Is Oaxaca Taking Tourism for Granted?

Earlier this year I was in the Yucatan doing a little travel and sightseeing. For most of the time, I had a group of 10 people with me. One of our days was spent in Uxmal, site of some of the most spectacular remnants of the ancient Mayans.

Uxmal, Dave+Millers+Mexico, Yucatan+travel, Mexico+Travel

Here’s our group in front of the Great Pyramid at the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal.

But it was not the temples, or the pyramids that hit me that day, as grand as they were. What struck me was how I was treated.

When we arrived, my small group got their tickets and decided before entering the site to get some coffee and a few waters for the day. What happened next caught me completely off guard. The place where we got our drinks gave me mine for free, and thanked me for bringing a group to Uxmal.

It was nothing huge, but it meant a lot and left a lasting impression.

Later that day when we went for lunch, just like the coffee and water earlier, my meal was comped. Because I was the group leader. The same thing happened when we visited one of the local cenotes just outside of Uxmal. My group paid, but I was given complimentary admission, and drinks.

Each employee I saw that morning in Uxmal, and we got there very early, was in a nice neat uniform and ready for work the moment the clock struck 8:00am. It didn’t matter whether they worked for a local eatery, or one of the many government tourism agencies of the area. They looked sharp, and professional in their uniforms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in the Yucatan the last few days because I’ve been showing off Oaxaca to a few luxury travel agents from the United States. Seeing this beautiful region through the eyes of others can sometimes be intimidating, but it is also a great learning experience, opening your eyes to some issues you might never have noticed.

In this case, it lead me to this question… “Is Oaxaca taking tourism for granted?” Even if we exclude the generally negative impact the ongoing issues with the teachers union and the almost daily blockades have on the atmosphere in the city, anyone objective would have to answer yes.

Take a few moments and contrast my Uxmal experience with what happened when I took a group to the Oaxacan archeological site, Monte Alban just last week.

We arrived about 8:15, a few minutes after the site opened. The ticket window was still closed, even though the employees were sitting on the nearby bricks. When they realized we wanted to buy tickets, the looks we received were ones that said “Why are you bothering us?” Once they finally opened the window, I asked for tickets for my group. Almost unbelievably, I was asked to go tour the museum for a while so they could get ready.

Everyone working there was in everyday street clothes. No nicely pressed uniforms like we saw in Uxmal. As for guide services, in Uxmal, the prices are listed right at the entrance, based on the language you request. There is nothing like that at Monte Alban. As a visitor, you are left to bargain for your guide having no idea what is an appropriate price.

And there is absolutely no consideration given to leaders of smaller groups who visit the site.

In todays hyper-competitive market for both money and experiences, it is the little things that matter. You want a group leader to continue to visit your site? Make him, or her, feel special and welcome. Open your site on time so excuses do not have to be made to visitors. Make sure your employees are dressed professionally, and above all, make sure they understand that the customer is king, not a distraction.

Let me share another example.

At the end of the week I took my group to see the Guelaguetza at the Quinta Real Hotel in the Centro Historico de Oaxaca. This is a smaller version of the larger Guelaguetza presented on the hill every July. My group enjoyed the presentation and for the most part, the food. But my travel agents had another observation that really cuts to the heart of the matter.

Speaking of Italy, where they facilitate luxury tours, they said any presentation like the Guelaguetza we saw at the Quinta Real, were it to take place in Italy, would make sure the emcee was able to explain the event in not only Italian, but English and French as well.

Imagine how the simple act of explaining the various movements of the Guelaguetza in different languages would open up a great event to a larger audience. And I am not just speaking of the event at the Quinta Real that Friday night. What if the larger event in July had a multilingual host for the thousands of people who attended? That would say to tourists that Oaxaca really cares about them and wants them here in the city.

In addition to the Yucatan, you can see a better appreciation of the value of tourism in other areas of the country as well. I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta many times and I always appreciate the Tourism Police in their crisp white uniforms stopping traffic for pedestrians and giving directions to lost travelers. Even in Puerto Escondido you can count on a dedicated group of police to be manning the tourism information booths. But in Oaxaca City? Nothing.

Young people these days are forgoing buying homes, at least in the US. Why sink all that money into a stagnant investment when they crave travel, experiences and wonder?

