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Géographies politiques du tourisme

Politics of Post-War Tourism in Guatemala: Contested Identities, Histories, and Futures

Politique du tourisme d’après-guerre au Guatemala: identités contestées, histoires et futures
Jennifer A. Devine


Dans un contexte d’après-guerre, l’industrie touristique guatémaltèque constitue le terrain disputé de multiples enjeux politiques, où des représentants de l’état, des Mayas indigènes, et des anciennes brigades de la guérilla s’affrontent pour définir une identité nationale post-conflit, une mémoire des évènements passés et des possibilités pour le futur. À travers le prisme analytique du territoire, je montre comment l’état et des groupes de la société civile utilisent le développement touristique pour poursuivre des objectifs politiques inattendus. D’abord, je retrace les évolutions des pratiques marketing de l’état pour suggérer que le gouvernement du Guatemala a utilisé le tourisme pour redéfinir l’identité nationale après la guerre, ainsi que la place des Maya au sein de la nation. Je m’intéresse ensuite au cas de San Juan la Laguna pour analyser la manière dont les Maya Tz’utujil réaffirment leur identité Tz’utujil et revendique San Juan comme un espace Tz’utujil, à travers le tourisme communautaire. Enfin, j’explore la manière dont des anciens guerilleros pratiquent le tourisme solidaire pour inventer des espaces de vie alternatifs et des modes de vie coopératifs. Cet article propose une analyse comparative des pratiques territoriales du tourisme d’état, du tourisme des indigènes et des anciens guerilleros, pour illustrer les enjeux politiques de l’industrie touristique au Guatemala.

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1In 1996, the Guatemalan state, military, and National Revolutionary Unity signed the last of 11 Peace Accords ending a genocidal 36-year civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people and displaced a million more (CEH, 1999). The Peace Accords initiated a fraught, highly controversial, and unfinished project of multicultural and neoliberal reforms that aimed to redefine national identity (Jonas, 2000; Nelson, 1999) and resolve Guatemala’s acute inequality in land tenure using market-based mechanisms (Ybarra, 2009). The failures of the Peace Accords to implement meaningful agrarian reform and address structural racism in Guatemala combined with contemporary narco-driven violence and political insecurity to make life very difficult for most Guatemalans today.

  • 1 The GDP statistics reflect tourism’s total contribution to GDP, direct and indirect impacts. Estima (...)

2In the context of enduring struggles over identity, land and livelihood, one change is starkly apparent. The Guatemalan tourism industry has undergone its own revolution. Since the Peace Accords, state officials have harnessed multicultural discourses to promote Maya culture as Guatemala’s comparative advantage in the global tourism industry. This strategy has been immensely successful. The number of annual tourists visiting Guatemala mushroomed from just under 192,000 in 1984 during the civil war to over two million in 2013 (INGUAT, 1995, 2013). In 2013, tourism generated over USD$4.6 billion in revenue, comprised 8.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and earned more foreign currency than any other industry (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2014).1

3Tourism’s political history in Guatemala predates the country’s 36 year civil war (1960-1996) that entailed acts of genocide against indigenous Maya (CEH, 1999). However, during the height of wartime violence in the 1980s, an international union-led consumer boycott of Guatemala tourism transformed the once marginal industry into a theater of national identity formation and international relations. Analyzing changes in marketing strategies and campaigns illustrates how the Guatemalan state disciplines the meanings of Maya identity and its relationship to the post-war nation through tourism’s representational practices (Devine, 2009).

4This geo-political, racial and gendered tourism imaginary contrasts sharply with the representational practices and everyday politics defining grassroots tourism projects around the country. I describe the Maya Tz’utujil community tourism project in the village of San Juan la Laguna on Lake Atitlán in the western highlands to identify territorial practices of “bordering” (Johnson, et. al 2011) that aim to preserve the Maya homogeneity of the community. I then detail how ex-guerilla practices of solidarity tourism in northern lowlands department of Petén carve out spaces of alternative development characterized by counter-hegemonic readings of the past. This multi-sited approach captures the ways the Guatemalan tourism industry is not simply a site of neo-colonial power relations, but is also a political space for forging community solidarity, historical memory and alternative futures.

5This article is based on ten years of research in Guatemala, including two years of ethnographic research in Petén that focused on the territorial politics associated with global heritage conservation and tourism development of the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Devine, 2013). While conducting this research, I took several trips to San Juan and New Horizon since my first visit to the communities in 2005. During these frequent visits I participated in and observed tourist activities and conducted 15 informal interviews with community members in each place. My analysis also draws on document, image, and content analyses of Guatemalan state-sponsored tourism campaigns, as well as press and social media coverage of San Juan and New Horizon tourism practices and politics.

Tourism, Neo-Colonialism, and Territory in Guatemala

6This article critically engages questions of territory, power and neo-colonialism in tourism geographies of the Global South. There is a long history of violence and land dispossession underpinning the creation of paradisiac tourism spaces like the United States National Park System (Cronon, 1996) and African wild game reserves established during European colonialism (Neumann, 2004). The violent histories of protected parks are reappearing in the neo-liberal present in practices of eco-tourism development and biodiversity conservation. Across the globe, practices of accumulation by dispossession serve as a precursor to neo-liberal eco-tourism development and the construction of paradisiac places (Harvey, 2003; Ojeda, 2012). Ojeda (2012) explores the links between land dispossession and identity production in tourism to show how the creation of Colombian eco-tourism paradises defines local Afro-Colombian bodies as “out-of-place” (Creswell, 1996) in ways that facilitate their land and livelihood dispossession. Several scholars detail similar dynamics in Africa that paint the Maasai and other minority groups as poachers, and thus, threats to eco-tourism and conservation projects (Duffy, 2010; Gardner, 2012).

