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World’s longest underground river flows deep beneath the Yucatán Peninsula

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Feb 102014
 

In January 2007, the world’s longest underground river was reported from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. [Prior to that date, the honor was held by the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in the Philippines]

The Sac Actun (“White Cave”) river system in the Yucatán Peninsula wanders for 153 km (95 miles) through a maze of underground limestone caves. It took British diver Stephen Bogaerts and his German colleague Robbie Schmittner four years to explore the caverns using underwater scooters and specially rigged gas cylinders, before they finally discovered a connection between the Yucatán region’s then second- and third-longest cave systems, known respectively as Sac Actun and Nohoch Nah Chich (“Giant Birdcage”). Following the discovery of a link, the entire system is now known as Sac Actun. The system has a total surveyed length (including dry caves) of 319 kilometers (198 mi), making it the longest cave system in Mexico, and the second longest worldwide. [The longest is the dry Mammoth Cave System, Kentucky, USA, which measures 643.7 km (400 mi) in length].

Sac-Actun cave system

Sac-Actun cave system

Vying with Sac Actun for the title of longest surveyed underwater cave system is the nearby Sistema Ox Bel Ha (“Three Paths of Water”), also in the Tulum municipality of Quintana Roo. As of August 2013, surveys had measured 256.7 kilometers (159.5 mi) of underwater passages.

The underground passages and caverns of the Yucatán Peninsula have been a favored site for cave explorers for decades. Formal mapping of the systems has taken more than 20 years of painstaking work. Access to the systems is via the hundreds of sinkholes (cenotes) that litter the surface of the Peninsula. The Sac Actun system alone includes more than 150 cenotes.

Water management was critical to the Maya as they developed their advanced civilization in this area, a region with very limited surface freshwater. Many of the cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula have archaeological importance and were utilized by the Maya for ceremonies. Perhaps the best-known (and most visited) cenote is the Sacred Cenote (cenote sagrado) at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza.

The caverns of the Yucatán Peninsula were formed as a result of the slow solution of limestone over thousands of years by percolating, slightly acidic, rainwater. In some cases, cave formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites, have later grown in the caves, formed drip-by-drip from the slow deposition of calcium carbonate from calcium-saturated ground water.

Because the average elevation of the Yucatán Peninsula is only a few meters above sea level, the water in many of the caves is “layered”, with a lens of freshwater overlying a layer of salt water. Rainwater that soaks into the ground becomes ground water, which then moves slowly along the watertable to eventually reach the ocean.

Cave researchers are worried that tourist developments in the Yucatán Peninsula will have adverse impacts on underground water systems, both in terms of water quantity (because of the amounts of fresh water extracted for domestic and tourist use) and in terms of water quality, because even point sources of water pollution (such as excess fertilizers from a golf course) could contaminate underground water supplies over a wide area.

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Global literacy or geo-illiteracy? The latest entrant to our “North America” hall of shame

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Feb 042014
 

“Mastering Global Literacy” is a collection of short articles written to explain how “educators can cultivate globally literate learners while becoming globally connected themselves.” The book’s authors (Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar and Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano) “explore ways to bring global issues into the classroom and personalize them using new digital tools.” In addition, the advertising blurb promises that readers will find “strategies for implementing global-awareness studies into the traditional school curriculum, as well as creating new types of 21st century learning environments.”

mastering-global-literacyThe aims of this book are laudable, but sadly, in many ways, this book fails to live up to its hype. This is especially true of Chapter 5 (the concluding chapter), “Interdisciplinary Global Issues: A Curriculum for the 21st Century Learner”. The overly US-centric approach adopted in this book is nowhere more obvious than in this chapter. After defining what is meant by global literacy, the chapter considers how the (U.S.) National Geography Standards (NGS) can help educators plan courses that will promote it. The NGS certainly have considerable value in this regard, but (ironically) this chapter might have benefited from also considering a more global perspective such as that adopted by the geography curriculum of the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Program.

Many of the suggestions made in this book for how global literacy can be promoted are already being practiced (and have been for decades) by geography teachers in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. The idea that geography can be infused into other disciplines has been around for a long time, hence the proliferation of course titles (in many disciplines besides geography) including terms like “Global” and”World”. There is no need to reinvent this particular wheel in developing courses that promote global literacy, and little advantage to be gained from adopting new terminology, such as the proposals for “Geo-economics”, “Geocommunications”, “Geo-arts and literature”, “Geohealth”, “Geosports” and “Geo-education”.

