Dec 172015
 

Is mass tourism a form of colonialism or imperialism? This, essentially, is the question thoughtfully considered by Denise Fay Brown of the University of Calgary in her article, “Tourists as colonizers in Quintana Roo, Mexico”, published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Canadian Geographer.

Map of Quintana Roo. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Map of Quintana Roo. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Brown draws on decades of personal ethnographic fieldwork related to Maya spatiality and sociospatial organization in the Yucatec Maya zone, Quintana Roo. She argues that tourists, albeit unwittingly, are increasingly able (financially and in terms of ready access) to engage with “exotic landscapes”, but that their presence in such landscapes “results in the reterritorialization of the destinations that mimics the colonial enterprise.” In particular, in Quintana Roo, she claims that “an important segment of the landscape of the Yucatec Maya people has been appropriated and reterritorialized.” (How many tourists visiting Cancún and the so-called Riviera Maya region realize that this coast was largely terra incognita fifty years ago?)

One of the classic indicators of colonialism is spatial appropriation. Maya infighting aside, the earliest attempts at spatial appropriation in Quintana Roo were by Spain during early colonial times in the early sixteenth century. Even after independence in 1821, the Yucatán Peninsula resisted integration with the rest of the (new) nation. This resistance was not only due to cultural differences, but also to the Yucatán Peninsula’s location in the periphery, a long way from the seat of power in Mexico City. Indeed, despite the massive program of railway building that helped consolidate other parts of Mexico during the late nineteenth century, a rail link from central Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula was only finally put in place in the 1950s.

Brown makes the case that the assault on Maya territory has continued into recent times, even if, “Today, it is not the conventional notion of nation state colonialism but a much more subtle invasion brought about by the ability of tourists from richer nations to travel south.”

She makes a strong argument that the growth of tourism in the Yucatán Peninsula has been “predatory” and that foreign tourists, especially those engaging in mass tourism, are, in fact, unwitting colonizers.

Brown concludes that, “The case of Quintana Roo, Mexico illustrates how the tourist can be seen as a pawn in a larger political project. Exposure of this predatory nature of tourism reveals processes that have implications for other Native regions of the Americas and beyond that are suffering similar “invasions.””

Thinking about the extent to which tourism is just one more manifestation of colonialism adds a whole new dimension to traditional tourism studies looking at economic, social and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Brown’s argument is persuasive, and, clearly, the political and cultural impacts of tourism deserve equal consideration.

Reference:

  • Denise Fay Brown. 2014. “Tourists as colonizers in Quintana Roo, Mexico”, The Canadian Geographer, vol 57, #2, Summer 2014, pp 186-205.

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Many of Mexico’s archaeological sites now on Google Street View

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Apr 132015
 

An agreement between the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) and Google means that many of Mexico’s most famous archaeological sites can now be explored using Google’s Street View. Perfect for the armchair traveler!

The system allows for viewers to rotate street level views the full 360 degrees horizontally, and 290 degrees vertically to take a “virtual walk” through such major sites as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Monte Albán, Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Palenque, Tula and Paquimé.

Sites included in INAH/Google system

Sites included in INAH/Google system

Google’s images were captured by specially-designed equipment on bicycles that could navigate the paths and ruins without causing damage to the ancient structures.

Google Street Views can be accessed via either Google Earth or Google Maps.

The INAH/Google system includes the following sites in the Maya World region (Mundo Maya):

Dzibilchaltún
Uxmal (Street view) – Uxmal (article)
Kabah
Ek Balam
Chichén Itzá (Street view) – Chichén Itzá (article)
Kohunlich
Dzibanché
Chacchoben
Tulum (Street view) – Tulum (article)
El Rey
El Meco
Cobá
Becán
Palenque (Street view) – Palenque (article)
Bonampak
Comalcalco (Street view) – Comalcalco (article)

It also includes these noteworthy sites in other parts of Mexico:

Teotihuacan  (Street view) – Teotihuacan (article)
Xochicalco (Street view) – Xochicalco (article)
Monte Albán (Street view) – Monte Albán (article)
Mitla (Street view) – Mitla (article)
Yagul (Street view) – Yagul (article)
Peralta
Plazuelas
Tzintzuntzan (Street view) – Tzintzuntzan (article)
Tajín
Paquimé (Street view) – Paquimé (article)
Cuicuilco
Cholula, Puebla (Street view) – Cholula (article)
Xochitécatla
Tula

