Cancun is 41 years old this month. One of the world’s most popular beach destinations, it’s hard to believe that in 1970, the vibrant and busy Hotel Zone strip was a deserted sand spit in a remote corner of the Mexican Caribbean.

Covered in coconut palm plantations, mangroves and low-growing coastal shrubs and dotted with several tiny Mayan temples, the only visitors it received apart from birds and nesting sea turtles, were the caretakers of a beach house belonging to an Isla Mujeres businessman and a handful of fishermen from the nearby village of Puerto Juárez. It wasn’t even on the map!

Mexico’s Search for the Perfect Beach for a New Resort

During the term of Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, 1964 – 1970, politicians and planners began to discuss the enormous potential of tourism as a tool for national development and the need to diversify an economy that was increasingly dependent on oil exports. The President ordered the Bank of Mexico to develop a National Tourism Plan.

At that time global tourism was growing at an extraordinary rate, and demand was soaring for beach destinations, a sector which was dominated by the Mediterranean, Hawaii and a handful of islands in the Caribbean. Tourism provided revenue, jobs and could also boost regional development. The Bank of Mexico’s preliminary study concluded that Mexico should tap into this lucrative market by building a new beach resort.

The question was where? With 9,000 kilometers of coastline bordering the Pacific, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, this is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of sun, sand and sea. Planners were spoilt for choice. However, they had to find a spot that satisfied certain requisites, including a good climate, extensive beaches and other attractions, a suitable geographical location, proximity to major tourism markets, land availability and an abundant labor supply.

The search was on to find the ideal location. In 1968, a team of Bank of Mexico researchers headed by a young Harvard graduate and banker called Antonio Enrique Savignac embarked on a mission to find the beach that was to become Mexico’s first planned resort. Months of fieldwork and analysis followed before they selected their candidates: Cancún in the territory of Quintana Roo on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Los Cabos area and Loreto in Baja California Sur, Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo in Guerrero and Huatulco in Oaxaca. After careful debate, the planners chose Cancún.

Cancun, the Gateway to a World of Attractions

Cancún (one translation of its Mayan name is “nest of snakes”) was selected for a number of reasons. Not only does the island offer miles of pearly white sand, a turquoise sea and a tropical climate, it is close to a variety of natural and historical attractions. The world’s second longest reef lies just offshore; the islands of Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and Contoy are an easy boat ride away and the coast south of Cancún – now the Riviera Maya – offers more beautiful beaches and the spectacular inlets and lagoons at Xel-Há and Yalkú. Visitors would also be able to explore the archaeological sites such as Tulum and Chichén Itzá dotted throughout the area, the legacy of the Maya, one of the most important ancient civilizations in the Americas, and take side trips to Mérida, capital of the neighboring state of Yucatán, smaller colonial towns and the old henequen haciendas or estates. Of course, with the passing of the years, this rich offering has expanded to include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, the world-famous nature and adventure parks of Xcaret and Xplor, cenotes, the biosphere reserves of Sian Ka’an and Rio Lagartos, among others.

Although somewhat isolated from the rest of Mexico, Cancún is ideally located in terms of access to the major tourism markets of the United States and Canada, just a two to three-hour flight away from cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Moreover Cancún would boost the regional economy and become an important source of jobs for the population of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Let Building Begin

The Cancún project was approved in 1969 and work began in 1970. To transform 17 kilometers of sand, swamp, dune and jungle into the Hotel Zone we know today, build an airport and a city on the mainland where there was only forest, and install the infrastructure required by tourists and residents alike was an enormous engineering challenge, nevertheless by 1974, work was well underway on Mexico’s first master-planned resort.

The Cancún Master Plan divided the spindly 7-shaped island or Zona Hotelera into four zones: A, B, C and D which were destined for exclusively for hotels or mixed use areas for hotels and residential projects. It also envisaged the Convention Center, an 18-hole golf course, malls, marinas, gardens and other attractions. An International Airport was to be built on the mainland to the south of the city and the Hotel Zone. Until the airport was inaugurated, smaller planes landed at Cancún’s first airstrip, which was located between the modern-day Boulevard Luis Donaldo Colosio and the Comercial Mexicana store on Avenida Kabah. You can still see a replica of the original rustic control tower at the entrance to the city.

The Master Plan also stipulated that development would take place in three stages and building began on the bayside arm of the island between the mainland and Punta Cancún. The second phase extended from Punta Cancún to Punta Nizuc and the third from Punta Nizuc to the south.

The first projects to start were the construction of the road linking the Hotel Zone with the city and the airport, and the installation of essential infrastructure. This included wells for drinking water, pumps, pipes; electricity lines and the waste water treatment plants needed to service the Hotel Zone and the city that would house tourist industry, construction and service sector workers and their families.

As Cancún Island was barely 50 meters wide, it soon became clear that much more land was needed for the ambitious project. In a feat of engineering and land reclamation, the island was widened to between 250 and 300 meters. Two hundred and forty hectares of land were consolidated, 80 hectares of landfill were added and 372,000 cubic meters of silt were dredged from the channels that connected Nichupte Lagoon with the Caribbean.

Once the island was widened, building began on the first hotels. Thousands of men flooded into the area to work in the construction industry; by the end of 1971, 6,000 of them were living in camps on the mainland.

The urban planning of downtown Cancún was a far cry from the rigid grid plan used in older Mexican cities. The new city was divided into supermanzanas or independent neighborhoods that were separated by major avenues. The master plan stipulated that each supermanzana would have a park, school and other services.

Buildings began to spring up along Avenida Tulum and in the area known as the Crucero. Las Palapas Park was laid out in 1974 and City Hall was inaugurated in 1975. The city’s first church, Cristo Rey, was completed in 1976, by which time Cancún already had a population of 18,000.

The first Cancun settlers are called the Pioneros and they celebrate Cancun’s anniversary every April with special events such as a parade along Ave Tulum which takes place on April 20.

Royal Resorts, a Cancún Pioneer

The first three hotels were inaugurated in 1974 with a total of 332 rooms and by 1975, 15 hotels had already opened.

One of the destination’s pioneer companies, Royal Resorts was founded in 1975. Building began at its first resort, The Royal Cancun (Club Internacional de Cancun) in 1977 and it opened in 1978.

By 1980, Cancún had 47 hotels and was welcoming 460,000 visitors. The event that put it well and truly on the world map was the 1980 North-South Summit, a gathering of international leaders from some of the world’s richest and poorest countries which included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, Hans Dietrich Genscher, Indira Ghandi and Mexican President José Lopez Portillo.

By 1989, Cancún had topped one million tourists, passing the 3,000,000 mark in 2000. It has never looked back, despite occasional adversity in the shape of hurricanes, the 2009 flu scare, the global recession and misplaced safety concerns. In 2010, it welcomed 3,015, 690 visitors and its popularity endures.

So Happy Birthday to Cancún, the resort that has been the flagship of Mexican tourism for 41 years, an honor it now shares with the Riviera Maya. Today, Cancún has 28, 906 hotel rooms, and a cosmopolitan population that stands at around 800,000. Its inhabitants hail from Quintana Roo, Yucatán and from every state in Mexico, and when they moved here they brought their customs, cuisine, traditional dress, music and dances with them. They are joined by a growing expat community, which is also proud to call this place in the sun home, whether fulltime or for a few weeks every year.

We hope that you will join us in wishing Cancún Happy Birthday, Feliz Cumpleaños!

Here’s to many more years on the sun-kissed shores of the Mexican Caribbean.

Why not share your Cancun memories with us? We would love to hear from you!