Residential Tourism: (De)Constructing Paradise offers the first in-depth, critical exploration of the foreign retirement/expatriate communities proliferating in both size and number throughout Latin America. Amidst the widespread development and promotion of international destinations of residential “paradise” intended for retirement, leisure, and experiences of exotica, this book draws on a diversity of perspectives in order to analyze the social and spatial impacts that dynamic phenomenon has on the people and places it directly affects at the local level. Utilizing the community of Boquete, Panama as a case study, this book examines how two diverse residential groups – the native community who have lived in the area for generations and the foreign residential tourists who have just recently relocated abroad – coexist in a shared place of home, define their experiences of place and community, and confront the mass development of residential tourism in Boquete.
About the Author
Mason R. McWatters is a doctoral student in Geography at The University of Texas at Austin, where he previously earned a Master of Arts degree in Latin American Studies. His research interests are based in Central America and include such themes as consumption-oriented migration, representations of place and landscape, the socio-spatial effects of tourism, and the dynamic tension between preservation and development.
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Residential Tourism: (De)Constructing Paradise
By Mason R. McWatters
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2009 Mason R. McWatters
All rights reserved.
Understanding Residential Tourism
In 2005, Forbes magazine published an article, entitled 'Paradise Found: Where to Retire Abroad', which opened with the following introduction:
Who can resist the fantasy? Instead of catching the early-bird special in Florida, wouldn't it be more fun to sip away your sunset years in Provence? Such thoughts often occur on vacations. During a pastis-induced haze, you think, who needs Target or Oreo cookies or 100 cable channels to make life enjoyable? I could live here forever. You nurse the dream, lingering over real estate ads in a local café. But soon you realize that your nest egg isn't going to let you buy one of those overpriced villas and live like Peter Mayle for the rest of your life. Before you know it, the vacation is over, and so is your reverie. Don't fret. We found five idyllic places – from Patagonia to Phucket – where you can still live like a king on what you've saved. So dream on. (Kratz, 2005) Indeed, who can resist the fantasy of living like a king in paradise?
In The Shape of Utopia, Robert Elliott writes that ideals such as paradise, utopia and the golden age are 'projections of man's wishful fantasies, answering to the longings for the good life which have moved him since before history began' (1970: 7). In recent years, for a growing number of retired-aged North Americans and Western Europeans, a desire for the good life has, quite literally, moved them to the ends of the earth. For the chance to live like royalty in paradise, these individuals voluntarily surrender their rooted identities and their physical ties to a stable home and community in exchange for a new beginning in a truly foreign and faraway place.
One of these places that has quickly assumed an international identity as an emerging retirement destination is Boquete: a rural, coffee-growing district of less than 20,000 inhabitants, located in the verdant highlands of western Panamá. Incredibly, within just a five-year span, the foreign population in this community has mushroomed from under two dozen to over 500 inhabitants; and, according to Rubén Lachman Varela, a prominent Panamanian economist, this foreign population is projected to increase exponentially into the thousands within the coming decade. While these foreigners, whom I will refer to as residential tourists, represent only a fraction of the total population of the district, the social, cultural and economic impacts of their presence have permeated the entire fabric of this place, dramatically altering its identity in short order. Within just a few years, Boquete has been thrust into a crossroads between its provincial, agricultural-oriented past and its imminent future as an international destination for residential tourism.
The ultimate aim of this book is to examine Boquete at this crossroads and to investigate the social impacts of residential tourism on place and community at the local level, by directly exploring how its inhabitants – both native and foreign – experience their shared place of residence. How these residents experience their surrounding world, both physical and human, is significant because it offers a window into their unique identities, values, and desires for their lives in this place. In addition to understanding the meanings that residents assign to themselves and their surroundings, by exploring how these ostensibly diverse residential groups experience a shared place of home, there exists an opportunity to learn about how these residential groups interact with each other and their immediate world. Furthermore, by investigating foreign and native residents' experiences of Boquete at this critical juncture, there exists an opportunity to investigate how a complex, transformative and little understood phenomenon such as residential tourism affects places and communities at the local level.
The findings that will be presented in this book suggest that native Boqueteños and foreign residential tourists experience Boquete in fundamentally different ways. This experiential divide is so great it is as if these two groups were living in two distinct worlds, or two separate realities, despite the fact that they literally share common ground. Whereas native Boqueteños experience Boquete as a place to which their entire beings are fundamentally fused, residential tourists predominantly experience Boquete as a landscape from which they are, in many ways, distanced and alienated. Central to this experiential exploration is the contrast between the ideas of place – a durable, profound and organic entity shared and cared for by community – and landscape – a selective and ideological vision of one's surroundings which remotely mediates subject and object.