This book is also the latest entrant in our “North America” hall of shame for its description of a “subject-specific strategy” that will boost global literacy in the classroom when “a globally connected educator facilitates the learning”. The strategy is based on a geography lesson in which “A middle school class is studying South America and following, via a blog and Twitter feed, a National Geographic-sponsored trip of a man traveling by bus from the United States to Antarctica. Students learn about the traveler’s different destinations throughout South America: Mexico, Guatemala, the Panama Canal, Colombia, Argentina, and finally, Cape Horn.”

“Houston, we have a problem!”. The suggestion that Mexico, Guatemala and the Panama Canal are located in South America is a classic example of geo-illiteracy and, as such, completely out of place in a book about global literacy.

Conclusion? While this book does have some valuable sections, it offers far less to geographers than its promotional materials would suggest. Given its title, the book’s failure to engage with modern geography (as practiced outside the USA) is a major limitation.

Mastering Global Literacy. Contributors: Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano. 136 pages. Solution Tree. 2013.

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Energy reforms and Mexico-USA Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Energy reforms and Mexico-USA Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement
Jan 302014
 

Mexico recently approved the most significant energy reforms since the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938. The reforms end the 75-year monopoly over the energy industry enjoyed by state oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), opening the way for private investment in petroleum exploration and production.

The proposals do not allow foreign ownership of mineral or oil resources, but do allow private sector firms to participate in refineries and distribution networks, as well as sign profit-sharing contracts with state oil giant Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission. The reforms include a revised tax regime for Pemex, the world’s fifth-leading oil producer, and its reorganization into two subsidiaries.

Mexico’s oil production has risen recently to 2.5 million barrels/day (b/d) and is expected to reach 3 million b/d by 2018.

The Mexico-USA Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement (THA) has been approved by senators in Washington. The accord allows both countries to explore and develop crude reserves that straddle their exclusive economic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It establishes “an environmentally safe and responsible framework to explore, develop, and share revenue from hydrocarbon resources that lie in waters beyond each country’s exclusive, economic zones,” according to White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.

location of doughnut holes

The two “doughnut holes” where Mexican and US Exclusive Economic Zone claims overlap

The American Petroleum Institute has hailed the possibility of Mexico-USA joint projects in the Gulf of Mexico. The reserves in the maritime boundary region are believed to total more than 170 million barrels of oil and 15 million metric tons of natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

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Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”

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Jan 272014
 

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up established wisdom and forces us to rethink our viewpoints and beliefs. The latest such book to cross my desk is Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, published by publicaffairs in 2011.

poor-economicsThis is a worthy read for anyone interested in development theory, policy, practice and economics. The authors are professors of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Their book reports on the effectiveness of solutions to global poverty using an evidence-based randomized control trial approach.

Banerjee and Duflo argue that many anti-poverty policies have failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. They conclude that the battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.

The authors look at some of the unexpected questions related to poverty that empirical studies have thrown up, such as :

  • Why do the poor (those living on less than 99 cents a day) need to borrow in order to save?
  • Why do the poor miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need?
  • Why do the poor start many businesses but do not grow any of them?

The book is supported by an outstanding website that includes:

  • Introductions to each chapter
  • Maps showing cited studies with links to original sources
  • Data and figures used with interactive data tools
  • A “What Can You Do” page with links to major organizations working in the field or for the problem discussed in the chapter

The website’s links to research papers mentioned in the book include four studies related to Mexico:

1. Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico, by Ana L. De La O.

The evidence comes from the pioneering Progresa, the original Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (since repackaged as Oportunidades).  This CCT program led to a 7% increase in turnout and a 16% increase in the  incumbent vote share, with clear implications for politicians in areas where CCT programs reach a large percentage of voters.

2 School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program, by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University (August 2001).

This study considered how a CCT program affected school enrollment. The CCT program increased enrollment in school in grades 3 through 9, with the increase often greater for girls than boys. The cumulative effect was estimated to add 0.66 years to the baseline level of 6.80 years of schooling.

