#67 - the end of tourism
is it possible to travel better?
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I am in Oaxaca City. I decided to come to Mexico a few weeks ago and take myself on a solo residency to find some pockets of creative inspiration and figure out what it means to care for myself again after two years of mental and physical disarray.
The house I am staying in is painted bright yellow to compliment the rainbow-clad streets. In the distance are vistas of mountains that fall into a surreal gradient as the nightfalls against a chorus of dogs, birds, horses, church bells, fireworks and construction that somehow harmonize throughout the day. This place is sleepy and vibrant at the same time — giving you permission to find whatever pace suits you. Every corner is plastered with wheat-pasted woodblock prints - an art form that grew in 2006 during a teacher’s strike and became central to a vivid culture of resistance. In the city thick with foreign energy, I am anonymous - which is a freedom I crave so viscerally to relieve the constant worry that I am being judged for not doing and hustling enough. This space feels nothing short of a literal gift from the gods.
But as I join the influx of ‘digital nomads’ and remote workers who have occupied many parts of Mexico during and after the pandemic, I also feel a palpable sense of discomfort being here. I wonder if I should leave immediately. Instead of peace, I am constantly anxious about the impact of my presence and trying to figure out how to negotiate the positionality of my passport, the weight of my currency, and the reality of gentrification and climate crisis as wholly not abstract.
The topic of tourism and tourists in Oaxaca and Mexico dominates my conversations. There is an exhaustion, anger and perhaps sadness felt by locals — who no longer recognize their beloved home, and can rarely afford to live in the city, being forced farther outside, lending to longer commutes to work. Local cultural institutions are now flooded by tourists taking photos and videos after hearing about it on a review site. Like most cities around the world - the economic potential of turning a home into an Airbnb has drained the rental market, and driven up the prices to those comparable to major cities like Toronto. Vox recently reported on the ‘pitfalls’ of Mexico as a remote work destination - and referenced a tweet from a young, white, female remote worker (now deleted) that read ‘Do yourself a favour and remote work in Mexico City — it is truly magical,’ leading to many locals responding with ‘please don’t’ and showcasing the more challenging sides of living in a city densely spilling over its edges.
‘Everyone thinks Mexico is ‘fun’ and ‘cheap’ and ‘fresh.’ No. Mexico is a fucking hard place’ - an activist and artist whose ceramics practice is grounded in defending the land and territory shares coyly. The passion for the ‘real’ Oaxaca is intimately felt amongst younger generations, who are keen to protect it, share the stories of the people, and resist against decades of ‘irresponsible tourism.’ A server joylessly shares with me that their home is Cancun, but since it has been completely taken over by resorts and tourists, there is nothing left for them there. ‘It’s complicated,’ another artist shares in slow despair - acknowledging their desire for cultural exchange, having friends they love who are foreigners, and depending on tourism to survive.
There is no easy answer on where to place responsibility in a system where the government prioritizes tourism and foreign trade to manage the economy; citizens develop and depend on businesses to meet the market demand, and wealthy foreigners are living out neoliberal and neocolonial lifestyles sold to them as their right to explore. This power dynamic has existed in low-income countries for decades through expatriate communities, and ‘tourist towns’ can be found all over the world, which is indicative of how colonialism and neo-forms are at its core the story of displacement and erasure of home and history. When, where and how does the system break?
At the same time, there is a water crisis across Mexico brought on by drought from rapid deforestation (to meet the global demand for avocados 😭) and over-draining aquifers without the infrastructure to treat rainwater. Beaches are being washed up and farms are disappearing. The media routinely refers to the crisis as approaching ‘day zero’ - or better described as the day that Mexico goes dry. Because of the lack of adequate treatment facilities — Mexico is paradoxically a place that routinely floods and is still running out of water. Some communities receive a max of 2 hours of water a day and while others have begun a count for the number of days they have been ‘dry.’ In Mexico City and Oaxaca City — water is often brought in by truck, typically syphoned from surrounding (often poorer) communities to service hotels, corporations and wealthier families. ‘It’s a big business,’ a fashion designer tells me, likely with ties to cartels who want to protect the lucrative income source. It is clear that states of survival force you into a precarious present that has no space to consider the future impact of your choices.
‘You are Canadian, right?’ a local artist asks me.
‘I guess. I have the passport,’ I respond.
‘It’s a pretty great passport,’ he shrugs. ‘I can’t go anywhere.’
