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The Development of Mexico’s Tourism Industry: Pyramids by Day, Martinis by Night

Author(s):Berger, Dina
Reviewer(s):Crites, Byron

Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Dina Berger, The Development of Mexico’s Tourism Industry: Pyramids by Day, Martinis by Night. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. xvi + 164 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 1-4039-6635-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Byron Crites, Department of History, University of Texas.

Out of the Mexican Revolution, a new elite sought to promote a stronger nationalism while rebuilding a broken economy. To accomplish the latter, Mexico required foreign investment. The new political class needed a way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory goals and Dina Berger’s insightful monograph analyzes how the development of international tourism helped the regime accomplish both of them. Laying out the industry’s institutional evolution and the images it produced, Berger (Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University, Chicago) offers an important well-written portrait of the many tensions between politics, business, national and international interests in a critical industry.

While most research on Mexico’s tourism begins after the 1940s, this study locates its foundation in the 1920s. Mexico’s revolutionary elite in 1928 formed the Mixed Pro-Tourism Commission, which brought together governmental officials and the business community. Studying the successes and difficulties of tourism development in Canada, the U.S. and Cuba, Mexican bureaucrats crafted their own plans and initiatives. Though the government started the dialogue on tourism, private organizations like the Mexican Tourism Association (MTA) and the Mexican American Automobile Association (AAMA) soon took the leading role. In a prolonged economic slump, the federal government simply lacked the funds to actively promote the incipient tourist industry. Thus, private groups filled the gap. Advertisements and lectures in the United States paid for by the AAMA helped more positive images of Mexico to emerge in United States. In spite of the Great Depression, foreign tourism actually increased five fold between 1930 and 1934. Rather than a leviathan state dictating the economy, Berger emphasizes how private initiative largely helped achieve these early gains.

The author provides several examples that suggest a more nuanced picture of the policy process than typical descriptions of the Mexican government’s corruption. For instance, when a New York Times reporter met with the Mexican government, he asked for a bribe to write favorable reviews of country. Officials declined the offer. Moreover, government planners realistically considered investment recommendations. National Railways, a potential investor in hotels, wanted the planners to scale back a hotel building plan because they did not believe demand existed for the size of the project.

Personal contacts, of course, mattered but Berger’s account emphasizes the many other elements of Mexico’s policy making. Have scholars placed too much weight on prominent politicians getting hotels in the 1930s and 1940s? Edward Beatty’s Institutions and Investment: The Political Basis of Industrialization in Mexico before 1911, critiqued stereotypes of Mexican corruption and incompetence in his study on Porfirian Mexico. Examples from Berger’s work hint at similar reconsiderations. Although she provides an extremely interesting and elaborate portrait of the relationship between business and politicians, unfortunately some of these larger questions and issues remain unexplored.

Furthermore, since Berger, for a good portion of the book, deals with business leaders and ultimately policy decisions, a more explicit commentary on the debates concerning institutions and economic growth seems necessary. For example, Nobel Prize economist Douglass North wrote that in comparison to the U.S. and Britain, Latin America’s institutions failed to create an environment in which entrepreneurs would invest. In contrast, Berger’s description of business planning raises critical questions about these well-accepted labels in the Atlantic World. Not only did Mexicans learn from Canadians, Europeans and Americans, but this reviewer noticed how Mexican industry developed in a strikingly similar fashion. British Columbia, for instance, went through many of the same phases at the same time, with a comparable mixture of private boosters, local elites and public agencies. A more detailed comparison to other countries besides Latin America could have complicated North’s dichotomies.

After examining the policy process, Berger shifts to the cultural aspects of the Mexican tourism industry. International tourism interests did not overwhelm or destroy local culture but rather gave the revolutionary elite a way to merge a constructed national culture with cosmopolitan concepts of a modern nation. Berger notes that some of the proponents of Mexico’s tourism wanted to avoid Cuba’s model of tourism in which foreign culture overwhelmed local society. But at the same time, leading intellectuals, politicians and businessmen ultimately argued that a tourism industry with an international market meant that Mexico gained respect as a modern country. Attracting U.S. tourists signified that Mexico had equaled their standards. Furthermore, the National Tourism Committee, formed in 1938, maintained that promoting regional fairs for tourists would strengthen local culture. Consequently, international tourism could promote Mexican identity and revolutionary goals.

Mexico’s tourism boosters faced similar contradictions as they advertised abroad. While the tourism leadership wanted to portray the unique cultural heritage of Mexico, they also needed to advertise the nation’s modernity to dispel the racist stereotypes of potential U.S. visitors. They fashioned Anglicized images of mestiza women, conveying controlled but still exotic images of Mexico. To complement these foreign representations, promoters also marketed photos of women enjoying the cosmopolitan nightlife of Mexico City. These efforts also benefited from a policy shift in the United States. As World War II began, the Roosevelt administration especially worked hard to improve U.S. perceptions of Mexico. Principally, FDR wanted the American public to accept Mexico as a critical ally in the war. While Berger refers to the conflict between nationalism and international tourism, the author could have elaborated on debates concerning cultural policy. How did the Mexican public view these changes and the greater foreign influence? Did collaboration with U.S. generate greater criticism and conflict? A larger examination of such conflicts would have enlivened the author’s point on the central intellectual tension between the local and foreign.

This interesting and well-researched, but brief (120 pages of text), book ends with the explosion of tourism in 1940s. Another chapter dealing with the 1950s would have rounded out this book. What kind of reaction did the explosion of tourists receive? How did a more established government shape industrial development? Still, this monograph provokes and questions fundamental concepts concerning Mexico’s culture, institutions and development on an important but understudied industry.

Byron Crites is a graduate student of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation is on international investment and policy alternatives in post-revolutionary Mexico.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII