Critical context for Tourism

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BANNERso10_postcard_criticalcontexttourism_lgCaitlin Hamilton

During the golden age of globalization, also known as the 1990s, tourism began to take on a wealth of new forms.  Phrases like “Eco-tourism,” “Alternative tourism,” “Indigenous” or “Cultural tourism,” “Revolution tourism” among others became buzzwords associated with supposedly adventurous, non-traditional touristic experiences. Mexico, especially the southern states of Chiapas, Yucatan, and Chiapas, became a popular destination for “cultural tourism,” adding to the country’s already popular “sun-sand-and-sea” tourist attractions. As Greathouse-Amour (2005) argues, the primary objective of these experiences was the search for the “authentic”—“an opportunity to experience the ‘untouched’ pristine Mexican life in a village or town setting, complete with its indigenous and mestizo population who act out the different roles the tourist expects to see. The tourist's desire is to find what is genuine, uncontaminated, good, or significant in the world.”

postcard "Bienvenidos a San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas"

This desire for a taste of “authentic” indigenous life, however, is not a new phenomena in Mexico. The idealization of indigenous peoples and cultures, often referred to as indiginismo, has been traced back “to the pronouncements of Bartolome de las Casas, who was briefly bishop in San Cristobal in the 16th century” (van den Berghe, 1995). And Maya-specific tourism in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas dates back to the 1950s when Trudy Blom, wife of Danish anthropologist, Franz Blom, “organized mule-pack expeditions for well-heeled adventure tourists to the then highly inaccessible ruins of Bonampak and the Lacandon rain forest” to see the “’purest’ descendents of the Classical Maya” (ibid).

Somewhat ironically, “Franz Blom, once predicted that the day would come when tourists would dress as Indians and Indians would dress in Western clothes. He added that he hoped he would not see that day” (ibid). Today, of course, hoards of tourists flock to San Cristobal de las Casas, often leaving with suitcases full of “traditional” indigenous garb.

The political issues surrounding “cultural tourism,” when not overlooked or actively hidden, are often framed in terms of an oppressor/oppressed dialectic, with the “modern” westerner traveling to see the spectacle of the “undeveloped” other. Though this narrative is not without merit, it is often guilty of the very perspective it critiques—ignoring the agency of those being “toured.” Tourism is, in fact, a rich site for performance and resistance, both on the part of the visitor and the visited.

The Zapatistas, always skilled at leveraging foreign attention, have incorporated tourism into their strategy of resistance, using tourists and tourist dollars to further their political aims. When asked about their opinion of tourism and “Marcos fever” the representatives of the Junta de Buen Gobienro at Oventik answered that they were happy to welcome visitors in the hopes that it would spread the Zapatista message. At the suggestion that Zapatourismo is “trendy” in a New York Times interview in 1996, Subcomandante Marcos replied, “if this is tourism, someone ought to give these tourists a medal.”