As your jet descends for a landing at Cancún, you start to see what’s been drawing a whopping 3 million visitors a year to this skinny, “7”-shaped island at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
Your first image of the resort is a stunning, 14-mile (22.5 km) row of high-rise hotels dotting the island’s white-sand beaches. The plane banks, and you’re looking down at another eye-popper: a sprawling city of a half-million people on the mainland side of a short causeway from the island.
Your welcome to Cancún awaits just inside the terminal. It’s from an army of sales reps handing out brochures on everything from the area’s six golf courses to its 26 shopping malls. A particularly colorful booklet touts snorkeling adventures, pirate cruises, simulated rocket rides, submarine dives and trips to the shrines of Mayan fertility goddesses.
Still another lists dozens of ear-splitting discos around town where you can gyrate the night away to the rock, Salsa and reggae picks of dreadlocked DJs.
It’s hard to imagine that just 35 years ago, the only people here were a handful of farmers. Cancún Island was just a strip of scrubby sand dunes, a nameless speck on maps of the Yucatán. And there was no Cancún City.
How Cancún Came About
The story of the resort goes back to the late 1960s. Until then, Mexico rated pretty low on the international tourism scale. For the most part, vacationers could either make a quick visit to one of the country’s wide-open border towns, or spend long hours — often over horrible roads — getting to some ritzy hideaways along the beaches and around Mexico City.
In 1969, the Mexican government decided to go all out to tap the country’s tourism potential. Super-resorts — built from scratch — would be the name of the game. Miles of beaches would be lined with luxurious but culturally friendly hotels. Airline flights from cities around the globe would make it easy to get there. And there’d be fun things to see and do for everyone, from bakers to bankers.
Named to spearhead the project was a new, well-heeled agency that came to be known as Fonatur, short for the Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo (National Fund to Promote Tourism). It was staffed by experts in fields ranging from marketing to land management, backed up by economists, archaeologists, sociologists, entomologists and a few programmers for those newfangled computers.
As things turned out, Fonatur’s computer whizzes came up with some of the world’s best travel investments.
Researchers traveled around the country for two years collecting data on water sources, beach quality, ecological concerns and the like — even insect populations — from possible resort locations. It all went into the computer, and out came the first two selected sites. One was Cancún. The other was Ixtapa, on the west coast of Mexico, about 150 miles (241 km) north of Acapulco.
First up for development was the computer’s find on the Yucatán. It was called Cancún after the ancient Mayan name for the area, Kan Kun. Armed with $100 million, Fonatur began carving a resort out of the island’s sand dunes in 1972. After filling in a causeway from the mainland, the agency set foundations for the first phase of hotels, put in power and water systems, and built a boulevard running the length of the island. On the mainland side, a mangrove jungle was cleared to lay the framework for Cancún City.
The first hotel opened in mid-1974, and nine more popped up over the next 18 months. Five years later, with some 50 hotels on line, the resort was boiling over with vacationers. Today, with 140 hotels lining its powdery, white-sand beaches, Cancún is one of the most popular resorts on the planet.
Next Up: the Riviera Maya
Cancún International Airport, one of Mexico’s busiest terminals, not only serves Cancún, but also the booming region down the Yucatán coastline known as the Riviera Maya. The first phase of the Riviera development is well underway, with more than 200 hotels already in business and many more in the works. The region starts just outside Cancún and runs for 80 miles (128 km) down to the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve.
Flanking the lodging areas are approximately 40 mostly unspoiled beaches, along with dozens of eco-archaeological parks, aviaries, diving reefs, natural aquariums and the ruins of once-splendid Mayan cities. An estimated 125,000 people — mostly with tourism-related jobs — now live along the Riviera with the largest concentration in its main city, Playa del Carmen.
And there’s a lot more to come. Plans are on the drawing board for a second Riviera-like development down the coast, called Costa Maya. It’s expected to dot the beaches for another 80 miles (129 km) from the end of the Riviera all the way to Belize. A quarter-mile-long (0.4 km) cruise dock — for now, in the middle of nowhere — is already open for business on the Costa Maya.
Other Fonatur Projects
Ixtapa, the second location identified by Fonatur’s computer, opened in late 1974 (about six months after the debut of Cancún). Here, with 20 or so hotels looking out on the Pacific along the beaches of an old coconut plantation, the accent has been on slow, controlled growth. Visitors are welcome to browse around the nearby fishing town of Zihuatanejo, which gives them a chance to sample “the real Mexico,” as well as the luxury of Ixtapa.
Fonatur’s other build-it-from-scratch projects are also on the west coast. They include developments rimming some of the nine picture-perfect bays of Huatulco, about 200 miles (320 km) from the Guatemalan border, and a hotel/residence/marina project near the historic town of Loreto, on the Baja Peninsula. Additionally, the agency was a major player in the development of the popular Los Cabos resort complex at the tip of the Baja Peninsula.
If You Go
Mexico Tourism Board
1-800-44-MEXICO (within the United States)
Visitors to the Yucatán may have a tough time pronouncing the names of towns, resorts and natural attractions around the area. Some examples: Xel-Ha, Sian Ka’an, Xcaret, Paamul, Xamen-Ha, Aktun-Chen, Xpu-Ha and Xcalacoco.
Historians say the “x”s in many Mayan names came from the Spanish missionaries who mapped the area hundreds of years ago. If they couldn’t figure out some characters in a name, they simply replaced them with an x, pronounced “sh.” That’s how, for instance, the name Xel-Ha (pronounced Shel-Ha) came about.