7Informed by this scholarship, I approach the politics of post-war tourism in Guatemala through the analytic of territory. When I refer to territory, I do not refer to territory as an inert object, but as a process of creating, defending, and/or contesting claims to space and resources (Elden, 2010). Borders are more than lines in the sand, walls, or checkpoints; they are also power-laden relations and practices of socio-spatial inclusion and exclusion (Klauser, 2012; Raffestin, 1986; Redclift 2006). My focus on the territorial practices of national identity formation, bordering, and creating alternative development spaces in the three cases ties the analysis together. Territory provides a powerful analytical lens to examine the post-war politics of Guatemalan tourism because racialized inequality in access to land, wealth, and political power fueled the country’s 36-year civil war (Jonas, 2000).

8Participants in the Peace Process attempted to address structural racism against the Maya through legislative reform. In 1996, the Guatemalan government ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ILO 169) and the national Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The two legal actions redefined Guatemala as a “multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual” nation (Jonas, 2000; Seider, 2002). An estimated half of Guatemala’s 15 million citizens are indigenous Maya made up of 23 ethnicities that include the Tz’utujil (Nelson, 1999). Apart from 20,000 afro-descendent Garífuna and 4,000 indigenous (non-Maya) Xinca, the rest identify as ladino, which means non-indigenous (Nelson, 1999). Guatemalan reform is emblematic of an international turn to multiculturalism (Kymlicka, 2007) and reflects decades of human and indigenous rights activism by civil society organizations such as the powerful Guatemalan Pan-Maya cultural rights movement (Fischer & Brown, 1996; Warren, 1998).

9Multicultural discourses of cultural pluralism and equality mark a definitive shift away from previous government policies and discourses of assimilation underpinned by the nationalist ideology of mestizaje. Mestizaje purports that ladinos of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry (whom culturally identify as “white”) embody the ideal Guatemalan body politic and the Maya should conform to the Western ladino cultural norm (Hale, 2002). Yet, in practice, the shift from a ladino to a multicultural body politic is far from complete (Nelson, 1999). Racism endures and multicultural reforms and the Pan-Maya indigenous activism remain highly controversial and resented by many (Hale, 2006; Warren, 1992). Furthermore, the Peace Accord on Socio-Economic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation failed to fully address the roots of civil unrest and violent land disputes continue (Gauster & Isakson, 2007).

10Today, 20 years after the war’s end, victim advocates are fighting to bring the intellectual architects of these crimes to justice. This battle has produced heartfelt victories and poignant losses. In February of 2016, two high-ranking military officers were sentenced to 360 years of imprisonment for the sexual enslavement of indigenous Q’eqchi’ women in 1982 at the Sepur Zarco military base (Ruiz-Navarro, 2016). On the other hand, the courts overturned the 2013 conviction of former dictator and head of the counter-insurgency army, Efraín Rios Montt, on a technicality (MacLean & Beaudoin 2015). These contradictions reveal the social struggle unfolding today between Guatemalans who are fighting systemic corruption and impunity by holding war criminals accountable for the past on one hand, and a small but powerful opposing group who work to reproduce the status quo on the other. Meanwhile, the United States-led War on Drugs in the Andes has pushed cocaine trafficking pipelines through Central America in the late 1990s, contributing to the region’s infamously high murder rates and political instability (UNODC, 2012).

11Tourism’s territorial politics in Guatemala are inseparable from these enduring colonial and civil war legacies of racialized violence and land inequality, as well as newer threats to life and livelihood posed by cocaine trafficking. Nonetheless, in contrast to several critics, I do not think that tourism necessarily reproduces relations of neo-colonialism. In their influential book Power and Tourism, Mowforth and Munt (2009) develop a critique of new forms of non-traditional tourism, like eco-tourism, community and cultural tourism. Their aim is to go “beyond the characterization of tourism a form of colonialism” by showing how current tourism practices “cannot fully be explained by the notions of dependency and domination” (p. 78). They critique how non-traditional forms of tourism commodify and appropriate “host” cultures, reproduce relations of subservience and aestheticize poverty hardship in the global south (p. 59). Despite the merits of their intervention, this framework does not capture the ways in which subaltern communities in Guatemala, like the Tz’utujil Maya of San Juan and the ex-guerilla New Horizon Cooperative have appropriated tourism to challenge post-colonial and post-war power inequalities and forge thriving development alternatives.

12Guatemalan tourism analyses to date have largely privileged questions of the Maya culture commodification (Medina, 2003), authenticity and performance in tourism (Little, 2004, 2008), the production of Maya cultural landscapes (Brown, 1999), and state-society relations during the peace negotiation (Castañeda & Burtner, 2010). Indigenous scholars (Cojtí Cuxil, 1998), foreign academics (Little, 2004; Nelson, 1999), and cultural rights activists (Warren, 1998) criticize the state’s representations of the Maya in tourism promotion and performances, and the industry’s reproduction of economic inequality. Today, Maya communities and ex-guerilla brigades are rejecting the state’s vision of cultural tourism in favor of their own political and economic ends, however, these strategies remain underexplored.

