This world-famous resort was a deserted finger of sand, the sigh of the surf and the cries of sea birds the only sounds, and the only visitors the family that tended the coconut palm plantations and fishermen from the nearby village of Puerto Juárez. How times have Cancun is celebrating its 45th anniversary today, April 20. And to think that in 1970, changed!
The Birth of Cancún
During the term of Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, 1964 – 1970, politicians and planners concluded that Mexico needed to use its enormous potential for tourism as a tool for national 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, Mexico 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: Cancun in the territory of Quintana Roo on the east coast of the Yucatan 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 Cancun.
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 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-Ha and Yalku.
The planners also thought that visitors would be able to explore the archaeological sites such as Tulum and Chichen Itza dotted throughout the area, that are the legacy of the Maya, one of the most important ancient civilizations in the Americas. Other side trips include Mérida, capital of the neighboring state of Yucatán, smaller colonial towns and the old henequen haciendas or estates. With the passing of the years, this rich offering has expanded to include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, the world-famous parks of Xcaret, Xplor, Xenotes, Oasis Maya, Xoximilco, Rio Secreto, cenotes and the biosphere reserves of Sian Ka’an and Rio Lagartos, among others.
Although somewhat isolated from the rest of Mexico (something that improved flight connectivity in recent years has reduced), Cancun 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 Cancun would boost the regional economy and become an important source of jobs for the population of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Let Building Begin
The Cancun 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 dense 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 Cancun 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 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 Cancún. The second phase extended from Punta Cancun to Punta Nizuc and the third from Punta Nizuc to the south.
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, dredging and land reclamation, the island was widened to between 250 and 300 meters to make way for the first hotels.
The First Tourists Arrive
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 in 1977 and it opened in 1978.
By 1980, Cancun 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, 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, the global recession and misplaced safety concerns. In 2014, Cancun and Puerto Morelos alone welcomed 4,922,978 visitors and its popularity keeps growing.
The urban planning of downtown Cancun was a far cry from the rigid grid plan introduced by Spanish settlers in the 16th century and still used in Mexico’s colonial cities today. 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.
The earliest supermanzana parks were planted with native species of tree such as chicozapote, ceiba, chacah, ciricote and cedar; figs to provide shade and flamboyant, cassia, caesalpina and macoulis or pink poui for color. Some even have lime, orange, mango and guava trees.
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 streets were surrounded by dense jungle and longtime residents have a wealth of stories about sharing their backyards with monkeys, toucans, snakes, crocodiles, tarantulas and other forest creatures! Some tell how they even came face to face with the elusive jaguar on its nocturnal prowls.
A project is underway to restore the city center and give Ave. Tulum and Yaxchilan and the connecting streets a much-needed facelift. Another proposal is to improve and promote walkways from the center to Market 28 and attract more restaurants, cafés and stores to invest in the historic heart of Cancun.
The first Cancun settlers are called the Pioneros and they celebrate the city’s anniversary every April with special events such as a parade along Ave Tulum, a mass, seminars with pioneers, picnics and a gala dinner dance.
Cancun’s Enduring Popularity
So Happy Birthday to Cancun, the resort that has been the flagship of Mexican tourism for 45 years, an honor it now shares with the Riviera Maya. Today, Cancun has more than 150 hotels, and a cosmopolitan population that is nearing one million. 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.
Share your Cancun Memories
Many members of the Royal Resorts Family are longtime visitors to Cancun and remember the early days when vacationing here was not only enjoyable, it was an adventure. Perhaps you remember the first airport, fishing in the bay and catching lobster, boarding the rickety buses for an evening of dining downtown or walking along a deserted Caribbean beach at dawn. Why not share your Cancun memories with us? We would love to hear from you!