Accumulation by media saturation

Accumulation by media saturation

Palapa-lined beach on the East Cape of BCS, Mexico. Photo: Ryan Anderson, 2012.

Recently, I was at the doctor’s office (I’m fine, thanks) and I started sifting through all the magazines. You know, all the magazines that you don’t usually read that suddenly look slightly more appealing when there’s no other choice. Yes, those. And then I saw one of the covers. It was Sunset magazine’s August 2018 issue. I saw the picture and it just seemed familiar. I didn’t look too closely, but it reminded me of the Cape region of Baja California Sur, which is where I have been working since 2009.

Probably just a chance resemblance, right?

So then I opened it up and started reading the issue’s introduction by the editor-in-chief, Irene Edwards.  Her piece is titled “The Case for Wanderlust.” She opens with the acknowledgement that the kind of work she does is a privilege. She recounts her earlier days, when she worked for a travel magazine in New York, and the travel itineraries featured “cost considerably more than [her] annual salary.” In those days, she writes, “my work felt like a portal into another existence, one of lavish hotel suites and town cars that whisked you to and from the airport.”

Edwards makes a case for the value of travel, of seeing other places and people. “[A]t every budget,” she writes, “the benefit of travel is universal–its ability to bring you outside your comfort zone and teach you about landscapes and lives beyond your own.”

As Edwards winds toward her conclusion, she gets philosophical about travel as a form of personal growth. It is Sunset magazine, after all. She quotes the late Anthony Bourdain, who once said “The journey changes you; it should change you.” He’s probably right. But, she admits, the journey also “changes the destination itself.” On this point, Edwards is probably right too.

And then she mentions her visit to “Costa Palmas” and the “East Cape of Baja California,” and the familiarity of the cover image suddenly makes sense. It looks familiar, because I know that place. Edwards tells us why her visit to Costa Palmas was so bittersweet:

Years from now, if I’m lucky enough to return, I will gaze at the superyachts in the marina and remember the serene and empty shore I set foot on, the moon rising on a beach with not a single other person in sight. But this is the magazine editor in me–I can’t help myself. When I see something this special, I want to share it with you all.

So here’s the thing. “Costa Palmas,” which is currently being promoted and branded as a new, exclusive, elite destination on the East Cape, is located in the small coastal town of La Ribera, home to a few thousand people who have lived there for a long time. This is not some empty terra nullius. It is a coastal community full of homes, histories, and lives. It is not an unknown, untouched place without history…despite the images being portrayed in tourist media.

Costa Palmas is the latest iteration of a development project on the East Cape of Baja California Sur, Mexico. The project began about a decade ago, and involved a lot of talk about money, investment, and of course jobs. For various reasons, the project has lingered, stalled, and stumbled its way forward. The original project, once known as “Cabo Riviera,” has been rebranded as Costa Palmas. And tourism media does some of the work of this rebranding, helping to transform this place into a destination.

This very magazine is an artifact and agent of that change. This is the kind of “worlding” that Spivak points us to, in which already existing places are represented as if they are “uninscribed territory” (Spivak 1990:1).[1] Edwards makes it sound like not a soul has ever stepped foot in this place, except for the folks who created Costa Palmas out of the mystical ethers of paradise…and the few magazine editors who managed to locate this marvel of time and space. Luckily, all of us, as readers and travelers, get to share in this rare jewel of a place just by reading along. And, if the news gets out, floods of tourists will indeed go seek out this supposedly untouched place. The underlying message, of course, is that we should get down there while the getting is good. This is how “paradise” is produced, packaged, sold, and ultimately overrun.

I have been watching the reconstruction of this place for about a decade. As Paige West (2014:426) argues:

Tourism, with its constant production of new illusions of the ‘further beyond’–sites and frontiers that are not ruined by tourism–is a never-ending form of accumulation by dispossession. It is relentless in its search for new images and new destinations; however, these newly discovered places are not really very new at all.[2]