Contentious Politics of Guatemalan Post-War Tourism Development

“Heart of the Maya World”: State-sponsored Maya Cultural Tourism2

  • 2 This section contains arguments previously printed in the author’s (2009) article “The Maya Spirit: (...)

13Tourism’s explosive growth in Guatemala is a reflection of the war’s end but it also reflects a fundamental shift in the state’s understanding of the industry’s political importance. I analyze this shift through changes in state-sponsored marketing strategies and campaigns that illustrate how Guatemalan state officials discipline the meanings of Maya identity and its relationship to the post-war nation state through the promotion of Maya cultural tourism. This practice is manifest in state marketing materials that equate the Maya with a folkloric and feminized Maya identity, as well as state practices of reimagining and redefining the racial geographies of the nation.

14In 1989, National Geographic showcased Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and the surrounding Guatemalan and Belizean lowlands as a newly branded geography, the “Maya World” (Garrett, 1989). This popular piece segued into a multi-billion dollar Central American marketing campaign and tourism industry stretching from the “Maya Riviera” beginning in Cancun, Mexico to Honduras. By the early 2000s, Guatemalan industry officials and private sector developers concluded that if Central America is the “Maya World,” then Guatemala is the heart of it. The state-run Guatemalan Tourism Commission (INGUAT) identified Guatemala as “The Heart of the Maya World” in a national tourism campaign from 2000-2004, and then again from 2008 to the present.

15State involvement in the tourism industry dates back to 1932 when the military government of General Jorge Ubico founded the National Committee of Tourism that was renamed the Guatemalan Tourism Commission (INGUAT) in 1967 (Munro, 2014). Today, INGUAT’s impressive, 12-story headquarters in Guatemala City houses more than 300 employees charged with designing and implementing sophisticated marketing campaigns, coordinating industry development with state ministries and hosting prestigious international dignitaries. These employees are primarily ladino (non-indigenous) urban residents of Guatemala City, and the Guatemalan president appoints individuals to occupy INGUAT’s top leadership positions. In addition to marketing, INGUAT produces several cultural events in more than 80 of the 332 municipalities throughout the country, such as folkloric dances, marimba performances, festivals, and presentations of Maya textiles to achieve this aim (INGUAT, n.d.).

16The Guatemalan government has not always supported tourism as earnestly as it does today. During the civil war in 1979, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF) led a consumer boycott of Guatemalan tourism to wage an economic embargo and public relations campaign against the Guatemalan state. During this time, the number of international tourists visiting Guatemala dropped more than 60 percent, from over half a million in 1979 to under 200,000 in 1984 (INGUAT 1995, p. 6). The boycott and travel warning negatively impacted Guatemala’s economy and dramatically damaged the country’s international image by exposing horrific, everyday acts of civil war violence to popular audiences like potential tourists.

17The Guatemala tourism boycott sparked the transformation of the once marginal industry into a theater of international relations and national identity formation. The state officials identified tourism as a national priority and transformed INGUAT into an international public relations agency with a mandate of counteracting Guatemala’s negative international image in respect to human rights (Castañeda & Burtner, 2010). During the height of civil war violence, INGUAT executed several marketing and public relations campaigns in attempt to redefine Guatemala’s national image as safe, relatively peaceful, and home to happy and friendly indigenous people (Devine, 2009).

18Diane Nelson (1999) uses the term “mujer Maya” (Maya woman) to refer to the stereotypical portrayal of Maya identity in the tourist industry, a trope INGUAT has increasingly employed since the early 1990s. The two marketing images (Figure 1) exemplify the ways state promotional materials feminize, infantilize and homogenize Maya identity. Both images depict young women with non-threatening expressions, and the image on the left of Figure 1 combines a Maya temple from Tikal in the northern lowlands with a woman in traje (indigenous cloths) from the western highlands. This homogenization of Maya identity eclipses the diversity of Maya ethnicities, as well as the fact that several Maya communities prioritize their ethnic (i.e. Tz’utujil) and regional identities over a shared Pan-Maya identity (Warren 1998).

Figure 1a - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials

Figure 1a - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials

Source: INGUAT Archives

Figure 1b - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials

Figure 1b - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials

Source: INGUAT Archives

19Walter Little (2008) argues the origins of the mujer Maya representation lie in tourists’ desires to consume a romanticized, feminized, indigenous other, along with Maya and ladino businesspersons’ responses to that desire. These carefully constructed images of Maya people resonate with critiques of development and orientalist discourses that represent indigenous peoples and the bodies politic of so-called developing countries as fun, carefree, childlike, and feminized (Mohanty, 1988; Said, 1979). In doing so, these images reproduce power-laden racial hierarchies underpinning colonial and post-colonial development interventions (Escobar, 1996; Kabeer, 1994).

20The state’s creation and circulation of the mujer Maya in tourism reveals how state officials define the ideal Maya citizen subject and their relationship to nation. Depicting the Maya as women and children conceals the diversity of Maya identities that include Maya revolutionaries fighting to overthrow the state. Figure 2 provides deeper insight into these practices by showing a mother whose face is obscured and her daughter along with the caption, “Tenderness, something very Maya”. These representational practices from the 1990s defined indigenous identity as non-threatening precisely at the time that Pan Maya rights activists were demanding equality in all aspects of society and former indigenous revolutionaries were fighting to implement the terms of peace.

