Mexican tourism boom: Tulum’s locals fight evictions as developers move in

<span>Photograph: Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy

In Tulum, the jewel of Mexico’s Riviera Maya , where ancient ruins perch above white-sand beaches frequented by Hollywood stars , a rapidly growing district of luxury condominiums looms above a barrio made up of homes inhabited mostly by local Indigenous people.

The 12,000-strong community who live in the 137-hectare (340-acre) hamlet of 2 de Octubre are facing eviction as developers forge ahead with plans to build on land sold by the Quintana Roo state government to meet demand for high-end property in the popular beach town.

Almost 4 million more tourists arrived into the state’s airports in July and August, compared with the same period in 2019. The opening of a new international airport in Tulum next year will drive up visitor numbers even further.

The condos primed to replace the simple dwellings could each sell for up to $300,000 (£280,000) – putting them far beyond the reach of local people, many of whom earn about $20 a day amid some of Mexico’s starkest disparities of wealth and an absence of social housing.

Authorities declared Tulum a “world yoga capital” in 2017, but the wellness drive came as the Caribbean municipality also sought to style the town as a global party destination, raising the demand for drugs and creating a tempting prize for gangs to fight over.

Tensions are brewing in step with rapid gentrification and social change, which has seen the poverty rate jump to 62% – the highest in the country.

While there is no shortage of low-paid service-sector jobs, the threat of eviction hangs over the local people who helped transform Tulum from wilderness to a thriving town of at least 50,000 people.

Related: Tourists bask on a battlefield as drug gangs fight over Mexican resort town

“It is a mockery: these are the hard-working people whose hands have built Tulum,” says Rafael Barajas, president of a local community organisation. “Violence in the state is deep-rooted and a modern apartheid keeps communities isolated and in poverty.

“Lands have been effectively stolen and sold to unscrupulous investors and hotel owners, who operate with impunity,” he says.

A simple single-storey blue house in a tree-lined street
Land has become so valuable that many locals are being forced out of Tulum. Photograph: Marc Bruxelle/Alamy

Indigenous people are being forced further away from the most desirable areas to make way for foreigners who can afford the high prices.

“The businesses want the Mayans to do their shifts but then disappear at night,” adds Barajas. Leaders of a campaign started this year to resist eviction have refused reported offers of land about 10 miles away, not least because commuting to work each day would eat into already meagre paypackets.

When is this harassment going to end? They want to demolish our little homes

Attempts by police to evict locals have met resistance, including people building barricades that often end up ablaze. In late July, almost 100 police officers descended on the hamlet – which sits in the shadow of a recently built luxury development and lacks drainage or running water – and fired teargas while a bulldozer attempted to knock down homes.

“When is this harassment going to end?” one man asked after the attack. “They want to demolish our little homes. They did not come saying, ‘Here is our order to evict you from this land,’ they just attacked.”

Unrestricted development has largely cut off public access to the 80-mile stretch of beaches, leaving the local Maya people – who work mostly as builders, cleaners, chefs and taxi drivers – isolated from their ancestral sites of natural beauty as they cannot afford to visit the seaside cafes and restaurants.

Nor can they bear the costs of buying their own land in a town dominated by foreign capital; lack of affordable land led to the initial occupation of the “irregular settlement” in 2016. The threat of eviction continues to cast a shadow over the community, even after Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reportedly offered his support to the campaign.

“We are in a very precarious position and have been totally abandoned by the local government,” says Valeriano Ramírez Córdoba, president of Tulum’s campaign for dignified housing. “The state government has never wanted to regularise our status but when we went to speak to the federal government they provided legal assistance.”

Time will tell if this support provides any effective help for the campaign, but for many the struggle has become existential – and local people have said they are willing to die to protect their homes. “We have our jobs, our way of life and our culture,” adds Córdoba. “And we have the need for housing: this is a constant struggle.”

Quintana Roo’s attorney general, Oscar Montes de Oca, said in a recent statement that the state had obtained lawful eviction orders, but their implementation had been successfully resisted.

“We already have the complaints from the owners and the eviction orders from the judges,” he says. “But every time we’ve tried, well, everyone immediately gets together, they close off the lines of communication and a bigger problem is generated.

“The state is going to offer them land outside that area. The businessmen are going to be in charge of putting up the money to build houses.”

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