Negotiating Paradise: Mass Tourism, Empire, and Soft Power

The following is an excerpt from Dennis Merrill’s Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America.

Accounts of U.S. empire building in Latin America typically portray politically and economically powerful North Americans descending on their southerly neighbors to engage in lopsided negotiations. Dennis Merrill’s comparative history of U.S. tourism in Latin America in the twentieth century demonstrates that empire is a more textured, variable, and interactive system of inequality and resistance than commonly assumed. 

In his examination of interwar Mexico, early Cold War Cuba, and Puerto Rico during the Alliance for Progress, Merrill demonstrates how tourists and the international travel industry facilitated the expansion of U.S. consumer and cultural power in Latin America. He also shows the many ways in which local service workers, labor unions, business interests, and host governments vied to manage the Yankee invasion.

Merrill’s Negotiating Paradise was featured recently on our Understanding Puerto Rico’s Past recommended reading list.

This book examines how tourists armed with suntan lotion, maps, golf shirts, straw hats, cameras, and swimsuits extended the U.S. presence in twentieth-century Latin America and helped internationalize U.S. culture. The massive U.S. influence in Latin America is typically explained in terms of centralized power and systems of domination and dependence. According to traditional historiography, a small group of Washington policymakers, assisted or pressured by U.S. corporations and cooperative Latin American elites, have determined the key elements of inter-American relations. This study by no means dismisses the importance of political economy and the state, but it draws on postcolonial theory and poststructural concepts of “self” and “other” as well as on a growing literature on international cultural interaction to illuminate how tourists, hosts, and the transnational travel industry generated multistranded contacts across the Americas, actively shaped the social and cultural life of the empire, and influenced U.S. foreign relations.

In contrast to many studies of empire, this one does not present tourism as a uniform system that Yankees imposed on Latin Americans, although in some circumstances tourism did mimic conquest. This volume instead explores tourism as an ongoing international negotiation and empire as a textured and fluid structure. Tourists, hosts, and the myriad of pressure groups that comprised the travel industry negotiated natural and built environments, the location of tourist attractions, the cultural meanings infused into those sites, the wages paid to labor, and the divvying up of profits. They struck deals on transportation routes, hotel ownership, and the legality and illegality of leisure activities. At the grassroots level, visitors and hosts negotiated etiquette, language, monetary tips, the boundaries of personal space, and meanings of race, class, gender, sexuality, and national and international identities.

Tourism is not a recent development. Ancient Romans sought rest, meditation, and pleasure along their empire’s coastal reaches. Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims journeyed to holy sites out of religious devotion, and early modern European elites had not come of age until they had completed the “Grand Tour” and gained exposure to the continent’s physical wonders and high culture. Beginning in Europe’s age of self-proclaimed enlightenment, the travel writings of botanists and ethnographers mapped the world’s geographic contours, its social groupings, and its flora, fauna, and resources for purposes of political and commercial expansion. But mass tourism—that of middle-class and working-class populations—did not arise until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely a product of the Industrial Revolution and the globalization of markets and cultures.

Rising incomes, increasingly available credit, expanded worker benefits, and modern systems of transportation and communication made possible a new mode of consumption based on the idea of leaving home and work in search of new experiences. Historian Kristin L. Hoganson has explained how a growing army of middle- and upper-class tourists embraced the “tourist mentality” in the decades following the U.S. Civil War, either by taking a physical sojourn abroad or through “imaginary travel” accomplished through attending public lectures on travel or reading the period’s prolific travel literature. International travel gained popularity with each decade, coming within the financial reach of increasing numbers of Americans. By the late 1920s, American travelers spent approximately $770 million outside the United States, an amount that ballooned to more than $3 billion annually by the early 1960s. The United Nations World Tourism Organization has estimated that by the end of the twentieth century, international travel had become a $3.4 trillion industry, second in size only to oil. With about 600 million departures and arrivals annually, the industry employed about 7 percent of the world’s workforce, or some 230 million people. Analysts have estimated that in 2020, 1.6 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion people will take a leisure trip abroad.

International tourism can be analyzed through a variety of lenses. Tourism has generated a vast complex of business enterprises that produce and stage attractions, provide transportation and accommodations, peddle food and souvenirs, and of course, lure people to Eden through mass advertising, leading economists to ask whether tourism benefits local societies or primarily rewards international capital. Modern travel has also piqued the interest of sociologists and anthropologists, who have theorized about why people travel and studied tourism’s impact on host communities and cultures. A growing number of historians have begun to contextualize tourism and explore the many ways it intersects with industrialization, nationalism, cultural identities, and consumerism.

This study speaks to an interdisciplinary audience, including scholars of tourism, consumerism, and cultural studies. But it is positioned foremost as an analysis of U.S. empire, an inquiry into the inordinate North American influence on twentieth-century Latin America. I have chosen not to attempt a comprehensive history of U.S.-Latin American tourism relations. Such an undertaking would require a multivolume work, and important analytical points might easily get lost or muted in an expansive narrative. I have instead chosen three case studies, each a favorite U.S. vacation haunt at a key moment in international history: interwar Mexico, early Cold War Cuba, and Puerto Rico in transition from Cold War confrontation to Cold War détente. Collectively, they reveal how tourist relations have influenced and been influenced by demography and ethnicity, colonialism, decolonization, revolution, nation building, economic development, world wars, and the forty-year international conflict known as the Cold War, subjects that lie at the core of the history of U.S. foreign relations.

Dennis Merrill is professor of history at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is author or editor of three previous books, including the two-volume series Major Problems in American Foreign Relations