Oaxaca is an incredible place. Between the culture, the food, the climate and the history, it is almost unparalleled in Mexico. My worry is that unless the people driving the tourism bus in this great state understand that some changes need to happen, people will start going elsewhere. In an era when travel and tourism are booming, destinations can no longer afford to rest on past laurels. They must step up, continue to modernize and innovate if they hope to reach a larger share of the growing tourism pie.

In closing, let me share one more perspective from my luxury travel friends after 9 days in Oaxaca. “Dave” they said, “Putting aside the issues of the teachers… we’re not convinced Oaxaca can support a week of luxury travel.”

Now take a moment and let that sink in. That week of luxury travel would help support hundreds of jobs as people stay in hotels, eat at the various restaurants, buy gifts, art and crafts, and tour the many archeological sites in this UNESCO World Heritage location.

Unless the various factions of the tourism industry in Oaxaca wake up to the fact that they have some business issues, I fear many people will just choose to spend their hard earned tourism dollars and euros elsewhere. That’s what happens when you take a wonderful place like Oaxaca for granted and mistakenly believe all you have to do is open the doors and people will flood in.

What say you?

14 replies

  1. I think you have a point but then again it what makes Oaxaca charming and rustic.
    Oaxaca has never been a luxery travel destination.More of a backpacker destination which is very local and authentic.White uniform and luxery is better in Los Cabos and Yuacatan.Is great that some places has the charm where time have stand still.

    • Carlos… great comment. The struggle is finding that balance. I do think Oaxaca can maintain that authentic look and still make some changes, because it is such a great destination.

  2. I love Oaxaca and the people of Oaxaca. I have been going there for at least a month every year since 2007. I agree with everything you say (and I have been in the Yucatan,as well). However unless the teacher(IMO mostly not worthy of being called teachers) is resolved, tourism and the general welfare of the people cannot advance. Reading Imparcial and Las Noticias daily and with the arrest of the 2 leaders of section 22, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

    • Thanks Ann for stopping by. The teacher issue is huge. One of the teachers leaders was in fact arrested recently, but that brought a massive response from Sec 22. Over the summer there was relative peace, but that was only accomplished with a massive federal presence. This issue is so multi layered. It’s gonna be difficult to resolve.

  3. Hola, Dave. Two reactions:

    I take issue with the idea that Oaxaca is doing more poorly than other states. I’m of the mind that ALL city and state tourism offices are lacking when it comes to meaningful engagement with locals and visitors. That said, Oaxaca holds a special place in my heart and the Guelaguetza(s) are the best place to start to present some alternatives that benefit locals and visitors alike.

    On my wishlist would be for these performances to be translated for the outlier audience who do not speak Spanish as a native language. It’s 2016. Let’s use current technology. As to translating into English, take a look at Te Matatini —
    in New Zealand. The bi-annual event celebrates the cultural dance of the Māori people. Over four days audiences experience the best kapa haka in the world, taste Māori food and local delicacies and shop for Māori arts and crafts. Just so you know, Ngati Kahungunu hosts Te Matatini February 22 – 26, 2017.

    Hakarongo Mai provides a free, simultaneous English translation service throughout live stage performances. The service aired its first translated broadcast in 2007 after festival organisers recognised a need to cater for the significant numbers of tourists and English-speaking audiences attending the festival.

    The service has continued to grow in popularity, and demand, with subsequent festivals. In 2015 festival goers were able to listen in on their smartphones and access free Wi-Fi. The translation was available on local radio, livestreaming audio and archived! Have a listen:

    Could Oaxaca do the same?

    • Ron… I would certainly agree that few states have a great tourism office. My thoughts about that is that Oaxaca seems to be in the back of the bus on this one. They are not all equally bad.

      I’ll take a listen to the link this week.

      And yes! The Guelaguetza(s) are a great place to begin.

  4. Dave, do you know anyone at any of the universities in Oaxaca that have tourism related degrees, like Universidad Mesoamericana and Universidad Anáhuac? If so, it might be worth hearing what they have to say and beginning a dialogue. Goodness knows, Oaxaca’s economy is dependent on tourism — though, I don’t know about “luxury travel” — I must admit to almost cringing at the thought.

