In an attempt to map the dualities of tourism–its destructive commodification and pacifying future of creation, its potential to displace habitual ways of living and imagining, crafts and traditions, history and architecture but also its ability to generate new spaces for opportunity–we unpacked a psyche. Tourism is a tool that is constantly being deployed to scale up people and places, and habitats and natural resources for profit-making. In the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico tourism is a structural and a generalized practice of statecraft to promote the idea of the “other”: the virgin blues of the Caribbean, the preserved culture of the Mayans, the healing prowess of diving in a sinkhole or the search of your own “other” while plunging in a pastoral exoticism. We learned that any condition, distinct from the concrete landscape of a city, can become a consumable resource: places, rituals, history, plants, food, emotions, animals, or even an environmental disaster.
We started our trip in Cancun, a city manufactured in the 1970’s to position Mexico in the international markets through tourism. In an experiment to create a new model for the nation’s economic growth, Cancun used local wealth, memories, human labour and natural ecosystems to engineer a city for profit-making. Today, resources such as food and water are flown into Cancun via two separate routes, one for the locals and one for the “other”. Large scale resorts stand at the intersection of these dualities, guarding one and shutting down another. It was in this moment that we realized the power and impact that we as architects and urban designers not only have in the production of a city but also the social dichotomies we create.
Resource extraction soon became the theme across all 7 cities we visited in the peninsula: Cancun, Playa De Carmen, Tulum, Bacalar, Merida, Valladolid, and Holbox. We approached this with four different lenses: Weed, Water, Diesel and Waste. We analyzed the management of each of these commodities to understand who had a right to the city and who had the right to shape its narrative, what policies and regulations have led to the urban transformation of cities into Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns), and how a State-led tourism-oriented development— arbitrarily replicated across the country—disregards ecological complexities and cultural identities. We found that tracing these resources and how the systems around them shape space was an effective way of revealing the geopolitical and socio-economic landscape of the region. For instance, the presence of Sargasso, a foul-smelling weed plaguing the waters of the Caribbean, provided insights into which beach enclosures were privately owned by hoteliers and which were open to public access, the factors that affect tourism, and most importantly the cost and labour of constructing a paradise.
Our research was supported by discussions with architects and urban planners in Mexico City, developers in Tulum and Bacalar, and tourism operating agencies and hoteliers in Merida and Holbox. It is an ongoing enquiry that outlines the current practices that drive capital, investments, and people into the region but also speculates the future implications of developments, dredging and destruction.