Figure 2: “Tenderness is Something Very Maya”

Figure 2: “Tenderness is Something Very Maya”

Source: INGUAT archives

21Alongside these practices defining Maya identity, the Guatemalan state has redefined the racial geographies of the post-war nation in tourism marketing campaigns. In 1995, INGUAT officials collaborated with a Spanish marketing firm to help develop a new advertising strategy that expanded on the regional delineation of tourism activities. In the aim of spatially disaggregating Guatemala’s tourism activities, INGUAT officials divided up the country into seven territorially demarcated regions saturated with racial meaning. These regions include the “Living Indigenous Highlands,” “Adventure in the Maya World,” “Guatemala Modern & Colonial,” “A Different Caribbean,” “the Pacific Coast,” and “A Guatemala to Discover.”

Figure 3: INGUAT’s Map of Guatemala

Figure 3: INGUAT’s Map of Guatemala

Source: Author

22INGUAT’s national tourism imaginary designates a space for the “living” contemporary Maya in the Western Highlands, which stands in territorial contrast to the “modern and colonial” region encompassing Guatemala City. INGUAT’s remapping of the nation renders “modern” and “colonial” as equivalent and definitive of Guatemala City, in opposition to its “natural” and “indigenous” provincial surroundings. While this map purportedly recognizes the body politic’s diversity, bounding the western highlands as the space of the “living indigenous” relegates Mayas populating other regions to the past, and marginalizes the hundreds of thousands of indigenous people living in Guatemala City altogether. Likewise, the “Different Caribbean” locates the spaces (and non-spaces) of the minority afro-descendant Garífuna on the eastern coast. The northern department of Petén is labeled “Adventure in the Maya World”. Maya in this segment is confined to the vestiges of a Pre-Colombian civilization, and thus, defining contemporary Qeqch’i Maya living in Petén as “bodies out-of-place” (Creswell, 1996). This map illuminates how mundane practices of tourism development infuse territory with racial identity, ideas of antiquity, and modernity, as well as notions of racialized belonging.

23These practices of redefining national identity locate a place for the Maya within the nation for the first time, but they also circumscribe that space to the highlands and reproduce racist binaries of superiority/inferiority, modernity/tradition, Maya/not-Maya. The state, however, does not hold a monopoly on tourism’s territorial politics. The rest of the article examines how a Maya Tz’utujil community and an ex-guerilla cooperative have appropriated tourism’s representational practices and economy to pursue their own political projects and claims to space.

“The Place Where the Tz’utujil Live”: Maya Community Tourism

24On the scenic lakeshores of majestic Lake Atitlán, the Tz’utujil Maya town of San Juan la Laguna boosts a vibrant community model that markets the village as an authentic expression of Maya culture: “The Place where the Tz’utujiles LIVE”. San Juan la Laguna is a town of 11,000 people, nearly all of whom self-identify as Tz’utujil Maya (INE, 2013). Against the grain of mainstream tourism development elsewhere, the Maya Tz’utujil of San Juan la Laguna have appropriated the state’s promotion of cultural tourism to reassert their collective Tz’utujil identity and claim San Juan la Laguna as Tz’utujil territory. Through community tourism, San Juan residents (San Juaneros) symbolically and physically claim San Juan as Tz’utujil space in a variety of “bordering” practices (Johnson et. al, 2011). Bordering here refers to the social-spatial production of difference that happens at a variety of sites, not just the borders of nation states (Raffestin, 1986; Redclift, 2006) and thus, recognizes that borders can be everywhere (Balibar, 1998). Bordering practices are at once symbolic, material, and territorial. Four examples of San Juan residents’ bordering practices in community tourism include: constructing San Juan’s open-air mural museum, marking space with tourism slogans and signage, excluding non-residents from the town’s tourism economy and asking foreign settlers to leave.

25In the early 1800s, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt described Lake Atitlán as the most beautiful lake in the world (Squier, 1858). The lake is 12 by five kilometers in size and surrounded by three dominating volcanoes and lush, green hilly landscapes. Humboldt’s remark about Lake Atitlán’s beauty speaks to the region’s historical integration into global geographies of travel and tourism. More recently, in the 1960s, Panajachel, the town opposite San Juan on the lake, attracted counter-culture hippies from Europe and the United States who first visited and then stayed. Tragically, many Maya towns around the lake suffered unimaginable violence and massacres at the hands of the army during the scorched earth campaign. In 1990, the army murdered 13 Kaqchikel Maya in the village of Santiago Atitlán just a few miles away from San Juan la Laguna (Ball et. al, 1999).

26Following the Peace Accords, Atitlán’s physical beauty made it the epicenter of Guatemala’s post-war tourism boom. Since the war’s end in 1996, Panajachel’s population has doubled every ten years to an estimated 17,000 people today (INE, 2013). Foreigners and wealthy elite ladinos from Guatemala City are driving the town’s population growth. Panajachel’s changing demography reflects a dynamic unfolding around the lake. Many Maya with historical ties to lakeside cities have been pushed out of town or up the hill as real estate prices have skyrocketed alongside growth in the tourism sector (Little, 2004). One such village is the once-sleepy town of San Marcos located halfway between San Juan and Panajachel. Historically, San Marcos was a Maya village. Today, it is known more for its niche in the global tourism market as a world-renowned hotspot for yoga, meditation, naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, and other forms of bodywork. Like Panajachel, the small town now has an established community of foreign and ladino residents and business owners.