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Video documentation of the Lacondon Indians in Chiapas

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Jan 162015
 

The Lacondon Maya are one of the most isolated and culturally conservative of Mexico’s numerous indigenous peoples. Their homeland is in the remote Lacondon Jungle in eastern Chiapas, close to the Guatemalan border. The Lacondon were the only Mayan people not conquered or converted by the Spanish during the colonial era. Until the mid-20th century they had little contact with the outside world, while maintaining a sustainable agricultural system and practising ancient Mayan customs and religion.

This short two-part video by Joel Kimmel (Part One above; Part Two below) briefly traces the history of the Lacandon back to the classic Mayan civilization. The videos document their successful, slash and burn, rotating, multicrop, subsistence agricultural lifestyle, steeped in religious ritual, and sustained over centuries in small isolated groups in the almost impenetrable Lacandon jungle.


The film then looks at the more recent outside influences that resulted in the near extinction of the Lacandon by the mid 20th century. Today their population has increased again and is estimated at between 650 and 1000, living in about a dozen villages. The second video focuses on the Lacondon’s confrontation with the modern world over the past four decades. One group, the “southern” Lacandon have opted for Christianity and the trappings of modern life, whilst some in the “northern” group, centered around the village of Naja, near the Mayan ruins of Palenque, attempt to maintain the old customs and religion. The video ends with the thoughts of a former Director of Development at Na Bolom, regarding the possibility, and immense difficulty, of trying to preserve what remains of their language, cultural heritage and ecological knowledge, treasures the world can ill afford to lose.

The videos introduce speakers and photos from the internationally famous Casa Na Bolom, in San Cristóbal de la Casas, Chiapas. This scientific and cultural research institute was founded in 1951 by Danish archeologist Franz Blom and his Swiss wife, Trudy Blom, journalist, photographer and later environmental activist. They devoted their lives to documenting the cultural history of the Lacondon people and life in the Chiapas jungle and advocating for the survival of both. Following Trudy Blom’s death in 1993, the Asociación Cultural Na Bolom has continued to operate the center as a museum, research and advocacy center, and tourist hotel. It houses an archive of over 50,000 photographs, and other documentation created by scholars over the decades.

The two videos provide visual proof of the forces of modern Mexico that have threatened the existence of the Lacondon way of life – government roads opening up the jungle to loggers and other settlers, logging permits resulting in massive clearcutting of the mahogany forests , the arrival of tourism, Coca-Cola and canned foods, mainstream education and modern technology like satellite television.

Not covered in the video is the fact that a Mexican presidential order in 1971 granted 614,000 acres to the Lacandon Community, recognizing their land rights over the, by then, more numerous settlers who had been allowed to colonize the Lacandon Forest under previous governments. This, however, has brought the Lacandon into conflict with many settler-groups, creating problems which continue to the present time. (See Chiapas Conflict on Wikipedia).

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The Tikul Plantation cacao project near Mérida

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Sep 072013
 

By way of contrast to the much-criticized, and now collapsed, Maya Biosana chocolate project, the Tikul Plantation, near Merida (Yucatán), is a well thought out cacao-growing project, with an educational component, being carried out by people who have decades of real experience with cacao. (Follow the link for a series of photos which gives a good idea of what is involved). Among the principles adapted by the Tikul project is biodynamic farming, which in this case means that “grafting is carried out when the moon is waxing and we harvest the pods when the moon is waning”.

Tikul-logoThat cacao plantation, begun in 2008 by Belgian firm Belcolade, already has 10 hectares of land planted with 10,000 cacao trees (planting density of 1000 cacao trees/hectare). In addition, “20 more hectares have been cleared and cedar and mahogany trees, amongst others, have been planted”. The developers of that project already have the 20,000 cacao trees to be grafted to complete the planting of this area. The shade plants that have been planted include 2000 yucca (cassava), 4000 banana plants,  10,000 cedar trees and 5000 mahogany trees. This means an average planting distance of “a cacao tree every 3 meters, a cedar tree every 6 meters and a mahogany tree every 12 meters”.