Tourism discourses help to bury not only the histories of places, but also the claims and land rights that come with them. In La Ribera, these erasures have been ongoing for several years. In 2013 I wrote a short piece about this development site for Anthropology of Work Review. Back then, the project was called “Cabo Riviera,” and it was slated to be yet another golf course-marina-hotel destination with about 5,000 or so rooms. The Cabo Riviera development resulted in extensive change along the coast, including the removal of wetlands during the construction of a marina. These changes were not without controversy, and the project had its share of local resistance and protest.[3] The long story short, though, is that the Cabo Riviera project faltered, leaving a semi-developed site to linger on the landscape for several years. Costa Palmas is the latest attempt to pull this project from the ashes and re-brand La Ribera as an exclusive destination, waiting to be discovered. Tourism media helps lay the groundwork for all of this. Check out this coverage over at Forbes, which reads more like a real estate investment ad than journalism:

Surrounded by organic orchards and farms and including a stunning 250 slip deep-water marina, the area will be home to an all-new Four Seasons Resort and Private Residences Los Cabos, a Robert Trent Jones II 18-hole golf course, and the Costa Palmas Beach & Yacht Club with space for superyachts up to 250 feet. This will ultimately become one of the more exclusive billionaire retreats, considering the current popularity of neighboring La Paz, which hosted a dozen of the wealthiest families and their superyachts over New Year’s Eve.

Through such narratives, “new” destinations are made. The material changes and transformations of place, such as using heavy equipment to literally reshape the land, are just one part of the process. Another key component is changing the discourse of place–the ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that shapes perceptions of destinations. And this is where (tourism and real estate) media comes into the picture. A place needs to be produced in more ways than one in order to wrest it away from its (already populated, historical) past and turn it into the next desirable, exclusive, and empty paradise. This is dispossession by media saturation.

What is most striking to me, reading through some of this media about Costa Palmas, is that the town of La Ribera often receives little mention. For many who come, the little town may end up being a curious, quaint, secondary footnote to Costa Palmas. And this is how erasure and accumulation by dispossession work. One image, one ad, one brief editor’s note at a time.

[1] Spivak, Gayatri. 1990. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Sarah Harasym, ed. New York and London: Routledge.

[2] West, Paige. 2014. “Such a Site for Play, This Edge”: Surfing, Tourism, and Modernist Fantasy in Papua New Guinea. The Contemporary Pacific, Volume 26(2):411-432.

[3] See this video from 2009 by filmmaker Carmina Valiente: and this video from the Colectivo Pericú in 2011:

7 Replies to “Accumulation by media saturation”

  1. How to travel to “paradise-like” destinations being an anthropologist? I have found it extremely hard. Traveling to such places in my own country, Brazil, I always find myself talking to fishermen and other people who, in the tourism business, are employed as low-paid work force or choose to be self-employed in tourism businesses. Paradise-like resorts and hotels often make hell out of local people’s lives, buying land for little money, blocking their from accessing beaches and setting up business by the shore etc.
    And what is more devastating relates to what you wrote ate the end of your post: families who have lived in such places for many decades and even for over a century are made invisible. They only matter as long as they can be employed as maids ou waitress and the like. And it is as if no one has lived in such areas before some rich White folks from other parts of the country ou thr world have landed there and built their exclusive cozy hotels.
    I find it hard to keep being a tourist. On the other hand, I have found local people creating their own business and making money on sustainable practices on a recent trip to a famous beach destination. And as all destinations, their fame come and go, and they turn into different places each decade.

  2. Ryan, good to hear from you again. Serendipitously my wife and I have recently returned from a trip taken to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. The destinations included Iceland and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Our experience makes me want to ask if anyone has done research on differences between the effects of tourism in the global South and tourism in the global North. Contrasting our experience with what you describe, I offer the following observations.

