We pulled up in our boat from the lagoon to the beach at Sian Ka’an. In a roped off area, flocks of terns were nesting. Their busy chatter filled the air. Our guide, Aldo, pointed to a pelican flying over the ocean just beyond the break of the waves. “Look at her,” he said. “She’s going about her own business. No one is bothering her.” Then he asked us, “Imagine what this place would be like if the developers have their way.” He told us of plans to expand the tourist area of Tulum, to make it into a second Cancun. “They are trying,” he told us. “We are fighting them, but there is a lot of corruption in the government and the developers have the money. We are fighting them, but we need help.”
It was at this moment that I truly appreciated the profound threat and the bewildering problem that global tourism presents. Not only has tourist development destroyed the ecology and the heritage of Cancun, but the place will soon become an environmental disaster. Cancun is built on top of a shifting sand dune on a narrow peninsula. Hurricanes and rising sea levels are washing away its white sand beaches. Millions of yards of sand have been dredged from the bottom of the Caribbean and pumped onto the beaches in hopes of protecting the coastline that is Mexico’s greatest tourist attraction — an attraction that earns about 3 billion dollars per year. But the sand won’t stick and the dredging destroys the environment at the bottom of the sea.
Global tourism does threaten cultures and environments. But it’s also the source of a stable life for many. On this trip, we have encountered so many individuals who have a stake in the development of tourism in the Yucatán: Carlos the guide at Chichen Itza, the workers at Mayaland, Beatriz, Manuela and Marcela at the healing spa, Quetzil the anthropologist, the owner of the Hotel MedioMundo in Merida, the guards at the museum, the Russian tour group at the restaurant near Uxmal and their guide and bus driver, Jessica who wanted more tourists to stop at her restaurant and drink her marvelous Chaya refreshments, the workers of the Hotel Posada Yum Kin, the tourists at that hotel, the chef at the Slowteria, Aldo, the guide at Sian Ka’an, the pelican, the terns, the thousands of swallowtail butterflies, the banana orchids waving in the wind high over grasslands, the mangroves.
Who owns the Maya? Who buys and sells the Maya and what do they do with their purchases and profits? What are the costs of this trade in sun, sand, culture, healing, and archaeological and natural wonders?
Heath said that when he was watching the birds on the beach at Sian Ka’an, he thought that all this might be gone in twenty years. He was grateful to see it now. What should we do in the face of global tourism? As a teacher, I’ll still encourage my students to see the world, but I’ll encourage them to travel with light steps, to travel modestly, to study the history of places, to realize that history shapes the way that places are traveled, to go without expecting the comforts of home, to take less traveled roads.
I’d like to thank the Hales Fund for supporting this trip and my wonderful traveling companions for our rich conversations. Their insightful perspectives on the people, the places, the sites, and the texts that we encountered made this a fascinating trip. Their pleasant company made the journey a true pleasure.