On Famed Riviera Nayarit, Tourism Edges Out Community

In a popular destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast, development comes at a cost for young residents.

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On Famed Riviera Nayarit, Tourism Edges Out Community


Children look over a fence at a small, private skate park where they’re sometimes allowed to skate — though on this day, no one is there to let them in.

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SAYULITA, MEXICO — At sunset, the children of Sayulita go to the central plaza to skate. Amid the colorful houses, restaurants and souvenir shops, swerving through laughing tourists, the skaters try to stake their ground. They practice tricks and play on the pavement of this small town on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

But in the midst of the recreational opportunities for adults and tourists, there is little space left for the children of Sayulita to play.

Community members say that tourism has fomented a process of urbanization and development that focuses on spaces and services for tourists — and neglects community, recreational and educational spaces for residents.

Abraham, 12, says the police often try to scare them out of the plaza, where skateboards are prohibited, or take their equipment. He has managed to get away. “But I also don’t think it’s good to run away from the police,” he says. (This article doesn’t include the surnames of Abraham or other children interviewed to protect their identities.)

Institutions like La Casa de la Cultura (The Culture House), La Casa del Maestro (The Teacher’s House) and La Casa Campesina (The Farming House) once hosted community events, workshops, classes and more. Along with a section of the town’s graveyard, these cultural institutions have all become residences, hotels and restaurants that primarily serve tourists.

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Tourists, cars, restaurants, bars, shops and vendors cram the streets of Sayulita, Nayarit. From 2009 to 2019, the state saw an increase of more than 1 million tourists.

In this shift toward a tourism economy, younger residents have felt the blow. “There are hardly any spaces for kids,” Matthew, 11, says. “It’s not fair that there are cantinas and bars on every corner,” adds Obed, 13.

In 2000, the Mexican state of Nayarit, where Sayulita is located in the municipality of Bahía de Banderas, established a tourist corridor in the south of the territory, rebranding an area that extends about 180 kilometers (112 miles) along the Pacific Ocean as the Riviera Nayarit.

Since then, Sayulita has become one of the Riviera’s main tourist destinations. In 2015, the town was incorporated into the Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns) program by the federal government, an initiative to invest in the infrastructure of major tourist destinations.

“There are hardly any spaces for kids.” 11-year-old resident

In 2009, 1.7 million tourists visited Nayarit, according to the Ministry of Tourism. That number nearly doubled in 2019, with 3.1 million visitors. In Sayulita alone, there are more than 300 rooms available on Airbnb, a popular online marketplace for lodging.

While an economic opportunity for some, the amount of housing for the general population has fallen, according to an August 2020 study published by professors at the Technological University of Bahía de Banderas and the University of Guadalajara.

As Sayulita urbanized, the estuary disappeared, and orchards and natural areas filled with trash. Insecurity increased, with robberies, drug trafficking, assaults and other violence on the rise, residents say.

According to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System, intentional homicides in Bahía de Banderas more than tripled, from eight in 2015 to 27 in 2021. Incidents of sexual violence increased from 28 in 2015 to 41 in 2021.

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Around the cemetery in Sayulita, the ongoing construction of two hotels is visible.

Neither the Bahía de Banderas Tourism Office nor the Sayulita Police Commission responded to multiple requests for comment.

“The people who come here to visit or do business don’t feel disappointed,” says Genoveva Garza, who has lived in Sayulita for almost all of her 53 years and owns Chilywilli, a traditional seafood restaurant. “But for those of us who live here and have seen such an extreme change, it hurts.”

Jessica Zepeda, director of La Casa Clu (The Clu House), an organization in neighboring San Ignacio that provides workshops for children, says kids in Sayulita receive mixed messages. While they’re treated as delinquents for skateboarding in the plaza, she says, the rest of Sayulita is filled with places for adults to have fun.

“Children have both the right and the need to play; it’s an important part of their development,” she says. “And what happens in Sayulita, where only the adults get to play? They play at getting drunk, they play at taking drugs, they play at living a crazy life.”

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Sayulita municipal delegate José Manuel López says skateboarding is prohibited in the plaza because the area isn’t suitable for such activities and skateboarders pose a danger to pedestrians.

Building new areas for child play is challenging, he says. “Land here is expensive, and the government doesn’t want to pay to create a recreational center.” López notes that “very few community members” complained about the sale of La Casa de la Cultura.

Rodelinda Ponce, a Sayulita resident, says the town doesn’t even have space for another kindergarten. The one that exists is enrolled past capacity.

Talks of a skate park have stalled. So Sayulita’s youth carve out their own spaces to play.

The boys flee the plaza in search of another spot. They agree that every time they’re on a skateboard, they feel joy.

Matthew says, “You feel like if you want to, you can fly.”

Maya Piedra is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mexico.


Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.