A Train to Nowhere?  AMLO and Tourism, One Year In

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 9.50.10 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Last spring, after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, had managed to get his first-year plans and budget issued, The Eye ran an article on whether the change in government would produce any changes in tourism (May/June 2019).  Much had been made of AMLO’s reductions in the budgets of various tourism programs, his cancellation of the airport (see article elsewhere in this issue), and the feasibility (or not) of his pet project, the Tren Maya, which was intended to connect Palenque in Chiapas to Cancun in Quintana Roo, going up the Gulf of Mexico and then coming down the Riviera Maya side of the Yucatan peninsula, and back over to the Gulf side.

AMLO’s first national budget, for 2019, in fact increased the amount for tourism over the the previous year, the last of Peña Nieto’s administration, but only because the amount budgeted for the Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) included the cost of the Mayan Train.  

His 2020 budget reflects the elimination of the country’s Tourism Promotion Council, which primarily developed and implemented the national advertising campaign to encourage tourism from abroad.  AMLO dismissed the Council’s efforts as unsuccessful, noting that the “neoliberal” policy actually produced a decline in Mexican tourism numbers and revenue.

Political Philosophy, AMLO, and the People

As an aside, neoliberalism is basically free-market capitalism that believes human progress is made through sustained economic growth with little or no government intervention.  While there is debate about the specifics of neoliberalism, it’s basically a 19th-century concept that has declined in effectiveness as the industrial revolution has given way to the information revolution.  (One has to wonder why Mexico’s 20th century began with a revolution to eliminate a neoliberal dictatorship, and then, why the revolution failed utterly to get rid of neoliberal policy.)  As another aside, the decline in tourism is more readily explained by cartel violence, which arguably has worsened under AMLO’s administration, and, to some extent, the stinky sargassum pileups on the Mexican beaches most accessible from abroad.

For AMLO, neoliberalism is the root of all evil, the defining characteristic of previous Mexican administrations, the source of corruption, a “nightmare” responsible for reforms that were “complete failures.”  Thus AMLO’s “post-neoliberal” development plan is based on the state’s “economic, social, and political responsibility to improve the living conditions of the people.”  When he presented his six-year development plan for the country in March 2019, AMLO asserted that “We must show that modernity can be forged from below, and without excluding anyone, and that development does not have to be contrary to social justice.”  

There are no indications that AMLO has any intention of actually practicing “bottom-up development,” which uses grassroots micro-projects designed and controlled by local residents to create a groundswell of small-scale, appropriate technology that can be adapted to other locations, and then possibly scaled further up the development ladder.  First seen in agriculture or water projects, the bottom-up approach is now getting a lot of attention in tourism development.  Local eco-tourism projects, such as trips to see the crocodiles and other wildlife on the Ventanilla mangrove lagoon near Mazunte on Oaxaca’s southern coast, are a good example.  

Note that AMLO said “modernity” should be forged from below, that development does not have to “exclude” anyone, but he did NOT say that everyone would be taking part in determining the vision for what modernity and inclusiveness should look like.  (Of course, just what “modernity” means in a country that on the one hand, has forged its identity on ancient cultures that were decimated five hundred years ago, and on the other, has a population that is more than 20% indigenous, more than 40% poor, and less than 38% having completed high school, is also unclear.)   

And What’s That Doing for Tourism?

Back to that 2020 budget.  Overall, the tourism budget for the Secretariat of Tourism has been reduced by nearly 45%, from just under $9 billion to about $5 billion MXN.  The almost $6 billion pesos gained by disbanding the Tourism Promotion Council have been rerouted directly to FONATUR, which is responsible for the Mayan Train.  Most commentators see the reduction in overall budget as leading to even lower tourist arrivals and income.

