Streets of Cancun Paved with Gold, Inequity

Times Staff Writer

Waiter Eloy Sanchez hasn’t struck it rich yet in Mexico’s new El Dorado. But 13 years after he left his farming community for a job in Cancun’s tourism industry, he’s doing better than he ever thought he would.

Sanchez is one of hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans who have come to Cancun to build a resort mecca. They have made it the fastest-growing city in Mexico over the last two decades, and in the process they have reinvented themselves. Sanchez has clawed his way up from rural poverty in Veracruz state to the margins of Mexico’s middle class.

“My only future in Veracruz was in the fields,” he said. “Here, there is a lot of cash and you don’t lack anything. I can pay to educate my two daughters.” Sanchez, who works at a seafood restaurant, credits his success to working hard, taking risks -- and learning English, a prerequisite for better paying tourism jobs.


Not everyone in Cancun is so fortunate. Just a few miles from tightly guarded Cancun island, where the high-end hotels are clustered, slum dwellers live in cardboard shacks with standing pools of water along unpaved roads.

Such slums are a reminder of Mexico’s pervasive poverty. And even for those who are doing relatively well here, Cancun is far from paradise. Experts acknowledge that inequality is built into the structure of the resort’s economy. But the high energy of people like Sanchez flows along the streets of Cancun, an illustration of what has been one of the most reliable ways for Mexicans to escape poverty.

They have made Cancun’s pristine beaches, gleaming rows of hotels, and unending clusters of U.S. chain restaurants an established stop in the globalized tourist trade -- and that has left a big impression on delegates to the World Trade Organization meeting that is scheduled to end here today.

As late as 1972, Cancun was just a collection of fishermen’s shacks. It has grown to become the Caribbean’s largest tourist destination. The billions spent building and operating the Cancun luxury strip’s 140 hotels have given Mexicans from the rural interior job prospects they would not have had otherwise.

“I came here with nothing, on an adventure in 1986, and stayed,” said Maximino Salome Garcia, 45, a taxi driver on Cancun’s luxury hotel strip. “I thought I would try another life.

“I started as a laborer, swept floors, washed dishes and now I own a taxi,” he added. “I am very happy and enjoying this paradise.”

Even such beneficiaries of the Cancun boom complain that the city’s infrastructure is stretched too thin. The planning lavished on the hotel district seems to be missing in many parts of the city. Despite the wealth generated by the hotels and the millions of visitors who jam them each year, only a third of the city has running water or sewage services. And Cancun is devoid of parks, sports fields or libraries.

“Cancun has been a big hit for hotel investors and tourists, but not for the people who live here. There is no concept of social investment, of distribution of wealth,” said Araceli Dominguez, who is owner of El Rey del Caribe boutique hotel, and an environmental activist.

Mexico City economist Victor Manuel Godinez Zuniga said that Cancun “is one of Mexico’s brightest stars” for its positive impact in attracting investment and creating jobs in southeastern Mexico. The $2 billion that tourists spend there annually has been a tremendous windfall for the national treasury.

But Cancun was designed as an enclave. Its benefits are narrowly distributed, and it has not promoted comprehensive development, said Godinez, who is director of the Regional Information System of Mexico, an economic consultancy.

“Cancun is the centerpiece of a development model that ... by definition is unequal in its distribution” economically and socially, Godinez said.

Away from the tourist hotels, in slums such as Rancho Viejo, residents complain that they get the worst jobs, worst housing and no services. Neighborhoods flood in every heavy rainstorm.

Mayas, who were Cancun’s original residents, also complain of disadvantages.

“Jobs are scarce if you don’t have education or skill with English,” said Roberto Contreras, who sells blankets door to door. “That’s why so many of us are forced to go to the northern frontier and emigrate.” As he spoke, a pipa, or tanker truck filled with water, drove past him selling water to residents who have no water or sewage services.

Lady Merlene Coolchuc, a Maya who is an elementary school teacher in Rancho Viejo, also noted a lack of opportunities: “The government should take the initiative to train our people, but we feel abandoned.”

“All that richness is surrounded by misery,” said fisherman Jose Aguillon Cob, 52, pointing to Cancun’s hotel-packed island from his tiny seaside restaurant.

But even in the midst of such poverty, there are examples of success. Jaran Gonzalez, who arrived penniless from Tabasco state in 1995, has saved up enough money from working as a labor boss on hotel and school projects to open a grocery store in Rancho Viejo.

“I am building my house also, which I could never have afforded in Tabasco,” Gonzalez said. “For me life is good here.”

Of increasing worry to owners of small businesses not located on the island is the trend in tourism toward “all inclusive” packages. Such tourists are less inclined to venture off those enclaves for meals and services. Half of all tourists coming to Cancun are on such packages, up from just 20% in 1998, tourism officials say.

Local officials agree that infrastructure has lagged behind tourist development, but they blame rampant growth and the federal government for hording tax revenue. And they say the trend toward “all inclusive” tourist packages is a global trend that they cannot fight.

Ana Mari Irabien of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau said that Cancun’s infrastructure has also been stretched thin because it has become a bedroom community for workers at nearby Playa del Carmen, the newest Mexican Riviera boomtown.

Irabien said that Cancun’s secret to success lies in its beautiful beaches and proximity to its main market -- the United States. Room prices have increased by an average of 4% a year recently, but that doesn’t seem to daunt visitors.

What did discourage them was the fear of terrorism, but only temporarily. The Sept. 11 attacks are blamed for a 10% drop in foreign visitors in 2002. But the resort posted a record hotel occupancy rate last month of 96%.

Cancun is bracing for a new burst of construction over the next five years, including 5,000 more hotel rooms and up to five golf courses. It will undoubtedly continue to attract workers from other parts of Mexico.

Fernando Marti, a magazine publisher who is also Cancun’s government-appointed historian, said the city’s problems should be seen in the context of the grinding poverty that grips much of Mexico. Tourism, he said, has permitted Cancun to convert itself from an “unhealthy, unpopulated green desert into a modern El Dorado.”

“The poor in the rest of Mexico don’t have enough to eat,” he said. “Here, the poor can buy a piece of land after a year of work.”