In February, a photo of an empty plant-lined corridor taken in Mexico City’s Roma Norte district was posted on Twitter, captioned with a cheerful wink of advice: “Do yourself a favor and remote work in Mexico City — it is truly magical ✨” The since-deleted image, tweeted by a visitor from Austin, Texas, captured a scene of generic, blissful serenity. The well-lit cobblestone corridor, with its wooden doors and trimmed shrubbery, could have been located in any major city. There were no people in sight.
The tweet was intended to be an innocuous recommendation, a contribution to an emerging breed of social media posts that glamorizes certain remote work locales. Some English-speaking expats have a habit of deploying adjectives like “bohemian,” “trendy,” “quirky,” and “charming” to describe Mexico City’s well-tended, tourist-dominant neighborhoods. In this instance, the word “magical” struck a simmering nerve.
The faux pas lay in the post’s earnestly oblivious tone, which triggered an onslaught of backlash from Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. It brought renewed attention to the city’s ongoing predicament: Affluent foreigners are stationing themselves to work remotely in Mexico City, where the cost of living is significantly lower than most American cities. (Based on an analysis of 586 global cities, Mexico City ranks 450th on the cost of living index.) Since Americans can stay up to 180 days in the country without a visa, many are biding their time until the six-month deadline to leave.
Mexico City has long been a destination for international tourists and English-speaking expats. Notable American writers like Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion, and Malcolm Lowery have published works inspired by their time in the region. Nearly 800,000 US-born immigrants live in the country, and likely thousands more are taking advantage of the 180-day tourist exemption.
Many residents believe that the rate of gentrification and displacement in Mexico City is accelerating — and that the pandemic-era travel boom is partly to blame. Over the past year, the city has hosted more and more remote workers, attracting those in higher-paying jobs and fields that were previously not virtual. Furthermore, residents have complained of foreigners blatantly flouting Covid-19 safety and masking guidelines, while being negligent of cultural norms and sensitivities. The most infuriating aspect, to some locals, is how expats can be unaware of the cultural, social, and financial impact of their presence.
This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Mexico City. Remote workers, who typically earn higher wages than in-person employees, are altering the urban geography of the United States. Many are relocating from dense hubs like San Francisco and New York to more spacious cities like Austin, Miami, or Honolulu. Some Americans are eyeing more temperate, tourist-friendly destinations abroad in Indonesia, Portugal, Thailand, and Spain for short-term stays.
Given its proximity to the US border, though, Mexico City serves as a particularly thorny case study as to how tourism-driven tensions can arise in the era of remote work. This is seen through the interdependent relationship between working-class Mexicans (who earn in pesos, not dollars) and well-off remote workers, amidst a backdrop of rising housing costs and inflation. And since the racial, ethnic, and class distinctions between visitors and locals can be so stark, the city’s growing unaffordability can be difficult to stomach.
There is no clear solution to this prevailing inequality. Foreigners, as a result, have to reckon with the uncomfortable notion of personal responsibility in a circumstance that requires systemic change. Is it enough for them to try to be culturally conscious and respectful visitors?
The freewheeling advice for foreigners to “do [themselves] a favor and remote work in Mexico City” infuriated many locals, who have witnessed their city mutate into a digital nomad’s playground. “Please don’t,” responded one Mexican resident. “This city is becoming more and more expensive everyday in part because of people like you and you don’t even realize or care about it.”
On social media, Mexicans have mimicked the caption with mocking images and videos of Mexico City’s supposed magic: a subway stop during rush hour, a random street fight, a rental listing for a $1,800 bathroom-turned-condo, a collapsed subway overpass, and a homeless encampment in front of a Zara store. The meme neatly illustrated the gulf between foreigners’ entitled expectations and the scrappy reality of Mexican locals, reflected in the wealth disparity between the two populations.
Social media tends to flatten this uneasy dynamic, wherein privileged, often white foreigners are villainized for the financial plight of native residents. To some, the sheer visibility of gringo tourists in once-affordable neighborhoods renders them culpable. But driving away remote workers and tourists isn’t a viable solution to Mexico City’s housing crisis, nor is it feasible. Longstanding policy decisions by the local and state governments have enabled this wave of short- and long-term visitors, creating a cycle of economic interdependence.
About 17 percent of Mexico’s GDP is generated by tourism, which is, according to the Washington Post, a higher percentage than that of all developing countries except Thailand. It was the third-most-visited country in the world in 2020, and is expected to bring in $35 billion from tourism in 2022. Due to this economic reliance, the Mexican government instituted relatively few Covid-19 travel restrictions over the past two years, lifting its national lockdown in June 2020.
The US-Mexico land border remained closed until last November, but travelers could still easily fly into Mexico without any proof of negative tests or vaccination. Since March, travelers to Mexico no longer have to fill out a health form or show any Covid-related documentation. (American residents, however, still need a negative PCR test to reenter the US.)
The country’s lax treatment of tourists has turned pre-pandemic expat hubs like Mexico City and Cancún into travel hotspots. Meanwhile, private companies and landlords have capitalized on foreign interest to develop higher-priced properties and drive up rents. Tourism, as a result, becomes a gentrifying force, despite its stated benefit to the Mexican economy. Even the most well-intentioned tourists can become inadvertent contributors to these gradual urban changes.
