Mayas and Tourists in the Maya World

By Brown, Denise Fay | Human Organization, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Mayas and Tourists in the Maya World


Brown, Denise Fay, Human Organization


In 1992, an agreement was signed by the governments of five Latin American countries: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala,

Belize, and Mexico, to join forces in the promotion of international tourism in the Maya zone. This elaborate and costly project,

called the Maya World, promises the visitor "something for all tastes" in the way of cultural experiences and leisure pursuits.

Such large-scale tourist projects raise many questions concerning the underlying motivations for the development and the

impact that they will have on the peoples and environments of the regions. Essentially, the Maya World tourist project can be

seen as a newly constructed cultural landscape, based on design features from the existing cultural landscapes of the 29 Maya

cultures of the region, imbued with new meanings that make them significant to a target market, the international tourist. This

paper examines the construction of the Maya landscape in a Yucatec Maya town in Mexico and compares aspects of this Maya

world to that developed for the tourism initiative. Changes in the meanings of landscape features for the local Maya, brought

about by the appropriation and commoditization of their "world," will have serious implications for the cultural survival of this

indigenous group.

Key words: Mayas, landscapes, contested spaces, colonialism, tourism, Mexico

Construction of the Maya World Landscape

In 1992, the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico signed an agreement to unite sponsorship of a large-scale tourist promotion in the Maya areas of their respective countries. These governments felt that tourist dollars were slipping away due to disjointed information about the Maya and noncoordinated infrastructure throughout the indigenous zones. For example, archaeological vestiges of the Classic Maya period are found in all five countries, but traveling from one site to the next is hindered by international boundaries. Consequently, the countries joined forces in a historical act of cooperation and collaboration to standardize and disseminate information on the Mundo Maya or "Maya World." This project was initiated in 1988 with the assistance of the European Economic Community. Presently, Mundo Maya is represented by the Organizacion Mundo Maya at the World Tourism Organization where the aims are stated as: "to promote the public and private sectors of the founding members countries, the development of tourism, culture and environment in the Mundo Maya region, to facilitate suitable mechanisms that allow for the effective marketing of tourism products in regional and international markets."'

The official map produced in 1992 is a detailed cartographic presentation of the project and is called the "Map of the Maya World," on which are marked major rivers, highways, and towns. It is the key to the symbols on the map, however, that guides the visitor to the zone, and the towns on the map are attributed importance and significance according to what they offer the visitor: infrastructural places (gas stations, hotels, airstrips, airport, and ferries); recreational places (beaches, fishing sites, snorkel sites, and dive sites); ecological places (caves, volcanoes, waterfalls, and biosphere reserves); and cultural places (where the visitor will find archaeological sites, colonial architecture, handicrafts, and museums). Many sites on the map offer a combination of these attributes, and not many places appear on the map which cannot be ascribed importance according to one or more of these meaningful criteria for the tourist. More important to our argument here is the fact that towns that are not considered to have a single attraction adequate for the visitor to this Maya World, regardless of their importance to the Mayas of the zone, do not appear on the map at all. For example, the map does not include any major Maya population or cultural center of the central Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. …

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