    In both Iceland and Scotland, we heard tales about celebrities who pay fabulous sums for exclusive fishing rights in privately owned streams. Neither destination offered marina facilities or high-end accommodations for billionaires with super yachts.
    We did what elderly, middle class tourists often do and took minibus tours: Mercedes buses with knowledgeable local driver guides. At the places we stopped, we observed other tourists who had arrived in rented cars, together with smaller numbers of hard core trekkers and bicyclists. We were glad to avoid driving, walking, or bicycling since roads were frequently narrow, steep and twisty and often unpaved. Part of our guides’ schtick in both places was driving us over rough back roads to see places and enjoy experiences said to be off the usual tourist routes.
    In Iceland, our fellow passengers were a mature (younger than us) couple from Hong Kong, a still active businessman married to a retired banker and a Polish business consultant vacationing by himself. In Scotland, there were three Caucasians, us and a twenty-nine year old male designer from New York. There was one Korean girl, who may have been genuinely super rich. She was traveling by herself, visiting Skye, then Oxford, on her way to watch the tennis finals at Wimbledon. The other eight passengers were Chinese: a family party comprised of a man, his wife, her sister and a son, all from Guangzhou, plus a mother and teenage son and an unrelated stylish young couple, all from Shanghai.
    Catering to middle-class Chinese tourists is clearly the biggest thing shaking up global tourism today. Signage in airports and toilets in Iceland is now in four languages: Icelandic, English, German and Mandarin. Mandarin has also replaced Japanese in signage in Scotland.
    In both Iceland and Scotland, the tourist industry is heavily dependent on seasonal labor provided by young people, primarily from Central Europe: Polish, Czech, Latvian, etc. The Polish consultant in our first group remarked that he could speak Polish in every hotel and restaurant he visited in Iceland, where a local population of only 340,000 now caters to over two million tourists a year. Skye was a bit different. There the surprise was the small, but biggest on the island, town of Portee, where our B&B was located. There we found two Indian restaurants, one north, one South Indian, whose owners have lived on the island for decades. The owner of our B&B was a German man who had married a local woman.

    I am not sure what to make of these observations. It seems clear, however, that the engine driving tourism industry growth worldwide is not the super rich but members of an affluent, cosmopolitan middle class, of whom members of China’s growing middle class, which already outnumbers the whole of the U.S. population, are a rapidly growing percentage.


  3. Hi John. Sorry for the delay getting back to you–for some reason WordPress isn’t telling me when I have comments on my posts here. Need to check into that. Anyway, I think you’re right that it’s not the super rich who are really the driving force behind tourism growth and development. It is likely that affluent middle class that you mention. This is one reason why the kind of tourism development that I’m talking about here–which portends to cater to some elite and exclusive clientele–grabs my attention. Most tourists aren’t going to be traveling on super yachts, but then there’s this odd tendency with tourism media and imagery: a lot of it mimics, borrows, alludes, and play offs all the elite/exclusive discourse of certain forms of tourism. So we have all these sites flooded with promises about exclusivity and luxury etc etc, but most people aren’t really going to get anywhere near all that. I think there’s some of that going on in the site I’m talking about here–all this talk about empty, pristine, elite, exclusive spaces…on the shores of town of a few thousand working class people who have been there for a long, long time. I mean, even the tourists who travel down to this part of Baja, well, most of them aren’t among the ultra rich. Far from it. Many are middle class tourists coming from other parts of Mexico, and others are similarly positioned economically and coming from the US. And yet, there’s this push to create this elite space. But, of course, just because some elite hotel pops up doesn’t mean that other “budget” destinations don’t fill in around it. Who knows–maybe it’s good enough to be next door to that elite, ultra rich, yacht-strewn hotel? Or maybe many people could care less. I know many of the divers, surfers, and fishermen, and others who travel down to Baja definitely aren’t looking for the second-coming of Monaco down there. This isn’t the most elegant phrasing of all time, but tourism is a strange thing!

  4. Ryan, my turn to say sorry, I no longer check this site regularly. No longer my cup of tea. One thing to be careful of is reading aspirational imagery as targeting. Suggesting to middle-class tourists that they can enjoy a unique experience usually reserved for the hip and elite is at least as common as using beautiful models to sell cosmetics to customers with ordinary good or not-so-good looks.

    1. “No longer my cup of tea.”

      Whose cup of tea is it these days? I rarely check the website any longer.

  5. Hi John, ya I think that the promise that anyone can “enjoy a unique experience usually reserved for the hip and elite” is one of the mainstays of a lot of tourism, coastal or otherwise. What interests me here is how places are transformed to help sell those promises.

  6. Ryan, allow me to recommend a book of which few who visit this site will have heard. Dominique DesJeux is a French anthropologist. His book is The anthropological perspective of the world: the inductive method illustrated. Dominique has a lot to say about how to conduct research that spans macrosocial, mesosocial, and microindividual scales of analysis.