Tourism-related land grabs: Mechanisms, practices, impacts and resistance

This chapter attempts to synthesise the findings of the 31 case studies from 26 countries by looking at various types of mechanisms and practices involved in tourism-related land grabbing, examining the impacts on affected communities through a comparative perspective and distilling distinct forms of protest and resistance. The first section of this chapter draws on Harvey’s (2006) enabling mechanisms of‘accumulation by dispossession’. The second part of the chapter examines four distinct practices of dispossession (introduced in Chapter 1) — eviction, enclosure, extraction, erasure — and illustrates them with summaries of selected case studies. Finally, the chapter explores community-level resistance to tourism-related land grabbing and displacement and introduces the concepts of ‘assemblages of resistance’ and ‘resistance identities’ which are major success factors of resistance movements against predatory tourism development.


Harvey (2006) distinguishes four major mechanisms through which the global advance of neoliberalism has enabled ‘accumulation by dispossession’, i.e. the illegal, illegitimate and/or unethical appropriation of land and other resources in the hands of elites at the expense of the majority of the population. These four mechanisms are (1) privatisation, (2) financialisation, (3) management and manipulation of crises, and (4) state redistributions. In the following, the expression of these four mechanisms in the tourism sector is outlined with reference to the case studies presented in Chapters 3—9.


The privatisation and commodification of land and natural resources is a crucial step towards opening the door for land alienation. Communally owned land and natural resources — generally referred to as ‘the commons’ - are often seen as an impediment for investment and development. Most tourism businesses rely on secure, exclusive and alienable land rights that they can hold as private property and use as collateral for obtaining loans from the financial

Mechanisms, practices, impacts, resistance 187 sector. Many governments in the Global South have followed advice from international legal experts to privatise both public and communally held land in order to provide incentives for domestic, foreign and multinational corporations to invest in land for tourism development. This has often been accompanied by the rolling back of restrictions on land sales and of regulations with regard to environmental and social standards. Through privatisation of land that was previously held as public land or under communal management, the state actively transfers “assets from the public and popular realms to the private and class-privileged domains” (Harvey, 2006, p. 153).

Proponents of privatisation argue that only land that is held as private property can be sold in a regular land market under a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ arrangement (cf. de Soto, 2000). Yet they tend to overlook that many land sales in tourism zones are induced by excessively high land prices and/or are more accurately described as ‘distress sales’ whereby land owners risk losing the basis of their entire livelihood (cf. Chapter 3 for the case of the Philippines and Chapter 4 for the cases of Bali and Mauritius). In some cases, the process of privatisation predates the tourism boom (cf. the case of Costa Rica in Chapter 4), while in other cases privatisation has occurred as a direct impact of the tourism expansion (e.g. in the case of Honduras’s North Coast, discussed in Chapter 5). A peculiar case is Vanuatu, a small island developing state in the Southwest Pacific, where private, long-term leases held by expatriate tourism investors have a much higher value as collateral than customary ownership of the Indigenous Ni-Vanuatu people (cf. Chapter 4). Finally, private ownership documented by land titles is not always a hedge against forced acquisitions and evictions, as exemplified by the case of Tuluin on Mexico’s Riviera Maya in Chapter 3.


The tourism boom and its adverse impacts on the land rights of local communities in many countries of the Global South is fed with large amounts of capital from commercial banks (cf. the case of post-disaster Honduras in Chapter 5) and national development banks (cf. the early years of Cancun’s megaresort development and Cambodia’s economic land concession in Chapter 3, and Lao PDR’s airport expansion project Luang Prabang in Chapter 9). As Gibson (2019) states, excess capital of institutional and corporate investors continuously seeks new tourism spaces in which to reinvest. International financial institutions (IFIs) also play a major role in either directly or indirectly fuelling dispossession and evictions for large tourism projects (e.g. the funding of a regional connectivity project in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the World Bank which will bring more visitors to tourist areas controlled by the Bangladesh military, described in Chapter 6). Financial support from IFIs for conservation and tourism projects have also fuelled resettlement from tourism zones and wildlife reserves, as exemplified by Germany’s national development bank’s (KfW) involvement in establishing the Limpopo National Park in

Mozambique as part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in southern Africa (Chapter 7).

In many places, the combined involvement of the global financial sector and local commercial banks in the provision of tourism infrastructure and building of megaresorts, has led to speculative land purchases and rapidly rising land prices that crowd out the local population from the land market. This is evident from residential tourism development in Mauritius and Costa Rica (Chapter 4) and the planned ‘Maya Train’ mega-project on the Yucatan peninsula, discussed in Chapter 9. In the northwestern coastal provinces of Costa Rica (Chapter 4) and along the Riviera Maya in southern Mexico (Chapter 3), affluent North American investors provide most of the financial capital that has driven the boom of resort and residential tourism.

Management and manipulation of crises

Many tourism booms in the Global South have been precipitated by some form of crisis, and this has not always occurred by accident. Through creating, managing or manipulating crises, governments in alliance with the corporate tourism sector can easily construct a rationale for tourism development as a pathway out of the crisis. This ties in with the various crisis discourses that have been deployed by many governments in the Global South as described in Chapter 2.

The government of Costa Rica considered the tourism sector as a new growth strategy when the agricultural sector was in an economic crisis (Chapter 4). Bali was promoted as a low-cost tourist destination following the 1997 Asian financial crisis (Benge and Neef, 2018; Chapter 4). Timor-Leste’s government views tourism development as a strategy to avert budget deficits when the country is running out of its offshore oil and natural gas reserves. The Sri Lankan government employed tourism as a strategy to recover from both the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the country’s long civil war (Chapter 6). In Honduras, tourism was first promoted after the 1998 Hurricane Mitch and then a decade later as part of a post-coup economic recovery process (Chapter 5). In all these cases, the sudden prioritisation of the tourism sector as a crucial — if not the only — crisis management strategy has enabled governments to enact new, investor-friendly legislation and attract large flows of foreign capital into their countries’ tourism industry, with little regard for the land and resource rights of local communities living in areas with high tourism potential.

State redistributions

In order to boost tourism, governments employ a range of redistributive measures, often using taxpayers’ money to subsidise tourism development through the provision of key infrastructure (roads, airports, ports, public water supply), as exemplified by the case of Labuan Bajo in Eastern Indonesia

(Chapter 4) and Goa in India (Chapter 9), where - apart from the construction of airports and other transportation infrastructure that have led to displacements — water supplies have also been diverted from local users (farmers, urban residents) to the growing tourism industry. In other cases, governments forfeit tax revenues by providing generous tax breaks for domestic and foreign tourism businesses, as evident from the cases presented from Mexico (Chapter 3), Costa Rica and Mauritius (Chapter 4) and Honduras (Chapter 5).

Some states in the Global South are also directly redistributing thousands of hectares of ‘public’ land to foreign corporations, e.g. in the form of economic land concessions, as exemplified by the case of Cambodia (Chapter 3). Governments may also redistribute control over land to state entities that traditionally have not been involved in the tourism industry, as evidenced by the case of military-driven tourism development and displacements in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (Chapter 6).

In some cases, ‘appropriation by dispossession’ for tourism purposes combines several mechanisms. In the post-disaster case of Sicogon Island in the Philippines, discussed in Chapter 5, the government shifted the responsibility for recovery to a large corporation that used this form of ‘state redistribution’ to manipulate the crisis for its own economic goals of turning the island into a prime tourism destination at the expense of the disaster victims.

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