    • I have a friend who is going to attending a tourism program in Huatulco. But as she’s said, the programs in the city are only interested in gastronomy, not actual tourism. She, her family and friends are just upfront telling me no one thinks about these issues in Oaxaca.

      My friend Ron Mader, who lived in Oaxaca for years concurs, even while thinking the entire country is behind the times.

      I’ve reached out to a friend who works in the Ministry of Tourism in Oaxaca. I’m waiting to hear back from him on this.

      It’s a big issue that I think one day is really gonna bite Oaxaca…

      • We have plans to go to the city of Oaxaca in December , all of our family members live in the rural pueblos of Oaxaca . Any idea how the recent events with the teachers has impacted the city of Oaxaca ? We had planned on staying there for a few days , then head out to Huarukco via rental vehicles . Your advice is greatly appreciated.

      • Hi Vince… here’s what i know… the hotels are getting killed. People are canceling their reservations every day. Some hotels are at 5% occupancy, others at ZERO!

        I’ll be there Tuesday and plan to spend a lot of time just listening to people. Keep checking back as I’ll be posting on that kind of stuff.

        My experience tells me in the pueblos, you’ll be fine. The pobreza sigue… and that is the focus in those areas, as opposed to protests.

        The drive to Huatulco is safe, but with lots of curves.

  5. Dave, a minor point but surely the photo of your group (above) was taken at Chichen Itza or some other large Mayan site in the Yucatan and not at Uxmal? I don’t remember there being any large pyramids at Uxmal…

  6. Dave, Please ignore my last email. I guess it’s been too many years since I visited Uxmal…
    Patricia S

  7. While I understand the importance of tourism to the economy of a city like Oaxaca, I take issue with some of your points as suggesting that tourism can and should only look one way, limiting local control over tourism activities. In particular, I find it concerning how much attention you bring to the need for “nicely pressed uniforms” and tourism police without further interrogating what these uniforms and this police presence might represent to local residents. The same concern goes for the issues you raise around translation – while it sounds like this translation might be able to occur in a way that is acceptable to tourists and locals alike, it is important to consider how this translation might change the event, especially as this is a culturally important event to many local residents. Perhaps translation is no problem, but you are suggesting it is necessary without first consulting local residents. My concerns regarding local control over tourism and the impacts of tourism on the lives of Oaxacans are drawn from discussions of as potentially exacerbating social hierarchies by reinforcing assumptions about the world (ie: modern versus primitive) as well as my experiences attending large cultural events in places such as Port of Spain. When I attended the carnival a few years ago in this Caribbean city, I was drawn into a common debate amongst local residents – has the carnival changed too much in efforts to appease and recruit tourists that it is no longer culturally relevant? And with this change, will the carnival then eventually lose tourists’ interest if it is no longer authentic? I think it is important to interrogate these ideas and ensure tourism is developed from the bottom up as much as possible to not only attract tourists based on the “authentic” (as some commentators have noted occurs in Oaxaca City) as well as ensure tourism is actually beneficial to and respectful of the residents who live in the city all year round.

    • Krystyna… I am a strong believer in local control, especially as it relates to tourism. My question and premise is this… if the Oaxacan tourism industry indeed wants people to continue to visit this great state, they’re going to have to make some changes.

      Since 1999, I doubt anyone has brought more North Americans to Oaxaca than me. And yet I cannot walk up to a tourism booth and get more than 2 brochures about Oaxaca. Nor can I get more at the government office. It’s just the way it is.

      How does that help me, as someone who promotes the state, get people there? Last week I was at a hotel I frequent and they had a stack of brochures from Oaxaca I had never seen, so I took a bunch. You know why they had them? Because there was a new government coming in and they wanted to get rid of everything, so the hotel was the proud owner of cases of unopened brochures. Brochures that could have been used by people like me to publicize the state.

      It’s not specifically about pressed uniforms, or translation. It’s about an attitude, from the top down that says tourists, or guests to Oaxaca, are not as valued as they are in other Mexican states.

      I love Oaxaca. I think it is an amazing place and I want to show her, and her people off. But if government, business and people are not able to work together for the good of this great state, the tourism dollars that largely support the local economy, will eventually go elsewhere.

      Then what does Oaxaca do?

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