27A mere three kilometers from San Juan la Laguna on the opposite side of San Juan is the town of San Pedro. San Pedro is a hub for Spanish schools and a base for hiking the volcano by the same name. It is also infamous for being a safe haven for marijuana smokers and partygoers. During field research in 2010, dozens of local, evangelical Maya residents in the town organized into community committees to crack down on the lax marijuana use and distribution in San Pedro. At 10 p.m. during the week, neighborhood committees patrolled San Pedro’s streets and forced foreign patrons out of the bars and into compliance with de facto noise ordinances.

28Foreign and ladino ownership of tourism businesses and real estate in the towns of Panajachel, San Marcos and San Pedro motivated San Juan residents to choose “community tourism” as alternative to mainstream tourism development. In 2001, San Juan la Laguna was one of the poorest towns in the department of Sololá (INE, 2013). During this time, very few tourists visited the town and the Tz’ujutil made a living off of forestry, agriculture, and artisanal production. In that year, San Juan’s Municipal Development Advisory Council (Consejo Municipal de Desarrollo de San Juan) strategically identified tourism development as a priority for the village (Fundación Solar, n.d.). Following this decision, the Guatemalan non-profit organization Fundación Solar (Solar Foundation) began to organize community micro-businesses that focused on a revitalization of Tz’utujil ancestry alongside a focus on environmental sustainability.

29The pilot plan crafted between municipal officials, project participants, and Fundación Solar staff produced three micro-businesses focusing on medicinal plants, traditional textiles with natural dyes and folkloric painting (Fundación Solar, n.d). Additional micro-businesses formed in an ad hoc fashion until 2004 when a small group of community leaders formed the guide association Rupalaj K’istalin. The tour guide association is comprised of 25 Tz’utujil men who are in charge of spearheading and coordinating the community micro-businesses and maintaining and protecting the sacred sites and hiking trails surrounding the village3. Since 2004, San Juan community tourism has grown to incorporate 16 micro-businesses (micro-empresas) that focus on artisanal crafts, painting, traditional medicine, artisanal fishing, and several women’s weaving associations with specialties in botanical and natural dyes. In addition, the community offers an artisanal fishing tour, a coffee tour, a bird watching tour, an archaeological tour, and a guided hike to the lookout and sacred sites surrounding San Juan. Despite women’s limited roles in Rupalaj K’istalin, San Juan community tourism has increased women’s earnings, created leadership opportunities and enabled many women to continue their education and training (Rascón Palacio, 2010).

30Guides from Rupalaj K’istalin provide tours of San Juan’s open-air mural museum that consists of over two-dozen outdoor murals spread throughout the town. The murals are not simply town beautification projects, they infuse the local landscape with Tz’utujil Maya history, iconography, and claims to space. Members of the Xokomeel painting association paint the murals that display a unique style of San Juan painters. The murals’ bold bright colors and rich story lines contrast sharply with the town’s white-washed walls. These murals narrate what many residents identify as the town’s ancestral traditions, laboring practices, and collective histories of suffering and survival.

Figure 4: San Juan la Laguna Community Tourism Mural

Figure 4: San Juan la Laguna Community Tourism Mural

Source: Author

31Figure 4 shows three murals and San Juan’s community tourism slogan, “San Juan la Laguna, the Place Where the Tz’utujiles LIVE”. The mural on the left displays hieroglyphs that represent the 16 micro-businesses making up community tourism in San Juan. The two murals on the right illustrate practices of the town’s confradía, a religious brotherhood that dates back to colonial Catholicism. The mural on the far right illustrates a parade for the town’s patron saint, and in the middle mural, women serve a meal to confradía members. Near the town’s center plaza, a mural depicts a Maya curandero, a healer, providing a child with healing remedies cultivated by the medicinal garden association. These murals reinforce information provided in community tours regarding Tz’utujil culture and history. For example, tourists visiting the medicinal garden receive a short tour and explanation of Tz’ujtuil naturopathic methods, like drinking wormwood tea to combat dysentery. Other murals throughout the town commemorate darker moments, like the death and devastation following Hurricane Stan in 2005 when the storm buried hundreds of people alive around the lake. Another mural relates exploitative histories of migration and laboring in coffee and coastal plantations. The murals also speak to Tz’utujil cultural survival following decades of state-sponsored Maya genocide during the civil war. The mural in Figure 5 depicts two eyes and reads in Tz’utujil and Spanish “Observing Human Rights”.

Figure 5: Observing Human Rights Mural

Figure 5: Observing Human Rights Mural

Source: Author

32The open-air mural museum in San Juan is an aesthetically pleasing example of the town’s tourism-related bordering practices. This bordering practice privileges Tz’utujil history in San Juan and a selective history of the artists and Rupalaj K’istalin. Certain people’s memories and understandings of culture and tradition are privileged in the murals that claim to represent the collective; part of the murals’ power is the resulting represented cohesiveness of Tz’utujil identity. San Juan’s community tourism model allows residents to collectively brand their businesses, as well as their community as a whole. The story of how San Juaneros decided to define San Juan as “The Place where the Tz’utujiles LIVE” reveals how the slogan is not simply a marketing ploy, but it is also a territorial claim to space that defines the border of who can live and work in the town.