AMLO has taken various actions to protect tourism.  He worked with the Secretariat for Tourism to set up a $50 million MXN fund for promoting tourism, which while a mere fraction of what the Council had, is a start.  In March, he announced an initiative to make improvements in 15 cities that would improve the environment to support sustainable tourism.  For example, he canceled a gold mining project in Baja California Sur on the grounds that it threatened local water sources and would thus damage tourism.  He also announced a $1 billion MXN desalinization plant for Los Cabos, another project to improve water security.  AMLO has announced substantial investments to improve existing housing for tourism workers in Playa del Carmen, Acapulco, Los Cabos, and Puerto Vallarta; he has also asked the secretariats of Public Safety, Defense, the Navy, and Tourism to coordinate on initiatives to improve security in major tourism destinations.  One goal of the urban improvements is to assist the notoriously underpaid people who work in tourism with better access to services, social programs, and legal help to gain title to their housing.  

Do We Hear the Train a Comin’?

The Tren Maya project represents AMLO’s strongly held belief that southeastern Mexico has long been neglected, and correcting that is a matter of social justice. With the southern states of Guererro, Oaxaca, and Chiapas always duking it out for the title of Mexico’s poorest state, but Tabasco and the three Yucatán peninsula states (Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo), to the east doing much better, primarily through tourism, AMLO’s “modern, touristic, and cultural” Mayan Train might seem to be a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, it seems to have been such a no-brainer, “an engine of development, a generator of social equity and sustainable growth [built with] maximum respect for the environment,” that AMLO didn’t ask anyone’s opinion.  About two weeks after he was inaugurated in December 2018, AMLO went to Palenque and created an indigenous ceremony to ask Mother Earth’s permission to build the Mayan Train (five other such ceremonies were conducted simultaneously at ruins throughout the Yucatán peninsula).  

Apparently, the permission was given, but even though AMLO projects that the train will add 3 million tourists to the 17 million that now visit, and create 20,000 jobs, it has received pushback.  Lots of pushback.  Academics, environmentalists, indigenous communities, farmers, and social activists have all protested the very concept of running a high-speed (130 km/78 mi per hour) train slashing through a rainforest that is home to any number of endangered species, the pumas and jaguars in particular.    

University scientists and environmental organizations object to both the Tren Maya and AMLO’s plan for a commercial train corridor across the Isthmus through Veracruz and Oaxaca, on the grounds that all these area are “critical habitats that cover areas with high biodiversity value.”  For centuries, the Veracruz-Oaxaca route has resisted development as a commercial corridor; see Alvin Starkman’s review of No Word for Welcome:  The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy elsewhere in this issue.

Indigenous communities have made public statements to the fact that the project will “only benefit the rich and foreigners,” and the local landowners will “only see it pass by,” because, of course, there are no stations planned for the small towns where they live.  

AMLO says that up to now, there has been a “preliminary and informal process … since the beginning and for a long time, [of] contact with communities; we have gathered opinions; we have shared our intentions during this whole process.”  Nonetheless, as this issue of The Eye went to press, the administration has begun a referendum process to get a local response to the project.  On December 15, the opinions of 3,425 “local authorities,” about 40% of them indigenous, will be solicited.  The “modules” for the referendum will be set up in Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, in municipalities through which the train will pass.  Whose opinions will be solicited, and how each process will operate, have yet to be determined.  However the referendum will turn out, it does not represent bottom-up participation; groups now opposed to the train may well remain opposed to the train.  

And how to finance the $7.9 billion US ($150 billion MXN) project remains a mystery as well.  AMLO’s administration is looking for investments in an arrangement somewhere between a partnership and a trust to raise about 90% of the cost.  So far, though, the administration has done no studies to determine whether the train will pay for itself with passengers and freight, and AMLO and FONATUR see the Mayan Train’s value more in the construction of hotels and other facilities, and the resulting increase in tourism than in the train itself.  

Probably not a good idea to incorporate the Tren Maya in your travel plans just yet.  By the way, how about that road down from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, and from there to Huatulco?  On June 28 of this year, AMLO said it will be restarted.  Any minute now. 

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