There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in the Argentine tourist destination of Mar del Plata, as discovered by many who headed to the city during the recent winter holidays. At one of these seaside resorts, however, the majority of guests stay for free and others have to pay the exorbitant fee of $45 – for a week’s stay.
This budget getaway is no backpacker’s hostel. The Chapadmalal hotel complex is perched on top of rolling coastal bluffs. The complex consists of nine California-mission style hotels, a man-made lake, football fields and tennis courts with ocean views, a go-kart track, a cinema, an old Ferris-wheel and merry-go-round, a health centre, a museum dedicated to Eva Perón and a chapel.
But this is no luxury resort either; it is a state-owned hotel complex that offers much-deserved holidays to the lowest-income earners in Argentina, pensioners and government employees.
In order to visit, individuals or groups from the previously mentioned populations send a request form to the central offices of the Ministry of Tourism in Buenos Aires, and specify two potential travel dates. If they qualify and if there is space during the requested times, they are granted a week long stay that includes meals and access to all of the complex’s services, including exercises classes, cultural events and guided excursions in the surrounding area.Gabriela Piñera, who works in the administrative offices at the Chapadmalal complex, explains that many people who stay at the hotels don’t have the basic necessities such as running water and electricity in their homes. Grinning, she says, “when they come here they are extremely happy, and their joy is something wonderful to see.”
A Peronist Initiative
Juan and Eva Perón would be proud to hear Piñera’s words. Chapadmalal is one of the enduring bastions of the Peróns’ comprehensive social reforms. It is often citied as a great symbol of the aspirations for social justice that informed Perón’s early policies. Before becoming president, Perón headed the Department of Labour, and radically overhauled Argentina’s labour laws.
Perón was instrumental in the creation of three momentous laws, all enacted in 1945, that drastically improved the lives of Argentine workers, and linked labour support to Perónism for decades to follow. The first law, decree 1740, established the right to mandatory paid vacations for all workers. The second was the decree of Union Status that legalised the establishment of unions and offered them various tax exemptions to create social assistance programmes. Finally, decree number 33302 established the minimum wage, a required annual bonus and created the National Institute of Remuneration. Decree 33302 further established that from the newly mandated bonuses 5% (2% from the worker and 3% from the employer) would be directly deposited at the Institution of Remunerations, to be designated for the promotion of social tourism.
The year following the passage of these laws, 1946, Perón rode strong working class support to a victory in the presidential elections. A large part of his platform concerned levelling the gaping economic divides between the classes in Argentine society. One of the most explicit symbols of this inequality was the exclusivity of Mar del Plata. Leandro Bienaimé, an employee at the Chapadmalal complex and Eva Perón museum, says, “until the ’50s Mar del Plata was like the Argentine version of Punta del Este or Miami today.”
Perón despised the arrogance of the monied porteño elite whose ostentatious summer houses filled Mar del Plata, and kept real estate prices well beyond the reach of middle class Argentines. He was intrigued by a relatively new European trend towards ‘social tourism’. In between the first and second world wars, and particularly in the ’30s, many European countries witnessed drastic strengthening of unions, including their purchasing of land for recreational enjoyment. In Argentina, there were some early examples of this trend before Perón fully embraced it. In the 1920s, some of the British-owned railroad companies, influenced by developments in England, built vacation complexes for their employees.
During his first year in office, Perón launched his social tourism programme, aimed at creating places where workers could enjoy their newly gained holiday time. In the second year, the Eva Perón Foundation was created to expand social welfare services to children and impoverished people throughout the country. Perón raised taxes on casino earnings – a favourite pastime in Mar del Plata – and created a national lottery that directed its profits to funding the social tourism initiatives. Soon the the new programme’s slogan was recognised all over the country: “You pay for the travel, the government pays for the accommodation.”