3 Experimental Evidence on Returns to Capital and Access to Finance in Mexico, by David McKenzie and Christopher Woodruff (March 2008)

Microenterprises are often unable to access suitable financing, even though they are responsible for employing a large portion of the total workforce. This experiment, which gave cash and in-kind grants to small retail firms, demonstrated that this additional capital generated large increases in profits, with the effects concentrated on those firms which were more financially constrained. The estimated return to capital was found to be at least 20 to 33 percent per month, three to five times higher than market interest rates.

4 Working for the Future: Female Factory Work and Child Health in Mexico, by David Atkin (April 2009)

Atkins’ paper found that children whose mothers lived in a town where a maquiladora (export factory) opened when the women were sixteen years old were much taller than those children born to mothers who did not have a similar opportunity. The effect was so large that “it can bridge the entire gap in height between a poor Mexican child and the “norm” for a well-fed American child.” (Poor Economics, 229)

The increase in height could not be fully explained by the changes in family income resulting from employment in a maquiladora. As Bannerjee and Duflo suggest, “Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing that there will be an income coming in every month -and not just the income itself- is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children. Perhaps this idea that there is a future is what makes the difference between the poor and the middle class.” (Poor Economics, 229)

Conclusion

Banerjee and Duflo’s positive message is that poverty can indeed be alleviated, but we need to take one small measurable step at a time with constant evaluation of whether or not particular policies are successful, based on evidence, not just on belief systems.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” deserves its place of honor alongside other such genuine classics as E.F. Schumaker’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973). It is a must-read for geographers, regardless of your political persuasion.

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Passenger cable car for Mexico City

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Jan 252014
 

Update (20 January 2016): The 4.8-kilometer-long Mexicable cable car linking San Andrés de la Cañada (in the Sierra of Guadalupe) to Vía Morelos (in Ecatepec) should be in operation within a few weeks, according to latest press reports. The cable car will be Mexico’s first cable car system specifically aimed at public transit. Several locations in Mexico already have cable car systems designed for tourists.

The Mexicable line, which cost around $70 million to build, will have 190 10-passenger cars and be able to carry up to 6000 passengers an hour. It will reduce travel time between San Andrés de la Cañada and Vía Morelos from 45 minutes to less than 20 minutes. There are five intermediate stations in addition to the two terminals.

Original post (2014):

Work will begin shortly on building a 5-kilometer-long intraurban cable car in the Sierra de Guadalupe region of Mexico City. The cable car, formally known as “‘Teleférico Mexicable Sierra de Guadalupe” will link residents of the densely populated San Andrés de la Cañada settlement to Vía Morelos in Ecatepec.

cable-car-mexico-cityThe cable car system will be similar to tried and tested cable car systems that have proved successful in Zurich (Switzerland) and Medellin (Colombia).

The Sierra de Guadalupe cable car will have 190 cabins and 7 stations in total, including the 2 terminals. The 95-million-dollar system will benefit up to 300,000 people, and be able to carry 6000 people an hour. It will more than halve the current travel time of 45 minutes from one terminal to the other to less than 20 minutes.

The Via Morelos terminal will be close to the existing mass transit options such as line 4 of the city’s Mexibús system and the Mexico City metro. About 300 workers will be employed during construction which is scheduled to be completed by early 2015. Once completed, the system will provide about 40 permanent jobs. The standard fare on the system is expected to be 9 pesos (about 70 cents).

A similar project is still under consideration for a western section of Mexico City, linking Santa Fe to Chapultepec.

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National Hurricane Agency and National Atlas of Risks

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Jan 232014
 

Speaking at an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Water Commission (Conagua), President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the government has allocated 170 million dollars towards modernizing the National Meteorological Service (Servicio Meteorológico Nacional, SMN).

The modernization will include establishing a National Hurricane Agency to coordinate hazard prediction, prevention and mitigation actions with state and municipal authorities to reduce the impacts of natural climatic hazard events.

2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season

Ironically, the 2013 season (shown) was the first Atlantic hurricane season since 1994 to end with no major hurricanes.

In related news, the government has also announced that progress is being made in compiling a National Atlas of Risks. The Atlas is an interactive GIS database containing details of settlements, soils, rivers, dams, highways, rail lines, river basins, oil fields, and many other factors related to the assessment of vulnerability and risk. Due to be completed by 2016, it will help all three levels of government (municipal, state, federal) decide how best to allocate hazard mitigation resources and improve the accuracy of risk assessments utilized in future planning decisions.