This dualism between place and landscape, however, does not tell the entire story of residential experiences in Boquete during this momentous era of foreign-led growth and development. Indeed, as the institution of residential tourism increasingly permeates the fabric of Boquete, both groups of residents begin to express that their respective relationships with Boquete are rapidly changing, each for dramatically different reasons. As the dynamic intervention of residential tourist growth anddevelopment continues to remake the dimensions of place, community and landscape in Boquete, both the place native residents know and the landscape residential tourists desire seem to be disappearing.
Before continuing any further, let us pause to consider the relatively obscure concept of residential tourism, around which this book is oriented. Terminological difficulties abound when attempting to label a complex, heterogeneous and newly emerging phenomenon such as this. For this work I conceptualize residential tourism, in the absolute broadest context, as the enduring practices and lifestyles which result from a channeled flow of consumption-led, permanent or semi-permanent migration to a particular destination. Within the specific socio-geographical context of this work, residential tourism may be more precisely characterized as the lasting effects which result from the process of international, consumption-led migration undertaken by individuals – primarily by retirees – from North America and Western Europe to Latin America. Paramount to residential tourism are two components: it is comprised of a lifestyle that is oriented around patterns of leisure and consumption, in which work imperatives are minimal or nonexistent; and it takes place permanently or semi-permanently in a particular destination, outside one's traditional socio-geographical milieu. As such, the term is also applicable as an identity (residential tourist) and as a descriptive identifier (e.g. residential tourist destination, lifestyle and so forth).
On the surface, it may appear that the mere decision to employ the term residential tourism creates a fallacious, deterministic framework that presupposes certain lifestyle behaviors for this practice. Certainly, some degree of judgment is being cast by choosing to use the weighted term 'tourism'; however, its use in this work is neither arbitrary nor deterministic.
Within the compound identity of the residential tourist, the latter word certainly carries a great deal of symbolic currency in Western cultures. Indeed, according to Dean MacCannell, the tourist has become a morally loaded identity among critical theorists, who often have 'derided' this identity for 'being satisfied with superficial experiences of other peoples and other places' (1976: 10). (This, despite MacCannell's own insistence that the tourist possesses an inherent desire for 'deeper involvement' with other cultures and societies.) However, while acknowledging the moral baggage that accompanies the terms 'tourist' and 'tourism', my motivation to use these terms derives purely from the associative value they hold as a comprehensible identity and practice with which most readers can relate. I desire to imbue these terms neither with the negative connotations awarded by MacCannell's critical theorist opponents, nor with the positive connotations awarded by MacCannell himself. Their uses are principally part of an operational strategy to overcome the great terminological difficulties that a complex, heterogeneous and newly emerging phenomenon such as residential tourism presents.
I selected the terminology of residential tourism in the absence of an agreed-upon vocabulary among the residents of Boquete – both foreign and native – to describe this emerging phenomenon. In particular, I selected this terminology after much discussion with the foreign residents of Boquete concerning their own identity. Prior to conducting my field-work, I often referred to this group as 'expatriated retirees'; however, upon arriving in Boquete, I quickly learned that a significant number of residential tourists found this term personally offensive. Several residential tourists downright despised the term 'expatriate' because they felt it conveyed an extremely negative political connotation and misrepresented them as unpatriotic individuals who had shunned their native countries. While I am sure that not all residential tourists are completely at ease with the terminology I have chosen, I am confident nevertheless that it is the most appropriate and representative language available.
Residential tourism, in fact, is a term with an established scholarly tradition, albeit one that is nascent and, thus far, limited in its application in research scholarship. For at least the past decade, Spanish scholars in the social sciences have utilized residential tourism to describe the permanent or seasonal residence of (mostly elderly) northern Europeans along the Costa del Sol region of southern Spain (e.g. Casado-Diaz, 1999; Clavé, 1998; Raya, 1994; Rodriguez, 2001; Vera, 1997). In all the works that employ this term an emphasis is made regarding the links between vacation tourism and residential tourism. Indeed, geographer Vicente Rodriguez finds that residential tourists' 'pattern of behaviour, their perception of the area where they live and their appraisal of environmental events are mainly tourist orientated' (2001: 60). Among this group of scholars, Rodriguez offers the most explicit conceptual definition for the residential tourist identity. He does this by identifying four main criteria that characterize residential tourists as a social group:
They constitute a concrete human group (retirees; the elderly); they exhibit different patterns of mobile behavior (permanent migration, temporary migration or simply mobility); they demonstrate a tourist motivation with an individual basis (satisfaction in enjoying free time) and economic dimensions (in terms of consumption, real estate markets and services); and they create territorial effects (53, emphases in original).
Rodriguez's four main criteria provide excellent anchors for a logical and accommodating conceptual framework for residential tourist identity. In addition to affirming a distinct and incontrovertible correlation between short-term vacation tourism and long-term residential tourism, his conceptual definition rightly emphasizes the immense significance of the territorial effects that residential tourism creates. The inclusion of this final criterion is important not simply because it is an important focus of this work; in a broader sense the recognition of residential tourism's territorial and, I would add, social effects is very significant because of the awesome transformative power the phenomenon of residential tourism possesses. Simply put, residential tourism is meaningless until it is situated in a socio-geographical context and explored as a dynamic phenomenon which alters the identities of the places and communities with which it becomes associated.