Symbolic LocationPerón’s choice of Chapadmalal as the location to build one of the largest social tourism complexes was blatantly symbolic. He did more than just crash the party on the elites of Mar del Plata by opening up the country’s exclusive seaside resort to an influx of working class citizens: he decided to flex some government muscle by choosing land belonging to the Martínez de Hoz family, one of the oldest and richest cattle-ranching families in Argentina (Jose Martínez de Hoz would go on to be the Economy Minister during the last military dictatorship). It is still disputed whether the family ‘donated’ the land, at Perón’s request, or whether he simply expropriated it, but it was made public that there was an agreement between the two parties that the land would be used for social benefit only.
At the time of its inauguration in 1952, Chapadmalal was the pinnacle of social tourism. It was designed to be a miniature autonomous city, in which workers and their families would have access to an array of leisure activities. The intent was not only for the workers to get the rest and relaxation that they deserved, but for them to feel equal to the elites who’s lives seemed so foreign and unobtainable. In 1953, the year following the complex’s construction, 24,218 guests stayed at Chapadmalal.
In another move to erase the elitist reputation of Mar del Plata, Perón encouraged the unions to purchase privately owned hotels in the city by offering them tax cuts and covering some of the operational expenses. In 1948, the union of Commercial Employees bought two of the most traditional hotels in Mar del Plata: the Hurlingham and the Riviera, making them the first union owned hotels in Mar del Plata. By 1973 there were 62 union owned hotels – by 1984 there were 108.
A History of Tourism
Professor of History at the National University of Mar del Plata, Elisa Pastoriza, who has written extensively on the advancement of tourism in Mar del Plata, says that by the early 1970s the process of converting Mar del Plata from an exclusive resort city to an accessible national tourist destination was complete. In 1940 almost 377,000 tourists visited Mar del Plata in the summer. By 1972 the figure had jumped to over 2,868,000.During the ’60s and ’70s, while Juan Perón was exiled from the country and the government was tugged back and forth between civilian and military rule, the Chapadmalal hotel complex managed to remain mostly unaffected. Attendance was less than it had been in the ’50s, due to the unions’ power and organization being significantly disrupted, but it remained at a fairly constant level. After the fall of the last military dictatorship in 1983, the new government was handed a crippling debt leftover from the junta, and they were forced to cut many jobs at the hotel complex. During the peak years of attendance to the hotels, the government employed 650 workers – today the number has dwindled to 120. Two of the hotels have been allowed to sink into disuse.
Starting in the ’80s and increasing under the sweeping, neo-liberal privatisation policies of president Carlos Menem in the ’90s, the government cut more jobs and put contracts for managing the hotels’ daily operations up for bidding. This is how the complex continues to be run today. The contracts go up for bidding every four to five years, and two companies split the responsibilities for the six hotels that are still in regular use.
Leandro Bienaimé says that, unfortunately, social tourism today receives a pittance compared to original government investments, and is mostly carried on for political purposes. The programme is often conveniently used as a symbol to give the appearance of a robust social welfare system. Bienaimé exlains, “we are tied to political whims and interests. For instance, a strong right-wing government may be elected and choose to close us down immediately. On the other hand, a strong left wing-government may be elected and indicate that social tourism is a genuine right of workers and invest more money.”
Since its construction, Chapadmalal was imbued with overt symbolism. In the ’50s it served as a manifestation of increased social justice and equality. In the ’60s and ’70s it was stuck between strong conflicting interests – it did not develop, it remained static. Since the ’80s, after being handed over to private interests, it began depreciating. What does the state of Chapadmalal reflect about today’s society? It appears to be looking to the future with marked political mistrust and anxious uncertainty.
Though you must qualify to stay in one of the hotels on the Chapadmalal complex, the Eva Perón museum is open to the public. The Eva Perón Museum is located in Hotel #5, Unidad Turística Chapadmalal, Ruta Provincial 11, km. 549. The museum is open from Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 12.30pm, all year. firstname.lastname@example.org
To schedule a stay at one of the union hotels in Mar del Plata, which non-members can stay at and are generally much cheaper than private hotels, contact Jorge Carlos Cocco, General Manager, ‘A Todo Sol’ Travel Agency: email@example.com Cel: 02652.1523.5650