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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Why we won’t promote the Pueblo Mágico program anymore

Yucatán Magazine
Yucatán Magazine
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An obelisk is dedicated to “Los Quince Grandes de Espita” who “heroically” fought an indigenous revolt. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracth / Yucatán Magazine

Pueblos Mágicos? We just can’t. No. Not anymore.

We have historically been dutiful in reporting on the state of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos. This federal “Magical Town” initiative is meant to lift underappreciated towns from obscurity to tourism riches. There are also Magical Neighborhoods, like La Ermita, which we might report on if we know what it means. 

One thing is clear: It’s a program plagued by unfulfilled promises and unintended consequences. 

SECTUR, Mexico’s Department of Tourism, has named 177 pueblos Mágicos, including 45 this year alone. That’s a bit much, even for a nation as vast as México.

Though some communities in the country still cover the Pueblo Mágico moniker, it has repeatedly proven to be a double-edged sword. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To make the list indicates a “magical” experience for visitors and qualifies local governments for federal funds. Locals also get training and guidance in welcoming tourists.

San Miguel de Allende is one of México’s best-known Pueblos Magicos and one of the few that actually seems to get sufficient funding from the program. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Ultimately, this is all just on paper, as in the past several years, we have seen numerous examples of Pueblos Mágicos struggling to get any aid from SECTUR and ultimately failing in their mission. 

There have also been extreme examples of communities such as Sisal, which in 2020 refused Pueblo Mágico status. All it has brought is increases in taxes and the cost of living. 

Several signs in Sisal express the sentiment of a growing number of locals against their coastal towns’ designation as a Pueblo Mágico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“The Pueblo Mágico title has meant beach erosion, the destruction of mangroves, and lots of outside interests only interested in exploiting our town and its people,” said municipal leader Miguel Antonio Ek Pech.

But Sisal is not alone in its complaints about its Pueblo Mágico status and the lack of actual support from the state.

There is also the issue of safety. In communities like Bocoyna, in the state of Chihuahua, locals joke morbidly that they deserve the Pueblo Mágico because people there are always disappearing. 

Over the past few months, Yucatán’s second city of Valladolid has been experiencing rolling blackouts caused in part by increased demand for power brought on by tourism.

Far from being just an inconvenience, blackouts have cost locals and business owners actual losses due to the inability to offer their services and damage to electrical appliances, including air conditioners and refrigeration units. 

In early August, locals of Valladolid made national headlines after symbolically detaining a CFE worker to get the utility company’s and the media’s attention. The worker was not hurt in any way. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“This is simply absurd. The government brags about all the tourism Valladolid is bringing to the state, but they can’t even set up a couple of dedicated transformers so that our produce does not go bad. It’s beyond short-sighted and stupid,” said Valladolid resident Luis Chavéz. 

However, problems and complaints regarding the lack of support from authorities regarding the Pueblo Mágico program are not limited to Yucatán.

The community of Tepoztlán in Morelos became a Pueblo Mágico in 2010, turning the once-quaint town into a drunken weekend destination for folks fleeing México City.

The streets of Tepoztlán are lined with vendors selling beer at what seems to be all hours of the day, but especially on weekends. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

“Our community used to be so picturesque, now it’s just a giant cantina for capitalinos looking for cheap drinks and a chance to misbehave. We, of course, appreciate the jobs, but this has gone way out of control,” Marcos Baleon of Tepoztlán told us.

Most visitors to Tepoztlán do not bother climbing nearby mountain paths to visit ancient Aztec ruins. They come to party. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

In general, Pueblos Mágicos in Mexico appear to fall into one of two categories. There are well-established tourism attractions that receive the designation, and then communities in rural areas where the program is instituted in hopes it will jumpstart tourism.

Given its cuisine, nearby cenotes, fantastic market, and laid-back atmosphere, Motul has been a popular weekend destination for Yucatecans long before it became a Pueblo Mágico earlier this year. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

An example of the former is the town of Bacalar, famous for its lagoon of the same name, cenotes and relaxed atmosphere, and the second would include tiny communities, including Espita and Tekax, which we have covered during the past couple of months. 

While Bacalar continues to grow in popularity, its delicate lagoon ecosystem has been severely affected, costing it some of its former glory and biodiversity. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These wonderful communities are full of friendly people and attractions worth checking out. The problem is that, at best, their status as Pueblos Mágicos does not do anything to promote tourism and, at worst, actually becomes detrimental. 

The Patrón Rosado sisters serve up lunch in Espita. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“Espita has always been magical. We don’t need the government to tell us that,” business owner Cruz Patrón Rosado said with a grin. 

There are also Pueblos Mágicos that are so remote and poor and deficient in their infrastructure that they are hardly visited at all, leaving them as charming as ever but without any of the benefits. 

Despite the relative success of the program in increasing the profile of communities like Izamal, the program has mostly failed in attracting anything but day-trippers based in Mérida, so it has not contributed that much to the city’s economy. 

An even more striking example is the tremendously picturesque town of Palizada in Campeche, which sits on the river of the same name. The problem?  The town is a whopping five-hour drive from the state capital of San Francisco de Campeche and three hours from the nearest commercial airport in Villahermosa, Tabasco.  

Though the drive may well be worth it, security in the area is an issue, and driving alone, especially at night, is beyond a bad idea, even for locals. 

In the case of Espita, one of the attractions listed by the official Pueblos Mágicos website is its old train station. But upon arrival, all that one can see is an abandoned, badly damaged structure in a field with nothing to do or see. 

Is this closed and abandoned train station supposed to be a tourist attraction? Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is also the fact that the selection of new Pueblos Mágicos often has a lot to do with politics more than any other consideration, as was explicitly told to us by several locals when visiting Tekax.

The hike uphill to the San Diego de Alcalá chapel in Tekax is very steep, so bring some good shoes and tread carefully. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It’s all too much. The mystique of a Pueblo Mágico designation starts to evaporate when the number of “magical” communities begins to creep up to 200. 

Some of these communities are spectacular. We just hope the Pueblos Mágicos program itself finds ways to remedy the problems it unintentionally creates.

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