33Following the 2001 municipal plan prioritizing tourism development, the municipality and Fundación Solar facilitated multiple participatory workshops that united church groups, civil associations, cooperatives, and students. A Fundación Solar document explains that the workshops aimed to consensually define how the community wanted to profile and market itself as a tourism destination (n.d.). The community decided they wanted to avoid massive and uncoordinated tourism associated “backpack” tourism in Panajachel and San Pedro:

34“They wanted Tz’utujil owned businesses to avoid the transfer of resources to foreigners and focus on tourism that respects Maya cultural values (no drugs or prostitution). As such, the community decided to define itself as a cultural tourism destination. From this consensus, the community finally chose the shared image and slogan “San Juan la Laguna, the Place where the Tz’utujiles LIVE”” (Fundación Solar, n.d.).

35The two main roads entering San Juan, the dock, and open-air museum all espouse the slogan “San Juan la Laguna, the Place where the Tz’utujiles LIVE”. In defining and marking San Juan as Tz’utujil space, San Juaneros are explicitly defining their tourism model and community identity in opposition to the foreign owned and vice-ridden forms of backpack and mass tourism. These discursive and symbolic claims reinforce tacit norms and legal codes to physically claim territory. For example, the mayor has prohibited Kaqchikel Maya from nearby San Antonio and foreign “hippies” from San Pedro from selling handicrafts to tourists in San Juan. In most towns from around the lake, Maya vendors travel down from the hill to the lakeside to sell their artisanal goods on the street or in a booth if they are better off. In counter-culture Panajachel, many “hippie” foreigners also sell their tourist ware this way. In contrast, San Juan’s explicit ban on sellers from outside the village is an example of one of the more exclusionary ways the residents’ bordering practices in tourism manifests. The Tz’ujtuil use community tourism to symbolically and physically claim territory, and police the borders of their community from Kaqchikel Maya and foreigners alike.

36Practices of territorial bordering in San Juan caught international attention in 2014 following a consensual decision made by San Juan la Laguna’s Council of Elders to evict ten Jewish families from the town. Two families of the orthodox Toiras Jesed sect of Judaism began living in San Juan in 2008. By 2014, there were ten families. In late April of that year, 75 members of council met and came to a consensus to ask members of the Jewish community to sign a registry with the municipality and leave within a month and a half (Schachar, 2014). The registry detailed whether or not the orthodox Jews were foreigners, immigrants, or in the country as tourists. The council claims it decided to evict the Jewish community for not respecting Maya ancestral traditions and causing disorder in the town (Julajuj, 2014). Residents filed complaints with the municipality that the Jewish community used Lake Atitlán as a mikveh (ritual bath) and practiced rituals like kaparot when a chicken is swung around a rabbi’s head before being slaughtered (Schachar, 2014). Many Tz’utujil residents also complained that members of the Jewish community made disparaging comments to tourists regarding their immodesty (Julajuj, 2014). Community elder Pedro Vazquez said the cultural conflict originated from the Jewish communities,

37“…indifference to our clothes, our language and all of the ceremonies and religious traditions that we practice here. They would intervene and say they didn’t agree with our traditions”4.

38The town’s mayor Rodolfo López told the Times of Israel:

39“We, as a local authority, have nothing against the Jewish community, but every community, and especially ours, as indigenous Maya, has very special customs and traditions, and we have to defend our rights” (Schachar, 2014). Despite protest on the part of the Jewish community in San Juan and several national and Israeli human rights groups, on August 21, 2014, more than thirty Jewish San Juan residents got on buses with all their possessions and left for an undisclosed location (Julajuj, 2014). Many of these people claim they experienced violent acts of anti-Semitism at the hands of Tz’utujil residents. Miguel Santos, a converted Guatemalan Jew expelled from San Juan, said that several Tz’utujil residents verbally abused Jewish residents in the streets and intimidated them with dogs, and even threw rocks and a homemade pyrotechnical bomb into the windows of Jewish homes (Sas, 2014). Santos suspects that the Jewish community’s humble black robes, covered women’s heads, and men’s orthodox hairstyles were different to residents, and thus, caused fear that motivated the anti-Semitic expulsion campaign (Sas, 2014). These acts of hate-based anti-Semitic violence are inexcusable. However, reading these events alongside San Juan’s history and Maya struggles for cultural survival and autonomy in Guatemala suggests there is more to these practices than anti-Semitism alone. The practice of town elders barring non-Tz’utujil Maya, ladinos, and foreigners from owning property or operating businesses in the community has a history prior to the arrival of the Jewish community. Anti-Semitism certainly exists in the village and across Guatemala. For many Tz’utujil, however, actions banning foreigners and ladinos from permanently residing in San Juan are not part of an anti-Semitic campaign, but a livelihood, land, and cultural retention strategy following decades of Maya land loss around the lake. As tour guides to sacred sites around San Juan explain, the right to land and territory is the right to culture. Thus, for many, “San Juan la Laguna, the Place where the Tz’utujiles LIVE”, is not just a tourism slogan, it is a demand to remain along the shores of Lake Atitlán and reflects Maya cultural struggles for survival following decades, if not centuries, of state-sponsored genocide.