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Plans to improve the Mexico City-Toluca transport corridor

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Jan 202014
 

The Mexico City Metropolitan Area (dark grey on the map), which occupies the Valley of Mexico, extends well beyond the northern boundary of the Federal District and includes many municipalities in the State of Mexico. The two administrations (the Federal District and the State of Mexico) have to work closely together in order to coordinate actions in the Metropolitan Area, which had a population in 2010 of 20.1 million.

Map of Mexico City urban system

Map of Mexico City urban system. Click to enlarge. (Geo-Mexico Fig. 23.1; all rights reserved)

Toluca, the capital of the State of México, is Mexico’s 4th largest urban area, and a fast-growing industrial city in its own right, with a 2010 population of 1.8 million.

Toluca’s airport (the “Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport”) is mainly used by low-cost carriers like Interjet, Volaris and Aeroméxico Connect as an alternative to using the Mexico City International Airport, which is more expensive and operating at close to capacity. Passenger traffic through Toluca airport has grown rapidly, from 145,000 passengers in 2002 to a peak of almost 4 million in 2008, before falling back to about 1 million passengers in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Mexico City-Toluca highway is one of Mexico’s busiest major routes, linking the Federal District via Toluca (see map) to western Mexico.

In recent months, several related plans have been announced that are designed to improve the two major transportation issues in this area:

  1. The near saturation of Mexico City International Airport
  2. The very busy (and often slow) highway between Mexico City and Toluca

To ease the situation of Mexico City International Airport, the federal Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) plans to expand the airport eastwards, onto 5,500 hectares of federal land. The expansion is likely to take several years to complete, and will increase flight capacity even though it will not include an additional terminal.

Meanwhile, State of Mexico authorities have authorized a second runway for the Toluca International Airport, which will significantly expand that airport’s capacity. The SCT has proposed that Toluca Airport become an alternate airport for Mexico City, with the two airports linked by high-speed trains.

The SCT has already announced that a new rail link between Toluca and Mexico City will be jointly financed by the federal government and the State of Mexico. The existing plan is for the first phase of the “Toluca-Valley of Mexico Interurban Passenger Train” to end at the Metro Observatorio station in Mexico City, but a later phase would extend this line to Mexico City Airport. This new 2.7-billion-dollar rail line, capable of carrying 300,000 passengers a day, will run from Toluca via the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Santa Fe to Metro Observatorio, reducing the travel time between Toluca and Metro Observatorio by more than an hour to around 40 minutes, with corresponding positive environmental impacts. Construction of the new line, which will include 4 intermediate stations, is due to begin later this year, and scheduled to be completed by 2018.

A separate 115-million-dollar project is underway to reduce highway congestion between Toluca and Mexico City. To boost the road transport capacity between the two cities, a multi-lane second tier is being added to 15 kilometers of the existing Mexico City-Toluca highway, from La Marquesa to Paseo Tollocan, at the entrance to Toluca.

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Mexicali receives more deportees than any other Mexican border city

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Jan 182014
 

A recent Washington Post article – Mexicali has become Mexico’s city of the deported as U.S. dumps more people there – highlights the fact that Mexicali now has the dubious distinction of receiving more deportees from the USA than any other Mexican border city.

As the article points out, “Once, border cities like Mexicali (population 700,000) were flooded with newcomers trying to go north. Today, they are filling with obstinate deportees, cut off from U.S.-born children, jobs and car payments, adrift in a kind of stateless purgatory that is beyond the United States but not really in Mexico either. They face a U.S. border that is tougher and more expensive to cross than ever.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency deported more than 400,000 migrants in the 2012 fiscal year, and close to 370,000 in 2013, about two-thirds of them to Mexico. Mexican government statistics for that time frame show that more than 110,000 were “repatriated” to Mexicali, even though it was not their point of origin, or even the closest Mexican border city to where they were detained.

According to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) the deportees from the USA in 2012 included 13,454 unaccompanied Mexican minors under the age of 18.

This Washington Post graphic (click image to enlarge) neatly summarizes the situation.

Number of people deported to Mexico's border cities

Number of people deported to Mexico’s border cities. Click to enlarge. Credit: Washington Post.