“The responsibility isn’t directly on American or European tourists, but there is a colonial logic behind it,” Carlos Acuña, a freelance journalist in Mexico City, told Vox over email. “Many of the companies that capitalize on tourism aren’t Mexican either; those who come to Mexico to work remotely do not pay the taxes that a resident pays and their income is also in a much higher currency than those who live here.”
The direct responsibility, Acuña said, lies with Mexican legislators, who have failed to protect citizens’ housing rights and are not strictly regulating short-term rental companies. In 2019, Acuña was displaced from his apartment in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico neighborhood, an area that has become increasingly gentrified and “touristified.” His landlord sold the building in 2018 so that it could be converted into a hotel. This was not a surprise to Acuña and his fellow tenants; they had expected this turn of events since Alameda Central, the downtown park, was remodeled in 2012.
“Every time a street or a space gets renovated, people fear it’s a sign that evictions are coming,” Acuña said. “Public works, despite being paid for with citizen taxes, usually precede the evictions and displacements of the local population.”
According to 2021 survey data of Mexico City residents, cited in a Washington Post op-ed on housing gentrification, 55 percent of responders were struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. Nearly a third moved homes during the pandemic, and 60 percent did so because they couldn’t afford their rent. It’s not that there aren’t enough central housing units for residents, either. One 2020 study found that the vacancy rates of newly built developments were “alarmingly high.”
Acuña believes that the housing prices in sought-after neighborhoods are being artificially inflated: “The financialization of housing has turned a human right into a global economic asset. Many of the buildings that offer rooms on Airbnb were once residential condos where families, elderly people, and indigenous people lived.” Today, his apartment in the same neighborhood is triple the price of his 2019 rent.
“It’s becoming very unaffordable, and prices are geared toward foreigners,” said Carmen Artigas, a Mexican citizen who lives and works in Mexico City and New York. “There’s an apartment down the street from me that’s being listed for $1,500 a month. That, to me, is a Brooklyn price.”
The general minimum wage of a Mexican worker (at least those in the formal economy) is roughly $8 a day, or 172.87 pesos. Workers who service these trendy tourist neighborhoods are increasingly living farther and farther away, and spend hours commuting to work. “A lot of workers I know in [expensive] neighborhoods like Condesa and Roma commute an average of two to three hours just to get to their jobs,” Artigas said.
This is not an exception, but the norm. Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis “that surrounds a mono-centric job market,” according to urban policy writer Scott Beyer. “Four central districts contain 53 percent of the jobs but 19 percent of the population,” and drivers spend an average of 218 hours a year in traffic.
However, Artigas is hesitant to proclaim the tourism-affected gentrification as a negative overall. She points to how certain neighborhoods have become safer to live in, the thriving art scene, and the benefit to local businesses. Still, the post-pandemic travel boom seems unsustainable. “I think there’s going to be a big backlash against neo-colonization,” Artigas said. “There’s a lot of tension, especially now that more displacement is expanding into outer neighborhoods.”
(Seen in La Roma neighbourhood in Mexico City, a poster, written in English that reads: “Tourists: Respect our city. Wear your mask. Now”) https://t.co/ElR1t2RNrx
— Alex (@AlxSavage) February 28, 2021
These are systemic issues that require legislative solutions, but this fact alone should not exonerate travelers. The least any traveler can do, whether they’re there for a week or for four months, is to read the room, Arcigas said. “If everybody who’s serving you, who’s Mexican, is wearing a mask, wear your damn mask.”
Many residents acknowledge that it’s unproductive to blame foreigners for structural issues like housing, but they often have no other outlet for their frustration. As one Mexican blogger put it, “I feel like I can’t do anything directly against the housing bubble, but at least I can get some sort of satisfaction out of taking it out on what I’ve appointed as one of its representatives.” Hence, the backlash that’s often directed toward foreigners who publicly romanticize living in Mexico.
“Remote work has changed the dynamic between tourists and locals, especially now that there are so many of us. You can’t be on vacation mode and expect locals to play along with your fantasy, not if you’re going to be here for months at a time,” said Jessica, an American tech worker from San Antonio, Texas. She has spent the past six months in Mexico City to improve her conversational Spanish. (Vox is withholding Jessica’s last name to protect her privacy.)
Jessica struggles with the implication of her temporary presence in the city, even as she tries to be a “good” expat and community member. “I try to have conversations in Spanish with workers, and I rent directly from owners, not Airbnb,” she said. “But I don’t want to self-aware my way out of accountability. I know that my well-being here depends on this underclass of workers that earn very little money.”
The ethics of the situation are hard to parse, especially when the Mexican government is welcoming long-term visitors with open arms. It would be xenophobic and wrong, according to Acuña, to tell foreigners they can’t come or stay in Mexico. But so far, the exchange hasn’t felt equal. “Whoever travels to Mexico City must understand that their presence has weight,” Acuña said. “I hope tourists will recognize their class and racial privileges and not deepen these existing problems.”
These circumstances are not specific to Mexico City, although the colonial undertones of the expat-local dynamic are quite explicit. The viability of remote work can have lasting impacts on the cost of housing just in America, according to economists. How this geographical reshuffling unfolds and the severity of its consequences depends on local and state officials. From a policy perspective, reducing displacement and increasing investments in affordable housing would be the truly magical solution.