Latin Tourism: A High Price for Selling the Sun : Development: Build it and the tourists will come. But the local folks are of two minds about who benefits most, them or the Americans.

<i> Cecilia Rodriguez is a Colombian journalist based in Mexico City</i>

There is no sight more bizarre than a native walking along the beach in any resort town developed for gringos in Latin Third World countries. Local men, with their heavy boots, long trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and local women with their ruffled but humble dresses, seem completely out of context in their own towns where Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic are the arbiters of fashion.

These “Gringolandias,” as author Bob Schacochis calls them, are jammed with sun-loving tourists drawn by Latin governments eager for foreign capital. It is the latest friendly but no-less-worrisome invasion from the northern neighbor.

Mexico’s coasts are teeming with such billion-dollar Gringolandia playgrounds. Cuba, the world’s last bastion of socialist resistance to U.S. intervention, has opened its stunning shores to a Western invasion of tourists as a last-gasp effort to save its barely breathing economy. This month, U.S. athletes and sports officials have been discovering Cuba during the Pan American games. They have had a rare opportunity to crack the island normally closed to U.S. visitors by their own government--and a taste of what Cuba expects in the future.


When a poor country has been favored by nature with a “best place”--call it the most exotic beaches, the most picturesque campesinos, the most colorful fiestas, the most authentic Indian villages or any of the other “mosts” offered by the brochures--the potential for easy dollars in a poor country has to be taken.

It is a marriage made in heaven: American merrymakers, always on the search for that best vacation, and governments that, as Fidel Castro aptly puts it, are “selling the sun.”

Let’s take Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California, with gleaming beaches, year-round blue skies and clear, warm water. Vacationing at this relatively recent emporium of tourism, I am constantly asked by friendly U.S. tourists: “This is the best part of Mexico, isn’t it?” That’s what the travel brochures sold them and that’s what they are desperate to believe: “The closest tropical paradise to the western USA”; “Own a piece of this seaside paradise”; “The Mexico of your dreams coming true.”

But the U.S. quest for the most awesome paradise implies complex consequences for the developing countries so anxious to attract tourists.

Cabo is not what it was in the 1850s, when it was capital of the kingdom of a U.S. pirate named William Walker. Until just 10 years ago, it was a sleepy town of fishermen, population less than 300. Today, it has over 20,000 people and booms with construction, hotels, condominiums, mansions, para-sailing boats, scuba divers and a marina full of luxury yachts.

Private and government capital has transformed the village. Some sacrifices were necessary along the road to modernity. A tuna-packing plant, its odor unpleasant for the tourists, had to be closed and its employees pensioned. Fishing as a way of life simply had to end. A self-sufficient economy, tiny as it was, turned outward. Most of those who lost jobs were absorbed by the growing tourist industry. The majority of the tuna packers became construction workers. The campesino farmers became taxi drivers or hotel and restaurant waitresses. Fishermen run boat taxis and boats-for-hire to deep-sea sport fishermen.


What do the “exotic” locals think of all those changes, the people who sell silly hats on the beach or spread carpets on the sand by your tanned feet? The answers fly from one extreme to the other.

“We have given everything to the gringos.”

“Only the worst jobs are for us.”

“We continue to be poor.”

“Nothing is left: not the crops, not the businesses, not the houses.”

Others welcome the prosperity that comes with dollar-wielding tourists.

“This was a poor pueblito. Today, look around. Only progress.”

“My mother has a taco stand with my brother. My father works as a builder. My other brother works at a hotel. And I have a taxi. We are very well off now, better than before.”

Even if traditions become spectacles for visitors--”driving your Honda, 4-wheel ATV, you will arrive at the isolated Indian pueblo of La Candelaria, where white witchcraft is still practiced high in the mountains,” one brochure offers--the labor benefits are positive. There is practically no unemployment in Cabo; the average salary is higher than the government minimum wage.

Few places of comparable size in Mexico can boast of that economic situation. The official numbers are encouraging. Almost half of Baja’s income comes from tourism.

The future, however, does not encourage. With few exceptions, tourist booms become a trap. The growth gets out of hand. Investors and governments go on a building frenzy. Idyllic paradises for rich Americans attract the host country’s poorest. The extravagance of the tourist, spending purely on his pleasure, is like a magnet for those who have nothing. In Cabo, pessimists point to Cancun and Acapulco, where children, prostitutes and beggars compete with hundreds of street vendors for tourist riches.

“Acapulco is seedy, polluted, overpopulated, homogenized, over-built, money-crazed, exhausted,” Schacochis wrote in Harper’s Magazine. “Acapulco’s panorama is breathtaking. Its transactions employ hundreds of thousands . . . . Its opportunities provide a catalyst for democratization. Choose.”

Cuba also has faced that choice, although politics there complicates the tourism dilemma. But, desperate for foreign currency, it has decided to sell the sun. After the Pan American games, the country will never be the same. Despite the efforts of the government to keep its population isolated from the foreign influence and dollars of the visitors, the island has already been “contaminated.”

In its campaign to block the corrupting influence of fun-loving capitalists, the government has created what are essentially tourist ghettos. Visitors are carefully corralled in hotels, restaurants, discos, bars and beach resorts--all off-limits to Cubans.

Some tourists feel isolated and others persecuted by all those measures to keep them away from Cubans, while Cubans grow bitter over the luxury that they see but can never enjoy. The Pan Am games meant less food, clothing, medicine and public transportation for people already starved for basic necessities.

Yet Cuban officials await the time when U.S. tourists can invade massively and freely. As for Mexican tourists, they already are hitting Cuban beaches in a big way. That’s because it’s cheaper for many middle-class Mexicans to relax at a Cuban fun spot than pay the high prices at their own country’s resorts. How’s that for tourist development?