Tulum is the jewel of Mexico’s Riviera Maya where ancient ruins perch above white-sand beaches. Tulum was declared a “world yoga capital” in 2017. 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. 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.
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. 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. Indigenous people are being forced further away from the most desirable areas to make way for foreigners who can afford the high prices. Nor can they bear the costs of buying their own land in a town dominated by foreign capital.
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.
“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." he pointed out, “Lands have been effectively stolen and sold to unscrupulous investors and hotel owners, who operate with impunity”. 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.
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.