The March of Progress in San Cristobal de Las Casas

Zapatista dolls in the handicraft market

I’m one of those old farts who traveled to Vang Vieng when you could count your fellow arrivals on two hands and when you could get a bungalow right on the beach on Ko Tao or Ko Chang in Thailand for $4 a night double. So I know what it’s like to feel that pang of regret when a sleepy, barely-known tourist destination becomes a hot spot in what seems like a blink of an eye. Like San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico.

There are all kinds of contradictions wrapped up in this conundrum. The original visitors think the place has gotten spoiled as soon as a few nice hotels and expensive restaurants pop up. They get a wave of anxiety if they see a tour bus pull up and empty. More middle-range travelers think the place is close to perfect at this point, but then lament how it used to be when a luxury hotel chain puts a sign up there and a big magazine puts the place on their “hot list” or “it list” or whatever. Then the more cautious upscale travelers start coming and start telling their friends what a bargain it is, even though prices have doubled or tripled in the city center during this period.

It’s an inevitable progression really: the world is getting more populated and first-world-recession aside, the world is getting richer. More people who couldn’t travel before are able to now and they don’t want to be backpackers. (As you’ve probably noticed, you don’t see a lot of backpackers from developing countries—in their eyes this would be a step backward. They would rather go on a group tour and stay in nice hotels.)

Which brings us to where I was a few weeks ago: San Cristobal de Las Casas. This was a popular backpacker destination for a while, then there was a time when even those travelers found it too unstable as the Zapatistas fought the federal government in the mid-1990s. The rebels were fighting for more recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and a more fair allocation of federal resources to the impoverished state.

Once a peace agreement was reached and the fighting died down, the backpackers and crunchy granola types came back, followed by intrepid Europeans who started opening businesses geared to foreigners. You’ve seen how the movie played out after that in many other places. Call it gentrification or call it a place getting spoiled, but you can’t deny the city looks beautiful and the locals serving tourists are very happy with how the tide has turned. Unheard-of wealth has flowed to families here and with some tourists venturing out to the rest of the state, the indigenous people like the Lacandon can make some income from protecting the jungle instead of exploiting it.

Some visitors can’t get past the irony of former revolutionaries selling trinkets in the street or begging tourists for money, but it’s hard to stop or even slow this train—with its good and bad effects—once it starts rolling. And most of the locals do indeed want it to keep rolling. The masses will always wish there were more of a trickle-down, more equality, and more transparency in how all that government money is spent, but you can’t deny all the positives going on in Chiapas. Everywhere I went in the state I saw road construction, new clean water projects, and close-to-the-ground institutions ensuring that much of the money tourists spend is staying in the community.

Chiapas coffee, five dollars a kilo

Sure, it’s not perfect. Not even close. But if we want travel to be a positive force, sometimes it means giving up the idealism and asking, “What would I want if I were born here and had a family to take care of?” No pining for the “good ole days” in that case.

3 Comments

  1. Kyle 11/07/2011
  2. Azeem 11/08/2011
  3. Jack 11/09/2011

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