Paving Paradise – When the gringo trail becomes a tourist turnpike

“I remember when (insert place name here) wasn’t so crowded with sun-screened tourists following flag-waving guides while wearing their brand new white sneakers and color-coordinated new clothes.”

It’s also before the local economy and standard of living improved in your former tropical paradise.

20150205_070717Backpackers are to wonderful places what Richard Florida’s creative class is to inner cities.

They pioneer, they enjoy, they establish communication. They’re comfortable with the triple-tiered pricing structure in many places – a price for locals, another for ex-pats and reasonably fluent backpackers – and the highest for tourists. Then they get pushed out by the money-spending classes looking to be cool while visiting “cute” places they’re clueless about. But if you’re a local business and these people are spending money, it’s worth spending a bit of your own for a bilingual sign over your door.

Between the penny-pinching backpackers and the over-spending tourist invasions you’ll usually find missionaries. While many of them provide healthcare, water filtration systems and similar good things, many others simply want to sell their brand of theology. One of the first signs a town is turning is when church bells and evangelical PA system prayers start overwhelming crowing roosters and barking dogs. I don’t know if a cock crowed three times before the land transfer to the church.

Many of the Discovery Channel and PBS tourists are looking for the cleaned-up places. Antigua, Guatemala, most of Costa Rica, the “Mayan Riviera” and any place profiled by Rick Steves are perfect examples. For better or worse, more and more of them are straying away from places designed as tourist showcases to explore the real world.

IMG_2807But don’t the locals who’ve lived there forever deserve clean water, good plumbing & modern conveniences? [And don’t western marketers deserve another market to exploit with their goods?] In many of these places, the old agricultural rhythms of the day, season and year have been replaced by the rhythm of the boat or bus arrival. In recent travels to my old Latin American haunts I’ve seen changes: paved main streets, coffee shops, art galleries, language schools, disappearing street kids, and all day disco beats competing with evangelical loudspeakers. Hostels have been replaced by posadas and hotels. I’ve had several conversations with Guatemalans and Hondurans who want to follow the Costa Rican tourism model. It sounds great for them and their standard of living, but when it happens I doubt if I’ll be back. I’m one of those peso-pinching backpackers.

Change happens. Just follow the money.

My question and concern is in the source and destination of the money. Some family businesses get their jump start from North American remittances – the overworked underpaid Latinos in our fields and kitchens are essentially America’s foreign aid program. But I’ve seen that a lot of the “nicest” places are bankrolled by ex-pat Europeans and Americans. And in some of the more commercial destinations, foreign corporations are obviously mining tourist gold. How much of this money stays local?

Not all of the money-spending invaders are tourists. But we know a town has turned when the ex-pat resident community evolves from now-sedentary backpackers and retired teachers living on the economy to enclaves full of upper classes from developed countries. These new residents live in enclaves in their old countries, too. They don’t mingle with the locals in either place. For the most part, they’re not bad people, simply ignorant, oblivious and non-curious about neighbors who’ve been there for generations. But they do provide domestic employment. After all, they need their beds made and meals cooked.

Part of change is when you hear the old gringo trailhands talking about moving on. While I’m not purely one of them, I’ve already got a few places picked out that word of mouth says is great. Since they’re still on the State Department watch list, they’re still unspoiled. I’m not telling where they are.

The time will come – the walrus didn’t say – when I’ll sit somewhere with an umbrella drink in my hand. But it’s not here. Not now.

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