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Growing pains for Mexican tourism

By day they live in white-gloved splendour...

By day they live in white-gloved splendour, bearing silver trays, mowing lawns and pandering to the whims of their coconut-oiled guests. By night, however, they are exposed to a crueller reality. On the fringes of Cancun, Mexico's top tourist destination, workers in the tourist trade walk home along roads unlit and unpaved. Many houses lack running water, drains and electricity, and the mangrove swamps nearby have to be fumigated to prevent those who dwell there from carrying diseases to work.

For some, the trek to and from work is four hours, in cramped minivans that leave before dawn and head down the 130km Caribbean coastline known as the Riviera Maya, disgorging workers at staff entrances of sumptuous sun palaces. Many bear the contrasts without complaining. After all, tourism throughout Mexico's impoverished south provides an alternative to fleeing to the US in search of a living.

Mexican authorities, however, are not so forgiving. The four-month-old government of Vicente Fox has identified the ghettos sprouting chaotically near Cancun as a threat to tourism, which generated $8.3bn last year, making it one of Mexico's top sources of foreign exchange.

At a meeting in Mexico City on Tuesday, the heads of several ministries and state housing and electricity companies aim to draw up a $1bn-plus development plan to rescue the Riviera Maya. They plan to create four purpose-built towns to handle the influx of hotel workers, develop a golf circuit and facilities for plusher residences.

According to John McCarthy, the head of the National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur), the Riviera Maya scheme would serve as a blueprint for similar efforts across Mexico. It would involve local and state officials working with federal authorities on a board with final say on all new resorts. It would ensure three houses for workers were built for each hotel room.

Curiously, the roots of such a scheme lie deep within the white-sanded spit of land beneath the high-rise hotels in Cancun. There, 25 years ago, Fonatur spotted a 200-inhabitant village on which to build Mexico's future tourism hopes. It kept close tabs on the project, which - for those who like mass tourism, all-you-can-drink nights, "booze cruises" and fast food - became a roaring success.