Belcolade produces high quality Belgian chocolate for distribution to over 100 countries. “Belcolade, the Real Belgian Chocolate, is produced solely in Belgium following a long tradition of craftsmanship, quality and refinement. It is made from carefully selected cocoa beans using production processes that have been perfected over time, thus assuring that Belcolade’s exquisite taste is in line with consumers’ expectations.”

Visitors to the Tikul Plantation are introduced to the importance of cacao to the Mayan culture in the “Cacao EcoMuseum” near the Plantation’s entrance.

The Cacao Ecomuseum is not without its critics. According to an article in the Yucatán Times, Becolade never received the appropriate permits from the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) to build a structure in a protected zone. The article alleges that construction was only possible because certain INAH officials acted corruptly.

Meanwhile another enterprise Choco-Story, with local partners, (and which has no connection to Belcolade as we incorrectly claimed in an earlier version of this post) has come under heavy fire in the press in recent months because it also started to build Chocolate Museums on the archaeological zones of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Construction of both has now been halted, with INAH officials ordering that the partially-completed structures be demolished. The latest reports are that the conflict at Uxmal has been resolved and that the Choco-Story museum at that site will open sometime next year.

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Mexico’s tourist industry plans to increase tourist expenditures

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Mar 022013
 

The tourism and travel industry in Mexico accounts for about 13% of GDP. Speaking last month at the XI National Tourism Forum in the resort city of Cancún, Mexico’s Tourism Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu outlined the National Tourism Strategy 2013-2018. The new plan places more emphasis on increasing the average expenditures of tourists than on boosting total visitor numbers. It aims to revive the appeal and occupancy rates of existing destinations, rather than adding new resorts, and to diversify tourist attractions through programs such as Magic Towns and routes catering to specific interests such as Mexican cuisine. Other objectives include improved airline connectivity and simplified border crossing procedures.

Tourist spending in Mexico rose to 12.72 billion dollars in 2012, 7.17% more than in 2011, but visitor numbers fell by about 1%. The World Tourism Organization ranked Mexico as the 13th most visited country in the world in 2012, a significant drop from the 10th place it had occupied for several years.

cancun-40-yearsCancún has added a major tourist attraction with the opening last year of the Mayan Museum of Cancún in the city’s Hotel Zone. The museum replaces the former Mayan Museum closed in 2005 following damage from Hurricane Wilma. Built by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) at a cost of $15 million, the museum is that organization’s largest single project for some 30 years. It houses 3500 archaeological pieces, 350 of which are on permanent display, and is expected to attract up to a million visitors a year. Adjacent to the museum is the archaeological site of San Miguelito, the most important Mayan settlement on Cancún Island, also now open to the public.

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Dec 152012
 

Is this the final week of Geo-Mexico (and the world)? Predictions have snowballed in recent years that the world will come to an end on 21 December 2012. The claims are based on the fact that the current Maya calendar cycle “ends” on that day. The Maya have several simultaneous calendar counts. Each long cycle count, or B’ak’tun, lasts 394.3 years. The very first B’ak’tun began on 11 August 3114 BC, the date when the Maya believe they were created. The 13th B’ak’tun ends on 21 December 2012, hence the concern propagated by panic-mongers.

The Maya themselves don’t seem too worried by these alarmist claims. They worked out years ago that their 14th B’ak’tun cycle will start the next day, 22 December 2012, and run to sometime in 2406. On the other hand, is it just a simple coincidence that on 21 December 2012, at the exact moment of the winter solstice at 23:11 UST, the sun will be precisely aligned with the center of the Milky Way galaxy, as seen from Earth— the first time this has happened for 26,000 years?

Will the claims be proven true? Unlikely, but just in case we will delay writing any posts about the geography of Mexico for publication after 22 December 2012 until we’re absolutely sure…

Need more evidence? As a starting-point, try:

[This post, excluding the first sentence, was first published on Geo-Mexico on 20 August 2011]

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The geography of the Maya: does central place theory apply to ancient Maya settlements?

