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From Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico’s Northern Yucatan Coast is rapidly turning into one huge resort.
Some of these expansive decadent getaways for (mostly) Americans and Europeans are what we call “all-inclusive,” meaning food and bottom shelf liquor are included in the price of your stay. You can drink and eat to your heart’s content. Hundreds of thousands vacationers flood these resorts every year, ingesting, imbibing, soaking up the sun, and enjoying the exclusive private beaches before returning home.
Fair enough, right?
“Playa Del Carmen is dying. The all inclusive resorts are killing it,” Playa del Carmen resident Diego tells me during our interview with him.
The “first world” has entered towns like Playa, introducing hard capitalism, and turned what used to be a quiet fishing hamlet into a thrumming throbbing beach town, filled with boutique shops, pricey restaurants, and obnoxious booming nightclubs.
The growth has been rapid and is no where near finished. Playa is on its way to being a premium destination for vacationers. The locals have adapted to this new way of life, and ply all sorts of services to the outsiders. You walk down the main tourist strip and are offered everything from clothes, massages, food, “Buy junk you don’t need before you leave!” (according to one witty salesperson), and drugs.
It always ends with the drugs.
“I got the party, the real stuff. Marijuana, Coke, Molly. I got it all.”
And tourists buy it up, by the metric ton. As you can imagine this has led to a sharp increase in violence and theft in the Playa, as where drug dealers roam so roams strife and danger. One example I was given when I interviewed Diego was the sharp increase in bicycle “muggings”. You slow down on your bike at an intersection and barely even perceive the danger before you are knocked to the ground, perhaps beaten, and have your bike taken. This happens in local areas as the police patrol tourist sections like hawks.
Locals suffer, we relax and party. Familiar story.
Feeling the Economic Crunch
Now, say you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort. You might leave the grounds one out of the four or five nights you’re staying there. You decide to head into town, to actually explore the new location you have found yourself in. Or maybe you are just going to a club with your resort purchased all-you-can-drink wristband.
Once in town you certainly aren’t buying food or liquor, which are probably the top money makers of the tourist strip of Playa del Carmen known as Quinto Avenida (5th Avenue). Yeah, you might buy some trinkets. Or you go to the brand new Gucci/Prada/Nike/Forever 21 stores, and buy some shit there. In all likely hood you spend exactly zero dollars at a locally owned business. And the locals feel the crunch.
The competition for the left over scraps is fierce. This leads to every local establishment having a tout or two outside, hard selling the goods/services offered. They make eye contact if they can, turn your head with any comment that might grab your attention, and then swoop in in a fashion that most outsiders find disarming at the very least. Since they only get paid if you actually spend some money the sell is desperate and at times bitter in nature. They aren’t selling local culture or handcrafts either, they are selling imported bullshit from China. T-shirts with logos and stupid quotes “I like to fart- Playa Del Carmen” and cheaply manufactured “Mexican” sombreros dominate the sales landscape.
In Mexico citizens can buy stays at Mexican all-inclusive resorts on lay-a-way. Basically you pay the price over the course of a year or two, take a long bus ride from Mexico City and find yourself in a little private piece of heaven, away from the bustle, crime, and pollution that the non elite or non tourist are subjected to in that sprawling urban monstrosity. Since you have probably been putting most of your vacation money away to pay for the all-inclusive resort, you are much less likely to spend any more money out during a trip to the town. The locals of Playa are really bitter about this type of tourist, seeing it as a betrayal from their own kind. The “all-inclusive Mexican” tourists are frowned down on more than any other sort in Playa, due to the nature of that bitterness.
The all-inclusive resorts in Playa del Carmen rarely hire locals. They offer unpaid internships to Mexicans from all over the country who have gone to hospitality school, and import them for their knowledge of English and other languages, and for their education. This freezes the locals out almost completely, as many of the best paying jobs are in the hospitality industry that caters to the short term vacationer. Nor do the locals see any sort of profit sharing from these places. The resorts pay a tax (or a bribe, depending on how realistic you want to be about it) to the national government. One would think that by nature of their locations the resorts would give SOMETHING back to the community. Nope. Aside from some infrastructure they barely use the locals get nothing but shit upon.
Oh, wait, they DID get a Wal-Mart! Lucky them, huh? Freshly built this gigantic mega store is the all-inclusive resort of shopping. It sells everything and features prices that are mostly out of range of the locals. One stop shopping is highly convenient and Wal-Mart, as it’s done everywhere it has laid its insidious roots, has managed to put all sorts of other local owned shops out of business.
There are talks of building a gigantic shopping center near Playa Del Carmen, called the Dragon Mart. The investors of this project? The Chinese, with some American support. They are paying the government millions of dollars in “taxes” for the right to do so. An estimated 5,000 jobs will be lost and that’s not taking into account what it might do to local industry, while 4,000 new jobs will be created. Who gets these new jobs? Think about that for a second.
If you said “the locals” you have not been paying attention. The Dragon Mart will, in all likely hood, be importing Chinese workers. As Diego put it “we are about to have a Chinatown in Playa.”
Our very presence in these beautiful pieces of paradise have a direct influence on the way of life of the original inhabitants. Sometimes we bring positive change with us, but mostly we superimpose our way of life in an unhealthy fashion.
So, when you come to Playa, or decide you want to visit Cancun, or Maui, Bali, or Costa Rica, PLEASE try to stay some place other than an all-inclusive resort.
Try to remember that your very presence has contributed to an insanely rapid and mostly negative change in way of life for it’s people, and allow that to humble you.
In all honesty you will pay less for your stay if you book a 3 or 4 star hotel, and eat and drink out at local places. Trust me, you will still have a great time. The food will be better, the liquor won’t be bottom shelf, the cervesas will be just as cold, you will actually experience a new culture and it’s fantastic people. Hell you might even meet someone you’d otherwise never be exposed to.
Most of all you can proudly know that you did your best not to directly contribute to the suffering of the local population whose home you are calling your vacation play ground.