El Mal Necesario: An Historiography of Tourism, Authenticity, and Identity in Late Twentieth Century Latin America

By Howell, Jayne | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, January 2011 | Go to article overview

El Mal Necesario: An Historiography of Tourism, Authenticity, and Identity in Late Twentieth Century Latin America


Howell, Jayne, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Florence Babb The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010, xviii + 264 pp.

Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, eds. Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, ix + 393 pp.

M. Bianet Castellanos A Return to Servitude: Maya Migration and the Tourist Trade in Cancun Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, xliii + 296 pp.

With over 65 million international arrivals and billions of dollars in revenue, tourism is big business in Latin America (United Nations World Tourism Organization 2011). The three texts reviewed here examine the multilayered dimensions of a diverse industry tailored to capitalize on local resources, attractions, and customs in three primary forms of tourism: 1) the sea-sand-sun resorts that have historically defined coastal tourism; 2) ecotourism that may include a stay in indigenous communities as well as nature-loving outdoor activities such as birding or hiking; and 3) heritage and ethnic tourism vis-a-vis visits to archaeological ruins or the consumption of contemporary cultural events and handicrafts. Although it is not considered a primary form of tourism, the volumes also include attention to so-called romantic or sex tourism, which, the authors point out, may occur in areas with an absence of cultural or natural resources or develop as a consequence of them.

These fascinating analyses leave little doubt that government and private development programs prioritize tourism as a panacea to economic woes and a key to economic recovery. And yet the authors and contributors also compel us to reconsider ways that interactions between "hosts and guests" (to use Valene Smith's term) simultaneously reflect and reinforce global and local inequalities stemming from racialized, ethnic, gender, and economic hierarchies. The underpinning issues raised by these scholars concerning the merits and sustainability of an industry that is dependent on the vicissitudes of the global economy, fast-changing world events, and the whims of a fickle and dynamic clientele may lead national leaders, local populations, and academics to concur that tourism is el mal necesario (necessary evil)--to use a term that Babb (131) borrows from Fidel Castro and Cuban scholar Elena Diaz.

Florence Babb, M. Bianet Castellanos, and the authors in Dina Berger and Grant Wood's edited volume all make valuable contributions to the historiography of Latin America and the discourse on the benefits and drawbacks of tourism in the region. Berger and Wood's anthology and Castellanos' ethnography both focus on tourism in Mexico, the country that currently ranks as the 10th most popular tourist destination in the world according to a recent United Nations World Tourism Organization report (UNWTO 2010, 8). The various authors in Holiday in Mexico (the Berger and Wood collection) examine the uneven pace of the growth of the tourist industry in distinct regions at different times. A Return to Servitude, an elaboration by Castellanos of her contribution to Holiday in Mexico, analyzes the complexities of the economic and social experiences of Yucatec Mayan workers in Cancun's tourism industry as part of a larger exploration of economic change and social transformation and continuity in an era of globalization. Investigating post-revolutionary tourism in four nations--Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, and Mexico--Florence Babb's The Tourism Encounter is the most expansive of the volumes in terms of geographical scope.

Tourism Across Nations: The Ambivalence of Postconflict Tourism

Starting from the perspective that tourists drawn to the "cache of revolution" are increasingly touring the world's former political hot spots, Florence Babb's ambitious study speaks to a "critical need to develop sustained ethnographic and historical research on tourism in postconflict eras in a time of rapid globalization" (14). …

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