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Oct 112012
 

An interesting historical example of central place theory is described in Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions. Central place theory suggests that places of similar size (or occupying a similar level in a region’s urban hierarchy) should form a distinctive spatial pattern. They will be roughly equidistant from one another.The pattern is conceptualized as a series of hexagons, with a settlement at each apex. Such a pattern permits an equidistant spacing in all directions, and has no “gaps” where any territory falls outside (beyond) the “sphere of influence” of one or other of the settlements.

Several archaeologists interested in the Maya have suggested that central place theory offers a way to help explain the pattern of Maya sites in the Yucatán Peninsula and further south into Guatemala. They have postulated that Maya settlements may indeed form a hierarchy in terms of size and importance, with a relatively small number of major regional centers overseeing a larger number of smaller centers. Furthermore, where such a pattern exists, it suggests a high degree of political organization.

This particular example comes from the south-east corner of Campeche, near the Guatemala border.

 

The major regional center in this case is Calakmul (a World Heritage site since 2002). Calakmul is surrounded by six smaller centers, which are close to equidistant from each other, as well as from Calakmul. In turn, Uxul has several smaller subordinate settlements around it.

Settlement order around Calakmul in Classic Period (Blanton et al, 1981)

Settlement order around Calakmul in Classic Period (from Blanton et al, 1981; figure 4.11)

In this example, the average distance between settlements is about 33 kilometers (20.5 miles), which is approximately one day’s walk and/or canoe trip in this region. So, an individual could leave somewhere like Altamira in the morning and reach Calakmul before nightfall, and vice versa.

Not all Maya archaeologists believe that central place theory is helpful in explaining the distribution of settlements in the region. Some argue that the daily travel distance is the key, and that patterns such as that found around Calakmul are as much due to coincidence as any kind of overriding pattern.

The original theory, as proposed by German geographer Walter Christaller in 1933, was based on various assumptions. In particular, the region was assumed to be an unbounded isotropic (flat) plain, homogeneous in all significant physical aspects (soil, access to water, vegetation, etc), and population was assumed to be evenly distributed. The Yucatán Peninsula is certainly an area of low relief, but access to water and vegetation vary significantly from one area to another, so Christaller’s basic assumptions are not met in the region. On the other hand, there is no denying that a highly structured society might decide (even without having studied  AP Human Geography or A-level Geography) that regularly-spaced settlements are an ideal solution to issues of transportation, administration and control.

For a more academic discussion of the merits of central place theory in Maya research, see Brown and Witschey’s The Geographic Analysis of Ancient Maya Settlement and Polity [pdf file], a paper presented in 2001 at the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, City University, Hong Kong.

Source:

Blanton, Richard E., Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary Feinmann and Jill Appel. Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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Where is the best place in Mexico to celebrate the Spring Equinox?

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Mar 202011
 

The main pyramid at the Maya site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatán Peninsula is the most popular site in Mexico for crowds to gather and celebrate the Spring Equinox (March 20-21). The Maya were accomplished astronomers and were able to accurately predict equinoxes, eclipses and other celestial events hundreds of years in advance.

Crowds gather to witness the serpent descend the pyramid
Crowds gather to witness the serpent descend the pyramid. Original upload by shawn_christie1970 (Flickr).

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza, known as the Pyramid of Kukulkan, has some unusual properties which researchers are still trying to explain. It is so precisely aligned that for a day or two either side of the Spring Equinox, the light falling on one side of the pyramid creates undulating shadows that look like a serpent slithering down the pyramid steps. The effect is best seen between 4 and 5 pm.

The slithering serpent is not the only surprise that the Pyramid of Kukulkan has in store for visitors. Kukulkan was a Mayan deity, the “feathered serpent”, more usually known in central Mexico as Quetzalcoatl. The Pyramid of Kukulkan is linked to the quetzal bird, because depictions of Kukulkan often show the distinctively long feathers of the quetzal. Standing in front of the pyramid and making a single hand clap results in an echo from the pyramid’s staircase, an echo which sounds like the downward chirp of a quetzal bird.