The Washington Post article makes for some sober reflections on the plight of many of those deported from the USA, especially those individuals who have very strong family ties to that country.

The longer term social effects of such deportations are the focus of this article by Joanna Dreby, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany, State University of New York.

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Jan 162014
 

“Holiday in Mexico” is a collection of essays relating to the history of tourism in Mexico. The dozen authors involved are primarily academic historians, but also include a journalist. While the writing style is somewhat varied, this in no way detracts from the overall high quality of the contributions.

As Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, the book’s editors, point out in their introduction, Mexico’s dilemma as regards tourism has always been to “reconcile market demand with a desire for national sovereignty” (p. 1). Tourism may stimulate the economy but can also have adverse environmental, social, and cultural consequences. Tourism promoters have always sought to “package” Mexico in a way that will attract tourists. The tourism sector’s portrayals of Mexico are inevitably subjective and seek to influence the perceptions of potential visitors.

The book’s 14 chapters (including the introduction) span 3 time periods:

  • 1840s-1911
  • 1920-50
  • 1960-present

and examine three main themes:

  • how Mexicans promoted and imagined their country and culture
  • the political lenses through which Mexicans and tourists have interacted with each other
  • the advantages and disadvantages of tourism

1840s to 1911

Two chapters look at the early history of tourism in Mexico. Andrea Boardman links the early days of American tourism in Mexico to the US soldiers who entered Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Among other achievements, American soldiers climbed Mexico’s highest peak, El Pico de Orizaba, though they were certainly not the first foreign nationals to do so. The accounts written by soldiers helped the American public appreciate that Mexico was worth exploring. Visiting Mexico became easier once the major railway lines had been completed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Christina Bueno offers a detailed look at the contested reconstruction of Teotihuacan, the earliest major archaeological site to be opened for tourism, its “restoration” timed to coincide with the celebrations for Mexico’s centenary of independence. Cultural and historical tourism have remained important aspects of tourism in Mexico ever since. Such tourism simultaneously stresses the significance of indigenous culture while portraying the nation as “modern” and “forward looking”.

1920-60

Five chapters of “Holiday in Mexico” look at the formative period of tourism development in Mexico that began shortly after the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

cover of holiday in mexicoAndrew Grant Wood shows how business leaders in the port of Veracruz were able to reposition the city, changing its image from an insalubrious and unsafe city into a haven for cultural activities, music and dance, centered on annual Carnival celebrations.

Dina Berger looks at tourism, diplomacy and Mexico-USA relations. Mexico’s active promotion of its national progress (such as modern highways), democracy and friendliness coincided with a period when the USA pursued its Good Neighbor policy and Panamericanism (such as the construction of the Pan American Highway).

Eric Schantz’s essay focuses on postwar tourism in Baja California’s border zone, and considers the impacts of gaming, racing, prostitution and the growing tourism entertainment industry. Many of those crossing the border to partake in these activities were, strictly speaking, “visitors” rather than “tourists”, since they remained less than 24 hours, but they had a massive influence on the economy of some border cities.

In the next chapter, “Fun in Acapulco? The Politics of Development on the Mexican Rivera,” Andrew Sackett weaves a carefully-crafted narrative that encompasses Acapulco cliff divers, Hollywood movie stars, state intervention, poor ejido farmers being dispossessed of their land, and the capriciousness of resort developers. This is possibly the strongest chapter in the book from a geographical perspective, though Sackett overstates the significance of a 1946 map of the city, since all maps are perceptual statements and necessarily simplify the landscape and select the most appropriate points of reference for their intended audience.

Lisa Pinley Covert then looks at how San Miguel de Allende’s tourist industry developed from a combination of local, national and international factors and players. In this case (unlike Acapulco) local efforts were preeminent in establishing the city’s reputation as a center for cultural tourism. Interestingly, no distinction is drawn in this chapter between the impacts of “tourists” and the impacts of the longer-term, non-tourist foreign residents that now comprise a distinctive segment of the city’s population.

1960-present

The final five chapters have greater contemporary relevance. Jeffrey Pilcher gives an engrossing account of how culinary tourism emerged, of how restauranteurs created “authentic” Mexican cuisine, a kind of “gentrification” of Mexican food. This account supports the view that cultural imperialism has not led to the food homogenization of North America, but, on the contrary, has led to varied, glocalized responses including innovatory regional and local cuisine.