However, despite Rodriguez's valuable contribution to articulate four cornerstone criteria of residential tourist identity, I find several of his parenthetical descriptions of these criteria to be somewhat underdeveloped and misleading. The first concerns the human group criterion. Simply owing to the wide-ranging subjectivity that the fluid terms 'retired' and 'elderly' can denote, I am opposed to Rodriguez's suggestive contention that residential tourists are categorically retired, elderly or both. While most residential tourists tend to be retired, older individuals, there simply are no practical barriers to prevent younger individuals from undertaking a lifestyle of residential tourism. Even more problematical, there is no possible way to delimit concrete, definitional boundaries for terms as arbitrary as 'retired' and 'elderly', particularly the latter. Instead I conceive residential tourists – independent of their exact vocational statuses or ages – to be a distinct social group with a relatively homogenous set of intentions and motivations for undertaking a consumption-oriented way of life in socially selected destinations beyond their traditional socio-geographical milieus..
My second exception to Rodriguez's conceptual framework concerns his claim regarding residential tourists' patterns of mobile behavior. Whereas he seems to suggest that residential tourists' patterns of mobile behavior may reasonably vary across the entire spectrum of mobility, I contend that residential tourist identity must be restricted only to those patterns of mobility that are capable of accommodating either permanent or semi-permanent residence in one particular location. Indeed, without some standards of residential (semi-)permanency what criteria remain to differentiate short-term vacation tourists from residential tourists? This issue only highlights the lack of clarity and inherent difficulties that arise when one attempts to distinguish among a variety of identities along the continuum of tourist typologies; a problematical issue with which several scholars have engaged with limited success (e.g. O'Reilly, 1995; Vera, 1997; Williams et al., 1997).
Despite the detailed modifications I have proposed above, I find that the four main criteria which Rodriguez proposes to conceptually define the residential tourist identity remain fundamentally sound and exceedingly insightful. However, I do find it necessary to include a fifth main criterion in order to distinguish definitively the residential tourist identity from a variety of other tourist identities. This additional criterion is that residential tourists possess a distinct intention to make a lasting home in their host destination. From a practical standpoint, this new criterion that I propose would undoubtedly be more difficult to assess than the existing criteria because understanding one's intentions for undertaking a specific action are not always manifested as empirically evident. Rather, understanding one's intentions for pursuing a specific course of action – in this case, migrating to a particular destination outside of one's traditional socio-geographical milieu – is a subjective enterprise that requires qualitative assessment and personal engagement. Yet despite the difficulties of assessing this additional criterion, I find that intention is a powerfully influential dimension of residential tourist identity. It resonates to affect every minute aspect of how the residential tourist perceives and experiences his new environment and constructs his new reality in the host destination. This criterion of intention directly relates to the residential ambitions of the residential tourist; it concerns the symbolic, experiential declaration of the residential tourist to reestablish the inimitability of 'home' in a new place. Simply having the intention, or plan, to recreate 'home' in this new place acts as a powerful lens of perception which uniquely influences how one views himself and his encounters with the social and physical environment in this place. Thus, while in theory a vacation tourist and a residential tourist may both have the same superficial experiences upon arriving at a particular host destination – disembarking from the same airplane, walking through the same airport terminal, seeing the same sights while driving away from the airport, and so forth – the experiential significance of the residential tourist's intention to make a lasting home in this place is powerful enough to wholly differentiate his perceptions and experiences from those of all other tourist identities. This correlation between intention and perception, with regard to establishing the distinct identity of the residential tourist, cannot be overstated.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures vii
1 Understanding Residential Tourism 1
Residential Tourism 3
Contributions of IRM 10
Towards New Understandings 14
Building a Framework 15
Book Overview 17
2 Spatial Interpretations: Seeing Landscape, Sensing Place 21
Outsiders and Landscape/Insiders and Place 42
3 Locating Boquete in Space and Time 51
Geographical Context 51
Historical Context 56
The Dawn of Residential Tourism 69
4 Longing for Landscape: Assessing Residential Tourists' Experiences of Boquete 80
Promotional Grand Image 81
Individual Articulations of Place Experience 94
A Community Apart 109
5 The Estranging Place: Assessing Native Residents' Experiences of Boquete 114
Boqueteños and Place 115
Place into Landscape 120
6 Conclusion 143
Rethinking Residential Tourism 143
Future Scenarios 147
Landscape Nomadism 156
Suggestions for Further Research 158
Appendix 1 Boquete: A pueblo that is living the last days of its history Ulices Urriola 163
Appendix 2 This is the story of a farmer who sold his land to a foreigner for a great amount of money Ulices Urriola 166
Appendix 3 Methodological Notes 170