TULUM, México – Nestled along the stunning Caribbean coastline, Tulum, with its majestic Maya archaeological sites perched above the sea, white sandy beaches, cenotes, and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, has evolved into a globally renowned destination for eco and cultural tourism. This rise in popularity has driven a demographic surge, transforming Tulum from a modest community of 540 inhabitants in 1980 to a bustling, diverse town of 18,233 residents by 2010, according to INEGI. Today, Tulum is largely populated by national and international migrants attracted by economic opportunities, employment, and the allure of a serene lifestyle.
This demographic diversity sharply contrasts Tulum’s local tourism narrative, which heavily leans on its Maya identity to create a unique brand in the competitive tourism market. The term “Maya” and the Mayan language are frequently used in the names of hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, dive schools, and a wide array of tourist activities. Furthermore, to align Tulum with the Mundo Maya tourism route and to achieve the esteemed status of “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) in Mexico, municipal authorities have endeavored to “Mayanize” the town’s appearance. This includes adopting an architectural style, sculptures, and engravings reminiscent of the pre-Hispanic Maya world, and even erecting a giant Maya calendar in the municipal park, now renamed “Parque Museo de la Cultura Maya”.
In a coordinated effort with the state government and private allies, cultural propaganda programs have been implemented to project an image of Tulum as a Maya community. This includes public celebrations of Hanal Pixan (a traditional Maya festival), pre-Hispanic dance shows, local TV programs portraying Tulum as a “Maya town”, and various cultural initiatives by investor groups promoting Tulum’s “Maya culture”.
Tourist advertisements and observations during guided tours and tourist information sessions reveal a dual portrayal of the Maya: the pre-Hispanic Maya depicted as civilized, wise, and spiritual, and the communal Maya, humble and intimately connected with nature. These portrayals align with Tulum’s tourism offerings – its archaeological site on one hand and natural attractions on the other. They also echo the nationalistic imagery of the indigenous people: the pre-Hispanic native as the glorious ancestor of the nation, and the indigenous farmer, deeply rooted in the land, symbolizing the state’s sovereignty over its territory.
This tourist narrative plays a crucial role in Tulum’s identity, combining ecotourism and Maya culture. This has led to a parallel process of ecologizing the Maya image and Mayanizing the region’s natural landscapes. Terms like “Maya jungle”, “Maya bees”, and comparisons of bee hives to Maya pyramids are common in tourist slogans. Even the municipal logo, depicting the archaeological site with the title “Tulum, naturally”, reinforces this association.
However, this simplistic identification of locals as Maya overlooks Tulum’s complex history. During the Caste War, Tulum was a key rebel stronghold, serving as an arms supply port and command center, known for its “talking cross”. Post the intervention
of Porfirio Díaz’s army and the establishment of Quintana Roo as a federal territory in 1902, the government aimed to integrate this rebellious region into the nation. Large-scale projects, including constructing communication routes and forest exploitation, attracted migrant workers. But the later development of tourism truly achieved, and even exceeded these nationalization goals. The transformation of Tulum into a tourist destination also played a significant role in this national integration.
The Tulum archaeological site became federal property, and the establishment of the Tulum National Park in 1981 and the recognition of Sian Ka’an as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 brought increased federal oversight. This shift has been pivotal in aligning Tulum with the national narrative.
Tourism in Tulum not only showcases Mexico to the world but also integrates national symbols and practices from other regions. The success of pre-Hispanic performances in tourism encourages the spread of a patriotic ideology of “Mexicanidad.” Training in pre-Hispanic dance, often provided by entities like Xcaret, includes the dissemination of this ideology. Additionally, the visual and verbal omnipresence of Maya identity – a category recognized by the state – overshadows the memory of the macehualo’ob rebels.
The ecological and peaceful portrayal of the Maya in tourism narratives conceals the separatist history of Yucatán’s eastern coast. The Maya Church of Tulum, a legacy of the Caste War where the Talking Cross ritual is still practiced, has been co-opted into this national narrative through municipal and state patronage, thus integrating it into a broader historical context.