Push to fuel Chiapas tourism threatens a way of life

A highway being cut from the highland mountains will open Oct. 31, connecting the capital with remote villages.

It's a good thing the "El Kiosco" marimba band plays in the evenings in the central bandstand of this colonial city in the Chiapas highlands. Otherwise the musicians' catchy tunes would have to compete with the clatter from all the construction going on in San Cristobl's historic center.

Put on the hip global tourist map by the Zapatista Indian rebellion - which briefly occupied the town on New Year's Day, 1994 - San Cristobl de las Casas somehow managed to remain a mountain recluse despite international fame.

It became a Mecca for the likes of Oliver Stone and Danielle Mitterrand, off to campfire-side chats with charismatic Zapatista leader "Subcomandante Marcos." Word passed to Europe, and the town became an obligatory stop for thousands of Italians seeking out one of the world's last best hopes for "revolutionary tourism." Yet despite all that, San Cristobl stayed a market town for surrounding Indian communities, far from the tinsel of global commerce - the McDonald's and Wal-Marts - that Mr. Marcos had warned about in 1994.

But now it seems this place - known for red-tiled roofs, flower-filled courtyards, and Indian women selling bright weavings and masked, rifle-toting Zapatista dolls - is finally in for some big changes.

The new pedestrian walkways being installed around the colorful town square, along with the city's first storm-drainage system are the least of it. What's really going to hit San Cristobl like a hurricane is the new freeway slicing through the mountains to link San Cristobl with the booming state capital, Tuxtla Gutirrez.

Today the drive up from tropical Tuxtla to shivering San Cristobl is 50 treacherous miles of harrowing turns - exactly one for every day of the year, San Cristobl's city fathers like to point out. But come Oct. 31, the new freeway will cut the driving distance to under 30 miles - with nothing more than a few gentle curves along the way. A trip that now can take up to two hours, depending on the fast-changing weather, the number of errant goats or the occasional roadblock by protesting Indian farmers, will be cut to 30 minutes.

"The freeway is a dream of everyone in San Cristobl," says Mayor Mariano Daz Ochoa. "This is a city that lives from tourism, and this new road will allow more people to come. That will draw more investment, more and better jobs," he adds. "And that will mean better living conditions for our people."

City leaders were correct to foresee the need to make their town attractive to different kinds of tourists. Already the number of visitors fell last year by nearly 3 percent compared with 1998, perhaps as international interest in the Zapatistas cooled.

The pedestrian walkways, complete with underground cables and wires, will make enjoying the town easier for ambling tourists, who now have to compete with locals and vendors for narrow sidewalk space. Plans also call for refurbishing some of the city's impressive colonial architecture, which had fallen into disrepair.

But some locals fear the freeway means San Cristobl will lose its charm.

"This will become a suburb of Tuxtla," says Otto Schumann Glvez, a linguist and coordinator of the National Autonomous University's Indian study center in San Cristobl. Noting wistfully that native residents no longer speak the distinctive Spanish they once did, and that the number of trademark marimba bands is dwindling, he says, "For me it's too bad some things can't remain different."

Mr. Schumann suspects it was this very "difference" of the Chiapas highlands with their myriad - and conflictive - Indian communities that incited Mexico City's interest in the southern state's infrastructure. "After the surprise of '94," he says, "there was no way the government was going to sit by with its arms crossed."

In the interest of national unity and with the Zapatista uprising serving as a warning, the central government made sure San Cristobl got an airport, and now a freeway.

The highlands around San Cristobl and the jungle zone abutting Guatemala have hundreds of miles of new paved highway (not to mention several new Army posts) that didn't exist six years ago. These are roads to give local farmers access to markets, the government says. Actually, they are part of a strategic plan to thwart future problems like an uprising, counter observers like Schumann.

Mayor Daz says he has every interest in preserving San Cristobl's atmosphere, because that is what attracts tourists here. "We have no interest in becoming another Cancn," he says, referring to Mexico's glitzy, high-rise Caribbean resort. The city is fighting to keep discos out of the historic center, and last year it staved off a proposed Sam's Club, a US wholesale warehouse chain, after local merchants complained.

But city leaders say their first priority has to be the living conditions of thousands of new residents in the city's poverty belt - whole communities of Indians displaced from their rural homes by land, political, or religious conflicts. Improvements for them depend on economic development, which is why the leaders dream of bringing in large resort hotels, maybe even an amusement park.

San Cristobl's dilemma: How much new steel and concrete can come in before the local difference is drowned out.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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