David Lubman has proposed that this may be the earliest sound recording so far discovered anywhere on the planet. We may never know whether it was originally accidental or intentional, but Lubman makes a strong case for this chirp being a deliberate representation of the call of the Respendant Quetzal bird, a bird described in Peterson and Chalif’s Field Guide to Mexican Birds as “the most spectacular bird in the New World.” Quetzal birds were sacred to the Maya, and their feathers were highly prized; the birds were formerly common in the rainforest which originally cloaked this entire region.

Sources

Original article on MexConnect.com: Did you know? Mayan architects built world’s oldest sound recordings

Lubman, David (1998) “Archaeological acoustic study of chirped echo from the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan Region of Mexico… Is this the world’s oldest known sound recording?“. Paper presented to the 136th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, October 1998.

Lubman, David (2002) “More on the Mayan Pyramid“. Article on the website of the Orange County Regional Chapter of the Acoustical Society of America:

Map of the state of Quintana Roo, with Cancún, Cozumel and Tulum

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Sep 272010
 

The state of Quintana Roo (see map below) has an area of 42,360 square kilometers and a population of 1,361,821 (2010 estimate). The state is one of Mexico’s flattest states, with its highest point being only 230 meters above sea level. Its distinctive landscapes include coastal barrier islands (such as the one Cancún’s hotel  zone is built on), magnificent coral reefs and tropical karst (limestone scenery). It also has tropical forests and mangrove swamps. The state’s capital city  is Chetumal (estimated 2010 population: 146,000), an important port and the gateway for overland connections to Guatemala. A short distance north of Chetumal is the beautiful, tranquil Laguna Bacalar.

Map of Quintana Roo. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Until the mid-20th century, the state was best known for its chicle (used for chewing gum) collectors and its Mayan ruins. Many of these have been restored in the past 50 years or so, and are now important tourist attractions. The best known sites are Tulum perched on a cliff overlooking the azure Caribbean sea (and unfortunately all too accessible for cruise ship passengers) and Cobá, a magnificent city only partially cleared of jungle. Ecotourism is an important sector of tourism in Quintana Roo. Critics notwithstanding, one of the most memorable eco-related sites in the entire country is Xcaret marine park. The biosphere reserve of Sian Ka’an in the middle part of the state also draws large numbers of  ecotourists.

The purpose-built resort of Cancún, begun in 1970, has grown into Mexico’s most important tourist resort. Easily reached by plane from most parts of the USA, Canada and Europe, it is one of the world’s major destinations for package holidays. The area south of Cancún is often referred to as the Mayan Riviera; it is one of Mexico’s most rapidly developing tourist areas.

Previous post related to Quintana Roo

Maps of neighboring states

Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico looks at many aspects of Quintana Roo, including its socio-economic make-up and its development indicators. If you are interested in the geography of Mexico, please recommend this book to your local library or consider buying your own copy, as well as following this site with details of all new posts via  e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.

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The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages
Apr 232010
 

Most people realize that the national language of Mexico is Spanish and that Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish speaking country. In fact, its population, now numbering 105 million, represents about one-third of all the 330 million or so Spanish speakers in the world. Spanish is the majority language in nineteen other countries besides Mexico, and is the world’s third most spoken language, after English and Chinese.

Far fewer people realize that, in addition to Spanish, another 62 indigenous languages are also spoken in Mexico. This makes Mexico one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, in terms of the number of languages spoken, behind Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India, but well ahead of China, Brazil and just about anywhere else.

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country.

The largest indigenous groups are those speaking Nahuatl (2,563,000; dispersed locations, and therefore not shown on the map), Maya (1,490,000), Zapotec (785,000) and Mixtec (764,000), followed by those using Otomí (566,000), Tzeltal (547,000) and Tzotzil (514,000). Other well known groups include the 204,000 having Purépecha (or Tarasco) as their first language and the 122,000 speaking Tarahumara.

At the other end of the spectrum, only about 130 people still speak Lacandón and only 80 use Kiliwa. Only 60 people still use Aguacateco in Mexico and only 50 speak Techtiteco (or simply Teco), though both languages are spoken by several thousand Indians in neighboring Guatemala.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that many Mexicans not only speak Spanish and/or an indigenous language, but also manage pretty well in English, French, Japanese and many others!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect – click here for the original article

Indigenous languages and cultures are analyzed in chapters 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.