M. Bianet Castellanos looks at the lesser-known face of mass tourism in the centrally-planned FONATUR resort of Cancún: the many service workers who migrated from nearby indigenous communities, and their perceptions of the resort and its tourist industry.

Adopting a national viewpoint, Mary K. Coffey examines how federal government policies in the past decade or so have sought to promote Mexico’s artistic and folk art culture as a powerful magnet for tourism. To remain competitive on the world stage, and counteract the impacts of events elsewhere (such as 9/11), Mexico’s tourism sector needs to continually reinvent itself. This is an excellent example of how changing policies and rhetoric can help keep Mexico in the world tourist spotlight.

In looking at Los Cabos, another centrally-planned resort, Alex M. Saragoza emphasizes how it was designed specifically to appeal to wealthy US tourists, hence its emphasis on golf courses, and its grandiose plans (now scaled-back) for the “Escalera Náutica”, a network of marina resorts.

The final essay, by travel writer Barbara Kastelein, looks at some of the forces behind the development of tourism in three contrasting locales: Acapulco, Oaxaca and Amecameca, considering some of the broader aspects including race, gender, and class dynamics.

The geographical coverage of “Holiday in Mexico” is quite broad but certainly not comprehensive. The use of case studies allows the authors to explore the many subtexts in depth, but it may be that some of the insights arrived at fail to hold up when a regional or national scale is considered.

The book certainly provides plenty of ideas worth further discussion, along with thoughtful analysis of different stakeholders, different types of tourism and their relative merits. The authors do not shy away from looking at the impacts of the massive socioeconomic gaps between tourists and their Mexican hosts, or of the corruption that has unfortunately accompanied many tourism developments in Mexico.

If I have one minor reservation about this book, it is that it is overly US-centric. The history of tourism in Mexico deserves a more nuanced approach, one in which the role of European and Latin American tourists is also closely examined. This clearly opens up many possibilities for future research.

Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood (eds). 2010 “Holiday in Mexico: Critical reflections on tourism and tourist encounters.” Duke University Press.

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Retirees and “residential tourism”: a case study of Chapala-Ajijic in Jalisco

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Jan 162014
 

Retirees, mainly from the USA and Canada, form a special subgroup of tourists. About 1 million US visitors to Mexico each year are over the age of 60. Their total expenditure is about $500 million a year. Three-quarters arrive by air; half of these stay 4-8 days and almost one in ten stays 30 days or longer. Half stay in hotels, and one-third in time-shares; the remainder either stay with family or friends, or own their own second home. Of the 25% arriving by land, almost one in three stays 30 days or more. For Canadians, the patterns are broadly similar except that a higher percentage arrive by air.

The number of retiree tourists is relatively easy to quantify. However, it is extremely difficult to place accurate figures on the number of non-working, non-Mexicans who have chosen to relocate full-time to Mexico. Technically, these “residential tourists” are not really tourists at all but longer-term migrants holding residency visas. They form a very distinct group in several Mexican towns and cities, with lifestyle needs and spending patterns that are very different from those of tourists. Their additional economic impact is believed to exceed $500 million a year.

Map of Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

Map of Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

The largest single US retirement community outside the USA is the Guadalajara-Chapala region in Jalisco, according to state officials (see map). The metropolitan area of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, has a population of about 4 million. The villages of Chapala and Ajijic (combined population about 40,000) sit on the north shore of Lake Chapala some 50 km (30 mi) to the south. Historically, Chapala was the first lakeshore settlement to attract foreign settlers, as early as the start of the 20th century. Today the area is home to a mix of foreign artists, intellectuals, escapees (of various non-judicial kinds), pensioners and ex-servicemen. In the last 40 years, Ajijic has become the focal point of the sizable non-Mexican community living on the lakeshore. Depending on how they are defined, there are probably between 6000 and 10,000 foreign residents in the Chapala-Ajijic area, the higher number reflecting the peak winter season. About 60% of retirees in the area own their own homes or condos, though many still own property in the USA or Canada as well, and many make regular trips north of the border.

The main pull factors for residential tourists are an amenable climate; reasonable property prices; access to stores, restaurants and high quality medical service; an attractive natural environment; a diversity of social activities; proximity to airports; tax advantages, and relatively inexpensive living costs.