Ex-Guerilla Solidarity Tourism: New Horizon Cooperative

40The post-war territorial politics of Guatemalan tourism have taken a very different form at the ex-guerilla New Horizon Integral Cooperative in the department of Petén than in San Juan la Laguna. In 1998, 125 ex-combatants of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Armed Rebel Forces) (FAR) and their families founded the 900-hectare cooperative located along the highway connecting Petén’s capital and Guatemala City. Figure 6 shows a sign marking the entrance to the cooperative that explains: “We Exchanged Our Arms for Land”. Today, the cooperative is a thriving community of 415 residents organized with the aim of pursuing social justice, equality, and an alternative society – many of the same goals that inspired FAR members to take up arms in the first place. The majority of residents are ladino and by statute are ex-combatants or family members of ex-combatants by blood or marriage.

Figure 6: New Horizon Cooperative Welcome Sign

Figure 6: New Horizon Cooperative Welcome Sign

Source: Author

The sign says, “We exchanged our arms for land. Welcome”

41The FAR’s model of “solidarity tourism” has enabled New Horizon members to carve out a space of life and livelihood distinct from neighboring villages of similar size. In the remainder of this article, I detail how differences stems, in part, from the community’s economy based on collectively owned and socially equitable development. I also describe how solidarity tourism enables New Horizon members to reproduce and disseminate counter-hegemonic readings of Guatemalan history and their hopes for better future.

42Reflecting the Marxist ideologies of the FAR, New Horizon’s economy is organized into three different types of ownership: collective, semi-collective, and private. There are four collectively owned projects that involve the entire community including solidarity tourism, cattle ranching, farm fishing and reforestation. Each member works approximately four days a month to support the collective projects and profits are invested in social initiatives like the cooperative’s school and sports programs, health clinic, and library. The New Horizon Cooperative owns 430 heads of cattle that members sell to local and foreign beef markets. The community farm fishes tilapia that workers sell in the cooperative’s restaurant and in regional urban markets. The community reforested 150 hectares of land by hand-planting pine trees. In addition to the reforestation project, New Horizon leadership designated 150 hectares of cooperative land a natural forest they named Bosque de la Vida (Forest of Life) where they support the regeneration of endemic trees and plants to region.

43New Horizon’s pine reforestation project and forest conservation efforts speak to the ties many ex-guerillas have with nature that comes out of their experiences of living underground in the forests not too far from New Horizon’s current location. For fifteen years, members of the FAR brigade lived in the jungle, constantly on the move, as they staged guerilla-style warfare attacks on army barracks and retreated into the forest to avoid capture. One of the activities that solidarity tourists undertake at New Horizon is a one-mile guided tour through the Forest of Life that describes the region’s flora and fauna. The tour also has a few stops not likely found on other eco-tours. Half way through the hike, tourists come upon a reproduction of a FAR guerilla camp during the civil war. The former ex-combatant turned tour guide explains to tourists how the FAR suffered during the civil war but survived only by living off the forest. FAR guerillas built lean-to shelters and weaved roofs and sleeping maps out of thick palm and developed a deep knowledge of the medicinal properties of many of the region’s plants, such as all spice (pimento dioica), which sooths an upset stomach and relieves diarrhea. The more adventurous solidarity tourists can camp overnight in the forest on a Noches Guerrilleros (Guerrilla Nights) Tour.

44Solidarity tourists often begin their visit to New Horizon in front of the cooperative’s impressive, two-story tourism center that houses offices on the ground floor and an open air meeting space on the second floor with a thatch roof. The tourism headquarters are located at the center of the community laid out on a planned grid. Outside the tourism office, there is a tall ceiba tree reaching 40 feet high and surrounded by a heart-shaped wall made of whitewashed concrete. Solidarity tourists learn that the tree holds multiple meanings for the community. It is the national tree of Guatemala and the sacred tree of the Maya, thought to be a connection to the underworld. The tree also marks a very painful moment in the community’s history. Under the tree lay the remains of Capitan Maria, a founder of the FAR brigade. She died just shortly after her comrades received the cooperative’s land. The heart encircling the tree marks her final resting place and signifies her continued presence and living legacy in the community today. It also alludes to the central role women played in the armed conflict and continue to play in New Horizon leadership today.

45In the second story of the tourism center, tourists gather to hear presentations led by charismatic community leaders that detail the history of the civil war and New Horizon members’ continued struggle for a better Guatemala. Cooperative members call this “la otra historia” (the other history), and sharing and discussing their version of the past with visitors “an act of solidarity”. As such, solidarity tourism not only supports New Horizon’s economy of collective production but it is also a critical site for the production of collective memory and history. Part of this practice includes a visit to New Horizon’s Historical Museum that details the history of the FAR and the civil war through maps, guerilla combat equipment, photographs, and documentaries. In addition to sharing la otra historia, solidarity tourism generates funds to support the cooperative’s health services, creates jobs and training opportunities, and establishes international solidarity relationships with activist organizations. The vast majority of solidarity tourists are college and high school students from Guatemala, the United States, Spain, and Italy. These student trips can be as short as a day or as long as four weeks.

46Regardless of the length of their stay, all tourists visit and learn about the cooperative’s collective enterprises. New Horizon also offers tourists the opportunity to go horseback riding, visit a nearby waterfall or take a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Maya archaeology site of Tikal. Tourists also visit a handful of the cooperative’s nearly two-dozen semi-collective projects. Semi-collective projects are the second type of economic production at New Horizon. The projects are led by groups of five to eight people with the support of cooperative loans and development expertise, but the group initiates, runs and benefits from the project. In return, a small percentage of profits from the semi-collective projects go into a community fund to finance the formation of future projects. Semi-collective projects at New Horizon include citrus and pineapple cultivation, a women’s egg project, a carpentry/woodshop project, as well as additional smaller-scale semi-collective initiatives producing cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and honey. These goods are sold in the community and in surrounding urban markets. The third type of production is private, which consists mainly of community members growing their own fruits and vegetables on private plots for subsistence consumption. Many cooperative members also hold jobs off the cooperative working in nearby towns.