We sit silently in the distance between us and the violent borders between us.
‘Then you must have heard about the mines?’ he goes on.
Canada operates over 200 mines across Mexico - extracting everything from gold and silver under NAFTA while benefiting from cheaper labour costs and looser environmental and employment laws. In Oaxaca, protests have been staged against Fortuna Silver Mines — a Vancouver-based company whose operation has contaminated the water and soil of the community, completely changing the landscape, while simultaneously trying to sponsor cultural events in the city to win good favour. All over the country, water defenders are organizing to protect our nectar of life from new mining and energy projects — but reports of them being threatened and killed have gravely grown. What makes Mexico particularly complicated for a North American is the double standard on visiting and immigration; we can come here freely, but in reverse, Mexicans are considered ‘illegal immigrants’ that conservative governments gleefully ‘crackdown on,’ or ‘migrant workers’ keeping our farms and food systems alive but without access to social services. As climate changes and drought continue to displace Mexican communities and make some places unliveable - the demand for migration and the reality of climate refugees will grow. What does it mean to be in solidarity after you return home? How will you vote differently?
There is a long-standing debate about if travel actually supports building empathy and cultural understanding or simply perpetuates inequality. In 1988, Antiguan-American writer, Jamaica Kincaid wrote a short essay in Harpers called ‘The Ugly Tourist,’ which was initially rejected by the magazine as being ‘too angry.’ When published, it was met with mixed reviews but continues to be analyzed and considered a work that critically evokes the ugliness of the tourist who does not grapple with the lives and struggles of natives.
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day.
Most people, myself included, cringe at the idea of being a tourist; rejecting being the image of obnoxious and disrespectful behaviour, and avoiding ‘tourist traps’ for more ‘authentic’ experiences. There is a version of travelling that is generative and respectful but this dichotomy between labels, not dissimilar to rejecting the idea of being ‘racist,’ or ‘anti-black’ is not useful during a time where we continue to need honest reckoning and reimagining.
In a 2016 article written in the journal, Annals of Tourism Research, Hazel Tucker suggests embracing the concept of an ‘unsettled empathy,’ meaning ‘learning about the cultures you’re planning to visit and sitting with uncomfortable legacies of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and displacement from which no destinations are exempt.’ Engaging in the neocolonial reality of Mexico has allowed me to participate in many meaningful conversations, though I am conscious of not self-aware’ing myself into justification.
During one conversation with another Canadian — they pointed me to a podcast, called The End of Tourism, hosted by Chris Christou, a Canadian writer, activist and educator that has lived in Oaxaca since 2015. In Episode 9, he interviews Deborah McLaren, the author of ‘Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel,’ and an activist who has been supporting Indigenous communities to defend and protect the land against extractive tourism for over 30 years. Together they reflect on how the pandemic shut down tourism, causing a moment of pause — but the loss of income has caused governments (like Mexico) and foreigners to torpedo back into ‘how things used to be.’ McLaren describes the cycle of tourism in local communities as ‘euphoria from success,’ then ‘apathy from unwanted change,’ and finally ‘competition and hostility amongst locals.’ They recognize that as individuals mired by systemic failures, the best we can do is be aware of our power while travelling, make choices that support and connect with Indigenous communities and do this work back home too.
Moving slowly. Moving relationally. Listening actively. Contributing consciously. Speaking critically. This is how I am navigating this trip. Yet, I am aware something in me is shifting. ‘When someone points your privilege to you - it’s an opportunity,’ writes Kim Tran. ‘Use that moment, ask why they gifted you that info. Have you harmed them? Do they want to repair? Or, has it been brought to your attention because your privilege might be useful in the context of liberation work?’
I use to have a passion for travelling — fuelled by curiosity and reverence for culture, and that won’t change, but something doesn’t feel right in its current form anymore. I wonder if this means travelling less altogether or travelling more consistently to one place to build a relationship with a place and people. I’m not sure but I know naming it and sitting in the discomfort is always the beginning of a new way of being that is closer to a shared liberation.
P.S. How are you rethinking travel during this period of climate change and neocolonial reckoning?
P.P.S If you looking to buy beautiful homeware and artworks — I recommend Hacer Com’un (led by Eduardo Barrita) and works featured by Pocoapoco, where all proceeds go towards supporting residencies for local artists. If you are visiting Oaxaca, be sure to check out Habitat Oaxaca and Necia Oaxaca, which are two beautiful and visionary movement and performance spaces.