David Truly has suggested that conventional tourist typologies do not work well with Ajijic retirees. He identified migrant clusters with similar likes and dislikes. Retirees vary in education, travel experience and how they make decisions about relocation. Early migrants tended to dislike the USA and Canada and adapted to life in Mexico. They were generally content with anonymity unlike many more recent migrants. Traditional migrants appreciate all three countries, but have chosen Mexico as their place of permanent residence. Many new migrants do not especially like the USA or Canada but are not particularly interested in Mexico either. They seek familiar pastimes and social settings and are content to have relatively little interaction with Mexicans.

The large influx of residential tourists into small lakeside communities like Ajijic inevitably generates a range of reactions among the local populace. From empirical studies of regular tourism elsewhere, George Doxey developed an “irritation index” describing how the attitudes of host communities change as tourist numbers increase. His model applies equally well to residential tourists. In the initial stage the host community experiences euphoria (all visitors are welcome, no special planning occurs). As numbers increase, host attitudes change to apathy (visitors are taken for granted) and then annoyance (misgivings about tourism are expressed, carrying capacities are exceeded, additional infrastructure is planned). If numbers continue to grow, hosts may reach the stage of antagonism, where irritations are openly expressed and incomers are perceived as the cause of significant problems.

Residential tourism in the Chapala-Ajijic area has certainly wrought great changes on the landscape. Residential tourists have created a distinct cultural landscape in terms of architectural styles, street architecture and the functions of settlements. (Browse the Chapala Multiple Listing Service New Properties). Gated communities have been tacked on to the original villages. Subdivisions, two around golf courses, have sprawled up the hillsides. Swimming pools are common. Much of the signage is in English. Even the central plazas have been remodeled to reflect foreign tastes. Traditional village homes have been gentrified, some in an alien “New Mexico” style.

On the plus side, many retirees, as a substitute for the family they left behind, engage in philanthropic activities, with a particular focus on children and the elderly. Retiree expenditures also boost the local economy. Areas benefiting from retirees include medical, legal and personal services, real estate, supermarkets, restaurants, gardening and housecleaning. Employment is boosted, both directly and indirectly, which improves average local living standards.

On the minus side, decades of land speculation have had a dramatic impact on local society. Land and property prices have risen dramatically. Many local people have become landless domestic servants, gardeners and shop-keepers with a sense that the area is no longer theirs. Crime levels have risen and some local traditions have suffered. The abuse of water supplies has resulted in declining well levels. Over zealous applications of fertilizers and pesticides have contaminated local water sources.

Other locations besides Chapala-Ajijic where a similar influence of non-Mexican retirees on the landscape can be observed include San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato), Cuernavaca (Morelos), Mazatlán (Sinaloa), Puerto Peñasco (Sonara), Rosarito (Baja California) and Todos Santos (Baja California Sur). The most preferred locations are all on the Pacific coast side of Mexico.

As more baby-boomers reach retirement age, residential tourism offers many Mexican towns and cities a way of overcoming the seasonality of conventional tourism. Lesser-developed regions have an opportunity to cash in on their cultural and natural heritage and improve their basic infrastructure.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

References:

  • Boehm S., B. 2001 El Lago de Chapala: su Ribera Norte. Un ensayo de lectura del paisaje cultural. 2001. Relaciones 85, Invierno, 2001. Vol XXII: 58-83.
  • Burton, T. 2008 Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an Anthology of Travellers’ Tales. Canada: Sombrero Books.
  • Doxey G.V. 1975 A causation theory of visitor‑resident irritants: methodology and research inferences. Proceedings of the Travel Research Association, San Diego, California, USA: 195‑8.
  • Stokes, E.M. 1981 La Colonia Extranero: An American retirement Community in Ajijic, Mexico. PhD dissertation, University of New York, Stony Brook, cited in Truly, D. 2002.
  • Truly, D. 2002 International Retirement migration and tourism along the Lake Chapala Riviera: developing a matrix of retirement migration behavior. Tourism Geographies. Vol 4 # 3, 2002: 261-281.
  • Truly, D. 2006 The Lake Chapala Riviera: The evolution of a not so American foreign community, in Bloom, N.D. (ed) 2006 Adventures into Mexico: American Tourism beyond the Border. Rowman & Littlefield: 167-190

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