (no doubt casting ambiguous shadows). They found five places that looked good for sun-sea-sand resorts: Cancún in the Yucatán, and four locations on the Pacific: Loreto, Las Cabos, Ixtapa, and nine bays on the southern coast of Oaxaca in the municipality of Santa María Huatulco—hence, Bahías de Huatulco.

By 1974, tourism development was assigned to a new agency, FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo), that would be the “get-it-done” arm of SECTUR (Secretariat of Tourism). Specifically, FONATUR was to develop large resort areas called CIPs (Centros Integralmente Planeado, or “fully planned centers”) in the five locations. (FONATUR is also working on other projects, but not on the scale of the five original CIPs; for more information on Huatulco’s origins, see Brooke Gazer’s article “FONATUR: The Birth of Huatulco,” in The Eye, January 2013).

The CIPs would benefit all of Mexico by contributing both domestic and foreign income to the economy, by generating better-paid local employment and regional development, thus reducing poverty, marginalization, and (perhaps) emigration.

In its designs for the CIPs, FONATUR specifically wanted to avoid the pitfalls of unplanned development, followed by deterioration, as had happened in Acapulco and other “first-generation” tourist destinations—overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and housing, pollution, and overall environmental degradation.   Original plans provided for three golf courses and three marinas, big resort hotels on three bays, luxury villas strewn across the tops of cliffs, a first-class bus station, a zoo, and a national park. Eight of Huatulco’s nine bays would be developed in an environmentally sustainable way.

The outcomes for 2018? There would be 30,000 hotel rooms (there are about 4,300, with an average occupancy rate of 65%, as of 2016). There would be 2,000,000 visitors a year (hard to find the info, but based on 2017 arrivals from Canada and the U.S., it might have been about 15% of that). The 2018 population of the area would be 600,000 (the current population of the municipio is perhaps 50,000, with maybe 20,000 permanent residents in the resort area, about 15,000 of them in La Crucecita).

How well did it work in Huatulco?

Don’t we love to complain about FONATUR—got water today? Potholes, potholes, potholes (baches, baches, baches). Why is it so hard to pay the bill for the water you aren’t getting? Why do they have to rip up the streets just before Christmas and Easter, why not in July? Then again, we are all here because FONATUR built the infrastructure to host us—white-curbed roads, water treatment plants, marinas, an airport, areas for hotels.

Although Huatulco was supposed to be the second major CIP resort to be built, a variety of difficulties made it the last. The initial—some would say, still existing—problem was the impact on the thousand or so people who lived on the 21,000 hectares (51,000 acres) between the Coyula and Copalita Rivers that FONATUR planned to take (the largest expropriation of land in Mexican history).

Those pilgrims who come down from the mountains at Christmas and Easter? Their grandparents did small-scale fishing from the beaches and grew subsistence fruits, vegetables, and livestock in the off-shore scrubland. In May of 1984, those households learned, often by word of mouth for those who did not read or write, that they would be leaving the beach and moving to a new town about a kilometer inland.

FONATUR saw its job as negotiating, first, a price for each family’s land and other property, and second, where to relocate the family—a long and arduous process that, to judge from periodic demonstrations seeking recovery of the land, skipped over the subtleties of communal landownership. Partly because of the literacy problem, FONATUR ended up deciding the price; in theory, families could buy land within the expropriated area, but that benefit never came to pass. From FONATUR’s point of view, “shootings, machetes, blockades, demonstrations, and triple payments for the same piece of property” were challenging “the long-time dream of the tourism Fund.”

On November 4, 1989, five years after the expropriation process started, 32-year-old Alfredo Lavariega, who was a leader in the resistance to selling land, was shot dead in his hammock in front of the restaurant he ran out of his beach hut in Santa Cruz. No one was ever identified as the killer.

FONATUR moved on. They took an unusual and forward-looking direction for tourism development, an “impact mitigation” effort to address the social consequences of expropriation and relocation. The campaign presented a “social vision” for the relocation experience that addressed the needs of the affected population. Unfortunately, the “vision” wasn’t convincing to “the vast majority of the natives,” who did not want change “that would alter their ‘social order’ and economic activities.” Kemil Assad Rizk, director of Fonatur at the time, said, “Oaxaca is a complex state, where people do not visualize progress so easily.”

FONATUR sponsored training classes that were supposed to prepare local people for jobs related to resort construction and tourism, as well as programs to help women set up “beach-shack” restaurants and market stalls to sell handcrafts. Neither of these strategies did anything to get local people into the more profitable end of resort development—restaurant supplies have to be bought retail and production of local crafts is minimal, so merchants end up buying “commercial souvenirs” for resale.

By 2000, there were 923 restaurants in Huatulco. Not surprisingly, all the “high” and “medium” standard restaurants (±40%) were owned by “outsiders,” people who came from within Mexico and elsewhere; all the low-end beach shacks (±45%) were owned by local people. Similarly, the handcraft/souvenir shops that held official business registrations (±40% of “tourist retail”) sold high-end goods and were 75% owned by outsiders, while the market stalls were 65% managed by local people. Of the 2,367 hotel rooms in 2000, only 70 (±3%) were locally owned.