47Like San Juan la Laguna, the New Horizon Cooperative is replete with murals that define the territorial barriers of the community and infuse the FAR’s post-war landscape with its collectivity’s identity and history. These images celebrate the bravery of fallen comrades, the heroes of Marxism and the Cuban Revolution, and denounce United States imperialism, neo-liberalism, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Many murals reflect New Horizon’s hope for systemic change. The mural in Figure 7 captures this spirit by stating “Many small people, in many small places, making many little things…CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”.

Figure 7: New Horizon Cooperative Mural

Figure 7: New Horizon Cooperative Mural

Source: Author

48New Horizon leadership explains that the cooperative’s name conveys the group’s challenge to “begin a new life” post-demobilization in 1996, “with the certainty that development through solidarity can serve as a model for other communities”5. New Horizon members are working to change not only the material conditions of their community but the entire country. A former cooperative president explains:

49“There must be born many “horizons” like this one, but different, with their own strengths and ideas. May there be many new horizons on a national level, because if not, we are but a drop of soft water in the ocean, and we will disappear”6.


50From the ashes of violent conflict, Guatemala’s post-war tourism industry has become a site of contentious post-war politics where state officials, national elites, indigenous peasants and ex-guerilla brigades compete to define post-war national identity, history, and the future. This article used the analytic of territory to comparatively examine case studies of state-sponsored tourism, indigenous community tourism and ex-guerilla solidarity tourism to illustrate tourism’s complex and varied political life in Guatemala.

51State officials working for institutions like the Guatemalan Tourism Commission (INGUAT) have redefined Guatemalan national identity and its relationship to the Maya in the post-war era through tourism marketing campaigns and materials. The state’s racial and gendered tourism imaginary contrasts sharply with the representational practices and everyday politics defining grassroots tourism projects. In 2001, the Maya Tz’utujil of San Juan la Laguna decided to pursue community tourism to prevent the negative impacts of tourism they identified in other towns around Lake Atitlán, particularly the loss of lakeside lands to tourism developers and wealthy foreigners and ladinos. Community tourism development in San Juan has enabled residents to engage in four territorial practices of “bordering” (Johnson et. al, 2011) that include creating the open-air mural museum, marking space with tourism slogans and signage, excluding non-residents from participating in the town’s tourism economy, and asking foreign settlers to leave. The ex-guerilla New Horizon cooperative in Petén uses what they call solidarity tourism to financially support their collectively managed lands and create a space of alternative development. Solidarity tourism, one of four collective cooperative projects, also enables New Horizon members to create and circulate counter-hegemonic readings of Guatemala’s past in tours and murals that infuse the cooperative’s landscapes with the history of the civil war and New Horizon members’ hopes for the future.

52This article argues that far from automatically reproducing relations of neo-colonialism, grassroots tourism initiatives can provide a political space for communities to articulate counter histories, identities, and futures that differ dramatically than those offered by the state and national elites. In Guatemala’s current moment of enduring government corruption, impunity and narco-violence, grassroots development initiatives like New Horizon solidarity tourism and San Juan la Laguna community tourism, while far from perfect or a panacea, are one of the country’s most effective strategies for transformative change.

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1 The GDP statistics reflect tourism’s total contribution to GDP, direct and indirect impacts. Estimates of tourism’s direct contribution of tourism to GDP in 2013 range between USD$1.5 (INGUAT, 2013) and USD$1.8 billion (World Travel and Tourism Organization 2013).

2 This section contains arguments previously printed in the author’s (2009) article “The Maya Spirit:’ Tourism and Multiculturalism in Post-Peace Accords Guatemala” in the London Journal of Tourism, Sport and Creative Industries. Thank you to the editors of that publication for permission to reprint slightly modified parts of that article here.





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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1a - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials
Crédits Source: INGUAT Archives
Fichier image/png, 303k
Titre Figure 1b - Maya World Tourism Promotion Materials
Crédits Source: INGUAT Archives
Fichier image/png, 324k
Titre Figure 2: “Tenderness is Something Very Maya”
Crédits Source: INGUAT archives
Fichier image/png, 315k
Titre Figure 3: INGUAT’s Map of Guatemala
Crédits Source: Author
Fichier image/png, 134k
Titre Figure 4: San Juan la Laguna Community Tourism Mural
Crédits Source: Author
Fichier image/png, 954k
Titre Figure 5: Observing Human Rights Mural
Crédits Source: Author
Fichier image/png, 1,4M
Titre Figure 6: New Horizon Cooperative Welcome Sign
Crédits Source: Author
Fichier image/png, 1,2M
Titre Figure 7: New Horizon Cooperative Mural
Crédits Source: Author
Fichier image/png, 1,5M
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Jennifer A. Devine, « Politics of Post-War Tourism in Guatemala: Contested Identities, Histories, and Futures »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 28 | 2016-1, mis en ligne le 27 avril 2016, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jennifer A. Devine

Assistant Professor of Political Geography
Texas State University, San Marcos, TX

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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