Chiapas Tourism Development Aimed At US Market


By: Mary Ann Tenuto

The above photograph suggests a story waiting to be told. It shows indigenous women next to their makeshift plastic tent on the plaza in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. The women are occupying a space on the plaza in front of the San Cristóbal de las Casas Cathedral to protest the unjust imprisonment of their family members, who are on a hunger strike inside three Chiapas prisons.

In the background, on a different part of the Plaza, the photograph shows a thatched-roof structure that is part of the exposition pavilion welcoming visitors to the World Summit of Adventure Tourism, taking place in San Cristóbal between October 17 and 20, 2011.

The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) coordinated the summit. Key sponsors were the state government of Chiapas, the government of Mexico and Eddie Bauer, a retailer of outdoor wear. To no one’s surprise, Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico, was one of the keynote speakers. He touted adventure tourism as a source of employment for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas and urged those present to create those jobs. [1] Mexico has adopted tourism development as a panacea for the country’s economic woes.

The Worldwide Tourism Industry

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world. It is such a large and profitable industry that the United Nations has an organization devoted exclusively to international tourism: The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The UNWTO reports that in 2010, international tourism generated US$ 919 billion in export earnings (foreign cash). [2] The tourism industry brings much-needed foreign cash to developing countries and a quick return on investment to developers. Not surprisingly, the UNWTO encourages developing nations to invest in tourism infrastructure in order to attract tourist development and earn foreign cash. Mexico has taken that encouragement to heart.

In order to promote Mexico tourism, President Calderón made a documentary film in English entitled “Mexico: The Royal Tour,” wherein Calderón and travel journalist Peter Greenberg personally take viewers to some of the country’s most amazing tourist attractions, from the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua to the archaeological wonders of the Yucatán Peninsula and Chiapas. [3} Public television stations in the United States began to show the travelogue in September 2011. The official trailer can be viewed at:

On February 28, 2011, Felipe Calderón and 29 state governors signed a National Tourism Agreement, converting tourism into a national priority. The goal of the tourism agreement is to generate 40 billion dollars annually by 2018. At the signing of this agreement, President Calderón announced that: “Mexico is destined to be a world tourism power.” To that end, Calderón said he would continue to invest five percent of the country’s gross domestic product in the construction of highway, seaport and airport infrastructure to facilitate travel for tourists. [4]

You can see that infrastructure in Chiapas when you land at the new airport in Chiapa de Corzo and take the new toll road to San Cristóbal. Both the new airport and the new toll road were built to facilitate tourism and commerce. Both were infrastructure projects encompassed within the old Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP), now renamed the Mesoamerica Project.

Palenque Integral Center

The mega-tourism project underway in Chiapas and envisioned within the Mesoamerica Project is the Palenque Integral Center, or CIP, its initials in Spanish. The CIP includes the San Cristóbal-Palenque Toll Road, a key infrastructure piece to which there is considerable resistance.

The Chiapas state government has, at least in the recent past, tolerated violence, including murder, kidnapping and torture against members of the EZLN’s Other Campaign in the Mitzitón ejido because they are resisting the construction of the new toll road through their territory. Mitzitón is in the municipality of San Cristóbal, where the toll road is to begin. The purpose of the new toll road is to facilitate tourism development between San Cristóbal, Agua Azul and Palenque. In addition to murder, kidnapping and torture, the government also uses unjust incarceration as a tactic to break the resistance. Two of the prisoners participating in the hunger strike were from Mitzitón and had family members occupying Cathedral Plaza, as pictured above.

The San Sebastián Bachajón (SSB) ejido is another area along the projected route of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Toll Road. It is slated for mega-development. In February 2011, a mixture of federal, state and local security forces arbitrarily detained 117 people, all from the SSB ejido. Although the local media portray the dispute as a fight between indigenous peoples over who gets to collect the entrance fees to the Agua Azul Cascades from tourists, the more important and underlying conflict is who will control the extremely valuable land surrounding the spectacular series of turquoise blue waterfalls named Agua Azul (Blue Water). Hotels, restaurants, a conference center and golf course are envisioned for Agua Azul, not to mention a lodge with helipad, but no local family-owned businesses. The tourist development around Agua Azul envisions transnational hotel chains and golf course developers. It would also involve taking land away from some of the indigenous population and the forced displacement of that population. That is why they protest and resist. Their peaceful social protest has been repressed and criminalized.

The current epicenter of the CIP is the city of Palenque and its archaeological zone/national park of the same name, just 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from the city. Palenque is expanding its once tiny airport for small planes to accommodate commercial airliners. While the world-famous Palenque archaeological ruins have long been a big tourist attraction, it is projected that within two years it will enter the global market as a prime destination for “light” adventure tourism; and, by the way, specifically directed at the US consumer. Preparations for this increased tourism are underway.

A report in La Jornada reveals that there is also resistance to the tourism expansion in Palenque. An experienced tourist agent told La Jornada that government officials from different departments, with financial support from US agencies like USAID, are collaborating to make way for privatizing the natural protected areas surrounding the archaeological site. Once privatized, transnational hotel chains would then be able to build hotels and commercial centers on the outskirts of the archaeological zone and to provide tourist services within the newly privatized area. This would bypass existing businesses in the city of Palenque. New guides and new modes of transportation would replace current service providers, such as taxi drivers and tour guides, putting many out of work. (This contradicts Calderón’s claim that tourism development would create jobs in Chiapas.) The new guides are being carefully selected from within pro-government populations. No criticism or dissent is tolerated. Their training omits historic knowledge in favor of “nature tourism” and is geared to the style of US tourists. At least one entire community would be displaced. Thus, the project threatens jobs, homes and a way of life; in other words, it threatens the culture. [5] Therefore, it’s not only Zapatista and Other Campaign communities that will be resisting the mass transformation of the city and its surrounding area. Those who provide tourist services and will be displaced by the development projects are expected to join in the resistance.

Mundo Maya (Maya World)

The CIP is just one of the tourist projects envisioned within a comprehensive Mundo Maya (Maya World) concept. Mundo Maya, or Ruta Maya as it is sometimes called, is a regional plan to develop and connect, for the purpose of tourism, Maya archaeological and ecological sites throughout four Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize) and five Mexican states (Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo). [6] Development plans in Chiapas are mirrored in other Mexican states and in Central American countries.

In Guatemala, for example, a project known as Cuatro Balam (Four Jaguar) has been in the works for several years. The project is developing a tourist corridor between El Mirador and Tikal, both well-known archaeological sites in the Guatemalan state of Petén. Forced displacement of a nearby Maya community accompanied this project. The Flores-Santa Elena Airport near Tikal has been greatly expanded and renamed Mundo Maya Airport. Highways are planned to connect with archaeological sites along the Usumacinta River, the boundary between Guatemala and Chiapas. Crossing that river into Chiapas is currently by boat, but there are future predictions of a bridge.

For anyone who follows the development of Mundo Maya projects closely, whether in Chiapas, Guatemala, the Yucatán or Honduras, there is one inescapable conclusion: governments and tourism developers are exploiting the archaeological wonders of the ancient Maya for personal or corporate profit, while evicting and repressing the modern-day Maya.










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