Cancun is 42 years old today, April 20 2012. One of the world’s most popular beach destinations and host to over three million visitors in 2011, it’s hard to believe that in 1970 it wasn’t even on the map! The lively Hotel Zone strip was a narrow sand bar covered by 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 fishermen from the tiny village of Puerto Juarez. How it was selected as the site of Mexico’s first Caribbean resort is a long story.
Mexico Embraces Tourism in the 1960s, the Search for New Beach Resort Locations Begins
During the term of Mexican President Gustavo Diaz 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 new beach resorts.
The question was where? With over 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 warm climate with guaranteed year-round sunshine, 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 perfect location. In 1968, a team of Bank of Mexico researchers embarked on a mission to find the beach that was to become Mexico’s first planned resort. Months of fieldwork and analysis followed before the planners selected their candidates: Cancun 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 much debate, the planners chose Cancun.
The planning team was headed by Antonio Enriquez Savignac (1931–2007) a Harvard business graduate, finance and development expert who was instrumental in the creation of Fonatur or Fondo Nacional del Fomento al Turismo, the government body charged with developing Cancun. Mr. Sauvignac later became the Mexican Secretary of Tourism and Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization.
Cancun, the Gateway to a World of Attractions
Cancun (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 the gateway 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 Cancun – now the Riviera Maya – offers more beautiful beaches and the spectacular inlets and lagoons at Xel-Ha and Yalku. Visitors would also be able to explore the archaeological sites such as Tulum and Chichen Itza dotted throughout the area, the legacy of the Maya, one of the most important ancient civilizations in the Americas, and take side trips to Merida, capital of the neighboring state of Yucatan, 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 isolated from the rest of Mexico at the end of the 1960s, tourism planners realized that Cancun was ideally located to tap into the major tourism markets of the United States and Canada, as it is just a two to three-hour flight away from cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Other important factors that the Mexican Government considered were the boost that Cancun would give to the depressed regional economy of the Yucatan and the employment opportunities it would provide for area inhabitants.
Building to a Master Plan, Work Starts on Cancun in 1970
The Cancun project received the Presidential seal of approval in 1969 and construction began in 1970. To transform 17 kilometers of sand dunes, swamp and forest into the Hotel Zone we know today, build an airport and a city on the mainland where there was only jungle, and install the infrastructure required by tourists and residents alike was an enormous challenge. Nevertheless by 1974, work was well underway on Mexico’s first master-planned resort.
The Cancun Master Plan divided the island, now known as the Zona Hotelera, into four zones: A, B, C and D which were designated for hotels or a mixture of hotels and residential projects. It also envisaged the Convention Center, an 18-hole golf course, shopping centers, 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 Cancun’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 Cancun. The second phase extended from Punta Cancun 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 development 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 Cancun 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 first three hotels were inaugurated in 1974 with a total of 332 rooms and by 1975, 15 hotels had already opened.
The urban planning of downtown Cancun was a far cry from the rigid grid plan used in older Mexican cities. The new city was divided into supermanzanas or 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.
Royal Resorts, a Cancun Pioneer
Founded in 1975, Royal Resorts is one of Cancun’s pioneer companies. Building began at its first resort, The Royal Cancun (formerly known as Club Internacional de Cancun) in 1977 and it opened in 1978.
By 1980, Cancun had 47 hotels and received 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, Indira Ghandi and Mexican President José Lopez Portillo. Incidentally, several of the summit events took place at the Casa Maya, the tropical-style presidential retreat used by Mexican Presidents and world leaders during their visits to Cancun, which was located on the beachfront lot that
is now the site of The Royal Sands.
By 1989, Cancun 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, global economic turmoil and misplaced safety concerns. In 2011, Cancun again welcomed 3,115,177 visitors and occupancy rates for the first four months of 2012 point to its enduring popularity.
Cancun, 42 Years Old & Still Going Strong
So Happy Birthday to Cancun, the resort that has been the flagship of Mexican tourism for 42 years, an honor it now shares with the Riviera Maya. Today, Cancun has 28, 838 hotel rooms, an airport that is considered the best in Latin America, and a cosmopolitan population that stands at around 800,000. Its inhabitants hail from Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche and from every state in Mexico, and when they moved here they brought their own customs, cuisine and music with them. They are joined by a growing international community, the members of which are proud to call this place in the sun home, whether fulltime or for a few weeks every year.
The first Cancun settlers are called the Pioneros and they celebrate Cancun’s anniversary every April with parades and other special events. They are always happy to find an audience and share their anecdotes about life in the early days with the younger generations.
Today’s city bears little resemblance to the Downtown of the mid-1980s when the area behind the IMSS hospital on Coba Avenue was still jungle. It now has several universities, hospitals, a variety of supermarkets and shopping malls. It is also home to a First Division soccer team called Atlantes and the Tigres Baseball team, which was crowned national league champion in 2011.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Cancun, you might like to visit the Casa Maya museum in Parque Kabah on Avenida Kabah in Downtown Cancun. The former presidential retreat was dismantled before construction of The Royal Sands could begin and moved to the park where it was rebuilt and now houses an exhibition on the Cancun project.
We hope that you will join us in wishing Cancun a Feliz Cumpleaños!
We all look forward to many more years on the sun-kissed shores of the Mexican Caribbean.
Are you a Cancun Pioneer? Why not share your Cancun memories with us? We would love to hear from you!