TULUM, Mexico – A surge of tourists, an estimated 220 million from the United States alone, accounting for about 85% of American adults, has embarked on journeys this summer. Among the favored destinations lies Tulum, Mexico, a locale I recently explored firsthand. Within Tulum’s borders, an array of businesses has masterfully aligned their offerings with the desires of American tourists, particularly their Instagram predilections. These establishments have ingeniously integrated decorative twinkle lights, replacing traditional seating with alluring swings, and embellishing their spaces with vibrant neon signs. Notably, a bar along the town’s central promenade boasts a radiant pink cursive sign that boldly declares, “I’m in Tulum, Bitches!”
The essence of tourism has metamorphosed over time. Once regarded as a means to broaden horizons and foster cross-cultural understanding, the advent of social media and the interconnected global economy has redefined its purpose. Now, the act of travel serves not only to partake in novel experiences but to showcase these experiences to an audience back home, establishing a perpetual loop of Instagram feedback. Regrettably, this shift has transformed the very nature of travel, leading it to be dominated by a quest for shareable moments. Consequently, the pursuit of picturesque Instagram vistas has unintentionally catalyzed a transformation of local economies, ecosystems, and the lives of numerous individuals.
Tulum occupies a distinguished spot on Mexico’s southeastern Yucatán Peninsula, nestled within the state of Quintana Roo. The region’s ancestral inhabitants are the Indigenous Maya, whose intellectual and architectural prowess is manifested in the awe-inspiring archaeological ruins of Chichén Itzá—an honored UNESCO World Heritage Site. These ruins unveil a remarkable astronomical acumen, as evidenced by their incorporation of celestial predictions, such as eclipses, into their architectural designs. Additionally, the Maya harnessed advanced agricultural techniques to cultivate the coastal lands, and their intricate network of roads predated its European counterpart.
As a third-generation Mexican American, I have traversed to my family’s ancestral town of Acaponeta, Nayarit, throughout my life. My explorations of Mexico have extended beyond my familial roots, encompassing a visit to Tulum in 1988, when it was still a quaint fishing village. Subsequently, in 1999, the government, aspiring to capitalize on the burgeoning tourism wave emanating from Cancun, rebranded the region as the Riviera Maya. This transformation attracted a host of entrepreneurs, developers, and immigrants hailing from the United States and Europe. Eager to exploit the burgeoning tourism potential, they established hotels, residences, and hosted a myriad of events, from yoga festivals to vibrant dance parties. The New York Times, in 2004, bestowed the label of a “countercultural haven” upon Tulum, alluding to the dichotomy between its alternative appeal and the perils of commercialization.
Over the ensuing years, a whirlwind of development, frequently propelled by foreign investors, transpired at an astonishing pace. Unfortunately, this rapid transformation occurred with limited foresight, lacking effective governmental oversight and strategic planning. The exponential growth has outpaced the capacity of local authorities to furnish fundamental amenities like electricity and sewage systems. However, these critical infrastructural inadequacies are seldom documented on Instagram, where the picturesque and alluring views take precedence. Similarly, the sublime images showcasing divers and snorkelers amidst the Mesoamerican Reef System—the globe’s second-largest coral reef—rarely capture the escalating presence of human waste infiltrating its subterranean rivers. The impending introduction of a train project, intended to link Tulum with Cancun, threatens to exacerbate these ecological disruptions. This expansion could potentially encroach upon the natural habitats of endangered species and endangered caves that might house vital Maya relics.
The rampant and unchecked development, primarily driven by foreign investments, has unfolded at such an accelerated pace that it has surpassed the capacity of local authorities to offer rudimentary services, including electricity and sewage facilities.
In the face of these monumental transformations, local residents find themselves, as eloquently depicted in Matilde Córdoba Azcárate’s insightful work on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, “Stuck with Tourism.” Present-day Indigenous Maya individuals encounter limited opportunities beyond roles as construction laborers, domestic help, and taxi drivers, catering to the approximately 22 million visitors arriving annually at the nearby Cancun Airport. During a leisurely sojourn at a beach club, I had the privilege of encountering Rodrigo, a charismatic 22-year-old bartender from Tulum. He candidly shared his experiences, recounting the arduously lengthy workdays and the often underwhelming gratuities. Yet, beneath the surface, Rodrigo harbored a deep-seated apprehension concerning the inevitable transition to a new, trendy destination, supplanting Tulum’s present allure. Rosalya, my guide during an exploration of Chichén Itzá, echoed similar sentiments. She recounted her initiation into the tourism sector 17 years ago, a pioneering endeavor for a local woman at the time. Her choice to enter this industry was met with skepticism by fellow community members, who questioned her trajectory. Despite the scrutiny, Rosalya’s decision stemmed from a dearth of viable alternatives.
In light of these multifaceted global disparities, U.S. tourists confront an ethical conundrum. A surge of articles published in recent months has espoused the notion of curbing travel altogether. However, ameliorating the adverse consequences of unchecked development necessitates a more comprehensive transformation, entailing investments in local markets and enhanced governmental oversight. While I refrain from advocating for a complete cessation of travel, I ardently encourage visitors to fathom the implications of their actions, particularly within the digital realm. The contemporary landscape of tourism is irrevocably intertwined with the pervasive influence of social media, an omnipresent force dictating travel trends and shaping destinations.
National tourism authorities readily enlist the services of influencers and celebrities, ranging from global football icons like Lionel Messi to internet sensations such as TikTok’s “Corn Kid,” in a bid to market and champion various locales. Travel bloggers and TikTokers navigate their livelihoods using algorithms and hashtags, adeptly guiding travelers to secluded natural wonders and ostensibly authentic dining establishments. Concurrently, enterprises engage in fierce competition to heighten their appeal through a digital lens, as tourists’ smartphones evolve into ubiquitous tools for capturing and disseminating fleeting moments. The ensuing flood of real-time visual content cascades across platforms, fanning the flames of exploration. While governments and investors rake in foreign capital, local inhabitants—often marginalized and comprising a substantial Indigenous segment in the case of Mexico—shoulder the brunt of the impact.
Yet, alternative modes of travel beckon, grounded in conscientiousness and sustainability. Embracing travel that prioritizes comprehension of its impact and commitment to a sustainable future presents a promising alternative. Engaging with a destination’s history, its people, and exercising discernment in monetary choices can effect positive change. Rather than adhering to the prevailing norm of immediate digital dissemination, consider an audacious proposition: embark on travel experiences devoid of social media documentation. This paradigm shift fosters genuine inquiry and interaction, facilitating participation in a cultural exchange with the individuals whose contributions underpin the travel experience.