Monday, January 10, 2011

Cashing in on Playa del Carmen

The city council of Solidaridad, known to tourists/gringos as Playa del Carmen, is currently preparing a new urban development program (what we might call zoning ordinances) that anticipates the growth of the town from about 150,000 inhabitants to a million by 2050, with 80,000 hotel rooms providing the means for supporting those residents (see the article in La Jornada today, "Crecimiento urbano y turistico sin orden amenaza a Playa del Carmen"). In short, Playa's councilmen and women are hoping to replicate the kind of growth that Cancun experienced in the 1970s up through the mid 1990s. Of course, many are scandalized by the lack of sustainability of this plan, which disrespects the environment and the carrying capacity of the tourist industry to a degree that if not so tragic would be laughable. But the end result of a construction boom--the negative impact on the fragile ecosystem, the area's underground rivers and cenotes, the inevitable overbuilding of the area which will ruin the city's current charm (although for some it already passed the mark of being overbuilt some years ago), the cheapening of Playa's cachet among international tourists, as well as the price of its rooms--is not really the point. What the Solidaridad city council knows is that the money is in the construction, the outcome be damned. And it will be damned, as Solidaridad will not be able to count on the steady flow of federal subsidies for infrastructure that made Cancun what it is today. Keep in mind that Cancun, for all its flaws, is still the top earner of tourist dollars in the country. It was able to build the kind of infrastructure for the hotel zone that at least hid the worst of the environmental consequences during the phases of major construction, while in Playa, five years ago, one could already see the sewage seeping into the water table mere meters from Mamita's, a popular beach club just north of the city proper. And without federal monies for urban infrastructure for the city's residents, migrants to Solidaridad will find themselves waiting even longer than Cancun's residents for basic services, especially in recessionary times with a near civil war between the feds and the narcos siphoning off the funding that was once allocated to such social projects. Nor will new jobs materialize for them once the construction work is completed, because much of it will be condos and time shares and most don't even have the skills to make the transition to working in the hotel industry anyway. So it will be a disaster, no doubt, but it will be a profitable one for some. It's a train that is nearly impossible to stop because the money that the construction industry brings into the region creates jobs and provides an easy way to launder money and is highly profitable for all involved at least in the short term, from the developers and their narco financiers to the politicians revising in this case or looking the other way about zoning violations (for a price of course) to the poor Mexicans who so desperately need the work. And as the article correctly noted, with an affirmation from Playa's mayor, there's no choice but to draw up a new plan as this train has already left the station (in my estimation, starting in the 1990s, so it's surprising it's taken the city council this long to formalize the process and cash in while they can).