I just got back from the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico, where I saw ancient Mayan ruins, snorkeled in underground limestone caves and, on the way to the airport, got into a car accident. I gotta say one thing: I definitely got the full tourist experience!
I have been to Mexico many times but I’ve never really been to tourism zones. I am pretty proud of my ability to speak high level Spanish, so I usually go to places where I can truly practice the language. And this rarely happens in first class tourism zones where you get to meet other tourists—places where all the money-making is geared toward English speakers.
So, this time going to a place that is the mothership of Mexican tourism taught me some interesting lessons about marketing. And marketing really is all about storytelling, which is what this blog is about in the first place. You see: for you to get true value, you have to feel like you got to experience true Mexico. Those guests at the all-inclusive resorts that tag you with fluorescent bracelets and suck you into the vortex of their black hole buffet—those guest don’t feel like they have experienced true Mexico if they don’t at least once have a street taco. They make it a point to wander out from the hotel megaplex at least once during their vacation. It’s on the checklist.
The paradox of wanting to feel like you’re in “true Mexico” (despite the fact that you are in Las Vegas) comes in the fact that a certain kind of distortion has to happen—small lies, slight of hand, smoke and mirrors. There are obvious ways that this is done: in the beachside tourist zones, the business people really play up the kitsch Mexican factor—the colorful embroidered huipiles that all restaurant hostesses must wear, the strolling mustachioed mariachis who pluck their instruments under flapping plastic banners that catch the ocean breeze. Usually, the plastic banners strung across courtyards are made out of paper for a one-time fiesta…but, you see, if every day is a continuous fiesta, you need something more durable, something that will not fade nor tear. Something that is not cut by hand but cut by machine.
A less obvious distortion comes in the fact that almost all of the restaurants feature seafood but none of the seafood is fresh. Almost all of it is imported, frozen, from other parts of the world—shrimp, octopus, lobster, calamari. “The clams are fresh,” offered my Italian waiter. “We ship them in from Southern California and they are still alive with bubbles in their mouth.” We were in one of those fancy Italian restaurants that actually had an Italian waiter and an Italian manager. There was a Mexican guy rolling out pasta in a glass case.
“Why isn’t there any fresh seafood available?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s because the water is too hot for the fish here.”
To me, this is curious—a real mystery—and the waiter’s explanation was suspect. You see, all the beach zones in the Riviera Maya started off as fishing villages: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum. And you can still book a sport’s fishing vacation in this area and bag yourself that trophy swordfish that you can stuff and mount in your living room—a souvenir of some great times in the aquamarine glisten of the Carribean ocean.
But I suspect that there was some basic economics to this. You see, all the restaurants have to offer seafood because it wouldn’t be a Mexican fishing village without fresh seafood. But these restaurants have to always make sure that seafood is on hand. Not only does it need to be on hand but it needs to be standard in size—something that seafood caught from small suppliers can never be. There is also the convenience factor: seafood shipped from industrial plants are not only put into usable storage containers (cryovac bags) but also processed up to a desirable point (cleaned, scaled, prepped). And this all means a smooth, well-running kitchen that can get the food out fast. It also means there are not only no shortages but you can get Alaska King Crab and meaty Salmon from the very best farms in Scotland.
There’s probably another thing about tourism that is more insidious. You see: you might want to be in a Mexican fishing village. And while in Cancun, you might long for the days when it was once a sleepy Mexican fishing village. But you actually don’t want to see a Mexican fishing village. The ships are an eyesore. They are in no way picturesque. They will ruin any selfie taken on the beach and add an element of stink to what is supposed to be an ideal vacation—the one vacation you will take all year.
Then, too, there is simply basic economics. Who wants to fish when you can make good money taking tourists out on a boat for a fun time: the money is guaranteed, the labor is easy. Tourists are just better than fish and a lot less heartbreaking.
The waiter brought out the food and it was indeed delicious. He made a show of cracking pepper from a four foot wooden grinder at everybody’s table. But he didn’t do it at our table.
“Maybe we asked too many questions.”
“No, I’m sure he just forgot.”
“I don’t think we ordered enough.” I looked at the other tables with their overflow of appetizers and the bottles of wine poured into long-necked crystal decanters. Everybody was ordering by the bottle but we were just ordering by the glass.