As for FONATUR’s impact mitigation efforts, tourism researcher Veronica H. Long concluded in 1989 that “the original residents experienced changes in every aspect of their community. These included an influx of outsiders, a shift from an ocean environment to cement houses on dusty streets, development of new social classes, new occupation groups and new organizations.” By 2001, though, anthropologist Wendy Call could note that as tourism activities emerged, Huatulqueños adapted: “Huatulco’s original residents—either in small or very large ways—have adjusted their way of life, striking a careful balance between assimilation and resistance.”

More recent surveys indicate that residents believe the tourism economy offers a wider variety of jobs than would have been available (although in one survey, only about half the respondents thought there was any job mobility available to them). There was general recognition of the benefits of infrastructure (water and sewerage, paved roads, telecommunications, lighting and power, hospitals and schools). Opinions were divided on whether decent, affordable housing was available for people in the tourism workforce (think Sector H3). Assessing problems associated directly with tourism, residents reported that tourism mainly caused nuisance problems (traffic congestion, lack of parking, trash in the streets and on the beaches, noise, and crowding); as a positive outcome, there was little tendency to associate tourism with serious negatives (crime, gangs, drugs, prostitution—social ills strongly correlated with tourism development).

What price the white curbs?

It’s helpful to remember that creating a formal, “enclave” resort—i.e., one that is self-contained within a larger environment—is an exceedingly difficult task. While each CIP is supposed to be “unique to its destination,” the basic plan is a paquete selected from “a limited repertoire of resort elements”; tourism analyst Arturo Dávila López concludes that success depends on the interaction between the standardized package and the “specific characteristics of the destination.”

Urban planner David L. Gladstone finds that opening enclave destinations usually attracts (im)migrants with tourism skills, pushing out local residents without those skills; along with the human disadvantages noted above, enclave development also produces a “commodification and standardization of traditional culture to suit the tourist market.” The worst impact is that “in most cases, formal sector tourism development and community and environmental sustainability are mutually exclusive goals.”

Huatulco was designed to avoid these pitfalls, but right from that rocky start on expropriation, it has struggled, and has been “reborn” in 2001 and 2006, “relaunched” in 2011, and reassessed when Enrico Peña Nieto started his presidency. Peña Nieto asked for “Agendas for Competitiveness” (Agendas de Competitividad de los Destinos Turísticos de México) for 44 of Mexico’s tourism resources.

Universidad del MAR started Huatulco’s agenda with an inventory of its natural and cultural resources. On a 1-10 scale, Playa Santa Cruz scored highest with 7.6; the highest scoring cultural attractions were the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the church in La Crucecita, and the church itself.

UMAR also evaluated the quality of accommodations, infrastructure, conformance with the CIP master plan, and clarity of land tenure. What there was seemed fine, but there aren’t enough hotel rooms. UMAR found that Huatulco seems “incapable of breaking the vicious circle” that links the shortage of accommodations with the lack of flights to bring people to occupy the rooms. The destination also suffers from too much sun and beach, i.e., insufficient diversity in tourist activities, and too little night life.

On the other hand, there is considerable potential in promoting the ecological certifications Huatulco has achieved, incorporating Oaxacan culture and identity into the area, and serving the important segment of the tourist market looking for tranquil and secure destinations.

Accessibility by land transportation is a major problem—the roads are poor (this report was completed before the road to the airport was improved), and effectively limit the number of visitors who make their way to Santa María Huatulco.

While visitors in hotels, most ex-pats, and snowbirds have adequate (although often intermittent) potable water, INEGI (the Mexican census) finds that nearly 14% of Huatulco’s approximately 9,000 homes have no water service. (FONATUR is currently struggling to repair nearly half the area’s water-supply wells due to hurricane damage and general deterioration.) As for electricity, 268 homes have no service; 880 have no sewer (unfortunately, INEGI apparently considers connecting your drenaje into “río o mar” equals having a sewer). Finally, as any visitor knows, access to medical care for tourists, domestic or foreign, is limited.

So, will Huatulco ever be “finished”?

There’s a delicate balance in Huatulco’s history as a resort. It has achieved a good portion of its sustainability goals while providing high-to-luxury standard accommodation and activities. All-inclusive clientele may tend towards the sun-sea-sand experience, accompanied by spa services, “safe” food of Mexican inspiration, and an occasional jaunt outside to visit an authentic cultural resource. The ex-pat residents, snowbirds, and short-term renters lean to more active involvement in the community and more far-flung experiences.

Huatulco, however, sees success as continued growth, particularly in the more hotels-more flights interaction. Analysts would argue that there is a tipping point, where growth will overcome the delicate balance of success and sustainability.


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