As Oaxaca experiences a tourism boom, residents are pushing back against the ‘Disneylandization’ of their city.

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The influx of tourists has driven up housing costs and strained public resources, making life increasingly difficult for the local population.

The city’s vibrant calendas, featuring brass bands, dancers, and giant puppets, have become a major attraction. However, a recent protest highlighted the negative effects of overtourism and gentrification, with demonstrators voicing concerns over the rising cost of living and displacement.

Oaxaca’s transformation into a popular tourist destination has been dramatic, with a 77% increase in tourism since 2020. This growth has put pressure on municipal services and raised questions about the city’s identity, known for its indigenous crafts and culinary heritage. The opening of a new superhighway to Puerto Escondido is expected to exacerbate these issues, though some locals are finding ways to resist.

The city’s shift towards tourism began after the 2006 Teachers Union protests, which led to a government push to improve Oaxaca’s image through events like the Guelaguetza festival. The introduction of direct flights and new amenities attracted more visitors, transforming mezcal from a local drink to an international export.

The pandemic further boosted Oaxaca’s global profile, as Mexico kept its borders open, attracting visitors and remote workers. This has made central neighborhoods unaffordable for many residents, with rents doubling in the last five years.

Local officials cite the economic benefits of tourism, including job creation and economic activity. However, those working in the industry face a dilemma, as their wages do not keep up with the cost of living, and evictions for Airbnb conversions are common.

Over-tourism is also impacting public services like water and sanitation. The city relies on imported water, which is now in high demand for hotels and mezcal production, leading to water scarcity for residents.

Some cities have implemented measures to control tourism’s impact, and there are calls for similar actions in Oaxaca, including tourism taxes and policies to prevent displacement. However, skepticism remains due to widespread corruption and the influence of business interests.

Despite the challenges posed by tourism, Oaxaca’s residents find hope in their history of activism. The late Zapotec artist and activist Francisco Toledo was a beacon of this spirit, famously opposing overdevelopment with bold actions, such as his threat to protest naked against a McDonald’s in the Zocalo plaza. His efforts preserved the city’s cultural heritage and promoted public access to the arts.

Today, tourists often use the cultural sites Toledo established as picturesque settings for social media. Yet, since his passing, the community’s united front against overdevelopment has waned, and some have labeled the resistance as xenophobic. However, activists like Bel.Arruti emphasize that their stance is not against travel but against exploitative tourism.

As Oaxaca celebrates new connections like the highway to Puerto Escondido, activism continues to thrive, with groups like SOS Puerto successfully halting unsustainable developments. This activism is part of a broader legacy that Evelyn Maldonado, co-director of Pocoapoco, believes can prevent Oaxaca from succumbing to the pitfalls of gentrification seen in other cities. Pocoapoco’s initiatives, such as supporting local artists and researchers, reflect a commitment to preserving Oaxaca’s unique cultural identity and the well-being of its residents.

Living in the city’s central neighborhoods is now a pipe dream for many long-time residents. Rents in many of these areas have more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures provided by the Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion, pushing many further and further from the city center and in many cases to areas that have significantly less public investment and infrastructure. Wilber Mendoza, an artist born in Oaxaca, says his rent in the city center was raised twice within the past year as new tourist-friendly restaurants sprang up along his street.

“With gentrification, it’s basically impossible to live downtown, which is the nicest and safest part of the city with the most privileges,’’ he says. ‘‘It feels like you don’t have dignity in your own city.”

Source: Bloomberg