Sergio Rodríguez Abitia: ‘Tourism is part of the extractive economy that everyone complains about’

The Mexican expert in social tourism believes leisure time is a human right and wants to use it as a tool to transform Latin America

Sergio Rodriguez Abitia, especialista en turismo social
Sergio Rodriguez Abitia, a specialist in social tourism, in Buenos Aires' San Telmo neighborhood.mariana eliano

“We need to make sure that people have leisure time, and I don’t mean just vacations. I’m talking about engaging and enriching activities that help us learn and try new things. It’s not just about consuming, but truly experiencing and growing,” said Sergio Rodríguez Abitia, president of ISTO Americas (International Social Tourism Organization) and advisor to the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture (CCGM). Rodríguez, a Mexican national with extensive experience in government tourism agencies, the tourism industry and academia, recently participated in the first International Symposium on Social Tourism held in Mar de Plata and Chapadmalal, two popular Argentine vacation spots during the 1940s and 1950s. The three-day symposium brought together academics, researchers, and representatives of cooperatives in the tourism sector. Rodríguez discussed inequality in Latin America, emphasizing the importance of leisure rights and the transformative potential of tourism in the region — not just as a business catering to a privileged few.

“It’s crucial for our people to have access to leisure activities that are connected to learning and appreciating our heritage,” said Rodríguez. “Why? Well, it helps foster family and neighborhood unity, enabling us to build a sense of identity. Ultimately, the main goal is to strengthen our social bonds and share our traditions. These things hold value that goes beyond mere monetary worth.” Rodríguez, an expert in social tourism, suggests a new way of thinking about it: instead of focusing on the number of tourists, shift the focus to the purpose behind their visit.

“The question is — why are you doing it? If the answer is ‘just business,’ then they’re doing really well,” said Rodríguez. “But that ‘why’ also raises other questions. Are you meeting people’s need for rest and recreation? Are you helping them restore their physical and mental well-being? If you do things smarter, you can not only have a great business — nothing against that — but you can also contribute to a healthier society. One that’s more relaxed, more cohesive and less alienated.”

After holidays, tourism agencies usually send emails to the news media touring statistics like number of visitors. The logic behind these emails can be summarized simply as “more is better.” Rodríguez highlights the importance of measuring additional factors, which contribute to a social tourism approach. “Apart from looking at restaurant revenue or hotel capacity (which are important to economists), there are other crucial aspects that often go unnoticed. For instance, how does a vacation affect well-being? Surprisingly, this aspect is rarely taken into account by the industry, simply because it cannot be quantified in terms of money. Accountants focus solely on monetary value and not the aesthetic and ethical considerations. The people and communities in tourist areas become less and less significant. It’s like everything just revolves around consumption.”

Opposing exploitative tourism

In the mainstream and classist tourism discourse, communities are valuable only if they can contribute to consumption and capital creation, says Rodríguez. “This is very noticeable in my country, Mexico, where the rural population lacks an industrial consumption mindset. Because they can’t be part of that process, they get pushed aside and left behind, while workers are brought in from other areas. This creates even more inequality and promotes economic activity that’s not tied to the local community but rather to a global industry. Our tourist centers are gradually turning into something akin to mines with minerals to be extracted. Tourism is actually part of the extractive economy that everyone complains about.”

Some of the most glaring examples of extractive tourism are found in Rodríguez’s home country of Mexico. People talk about a place becoming “Acapulco-ized” to describe positive and negative lessons for tourism development. Acapulco, once a thriving tourist destination, is now a violence-wracked beach community.

“Another example is Playa del Carmen [on Mexico’s Caribbean coast],” said Rodríguez, “a place that’s heavily promoted here in Argentina and elsewhere. The rate of suicide and family disintegration is worryingly high there. Most of the residents are tourism immigrants — they come, squeeze it dry and then leave — just like Acapulco. Something’s not right.”

Rodríguez believes the key focus of the discussion and driving force of change should be centered on people. This includes not only travelers, but also the people who live in the tourist areas and work in the industry. “We can discuss development only if you make sure that both visitors and the people living in tourist areas are taken care of. If you don’t achieve that, it’s just growth with no positives.”

The main challenge lies in winning over specific actors in the public and private tourism sectors who only focus on the numbers. “The same people who championed this model are starting to realize that everything didn’t turn out as expected. In fact, it led to environmental and social issues that are now working against them. Just ask the hoteliers in Acapulco — they’ll tell you they made a mistake. But finding a solution to this problem isn’t as easy as it seems. We need to prevent other destinations from going down the same path as Acapulco, which sacrificed ethics for lower costs and higher profits. When ethics takes a backseat, it becomes a problem.”

Unanswered questions keep cropping up in this conversation with Rodríguez, who admits he doesn’t have all the answers. Why do we want to attract more tourists? What is the ideal balance of domestic and international visitors? Why do governments prioritize their tourism promotion agencies at the expense of others? Are we selling a genuine representation of our cities and countries, or distorted caricatures of these places?

Much of the discussion is about making tourism more sustainable and understanding the concept fully without distorting it. “Tourism has been given so many adjectives — ecological, social, community, gastronomic — and a whole bunch more. It’s all part of this big need to get noticed. Sustainability has become this trendy thing, but honestly, no one really knows what it means. When you talk about sustainability and sustainable development, you have to think about the money side of things, sure, but also the environment and the people. Everyone likes to talk about social sustainability, and there are all these environmentalists defending the wildlife and the scenery. But who’s defending the people? I mean, what’s the point of protecting the environment and making money if it doesn’t benefit the people who live there?”

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