Rich history and stunning beaches make Mexico’s Caribbean coast a strong draw for tourists – the challenge will be to manage its development sustainably for generations to come.
One of the most evocative sites – and sights – of Mexico’s Riviera Maya is El Castillo. Its pale grey stone blocks stand high above a sandy beach edged by palm trees swaying in the breeze, its façade impassively looking out to the Caribbean Sea. The surrounding temples once protected ships with power from a God whose followers have long departed, and whose rituals have been forgotten.
Well, almost forgotten, although experts have made educated guesses. Information boards with QR codes allow you to read in great detail about the past and purpose of the ancient Tulum site. And, just as historians had to clear trees and bushes from the area to reveal its hidden buildings, so, too, do these boards clear away a lot of misconceptions.
For instance, El Castillo isn’t a castle – more probably it was a temple and visual guide for sailors seeking an entrance through the coral reef to the coast. The name of Tulum, meanwhile, merely refers to the protecting wall around the town. The settlement may well once have been called Zama, which means City of Dawn – appropriately enough, since it faces sunrise.
Having a guide, either for the day, for a few hours or simply the pre-recorded kind you can listen to via headset allows you to look for the clues of how these Gods were worshipped. While it’s possible that there was human sacrifice – memorably (and bloodily) depicted in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto – the undulating parkland, sandy coves below and cooling sea breezes make it very easy to forget any such unpleasantness.
The virtual guide told me that the style of architecture was called “East Coast”, typified by “the use of miniature temples, shrines within shrines [small buildings inside larger ones] and buildings with intentionally collapsed walls”. I liked the idea of the last of these, even if I had no idea what it meant. The plain grey buildings were once decked out in bright colours and wall paintings, now lost, although some sculptures are still just about visible.
The advice for this tourist site, as always, is to get there early, before the heat and the crowds, so you can wander around in a daze, imagining what it must have been like to live here before having all of those daydreams shattered by the research relayed to you by the experts. Leave the impressive but expensive gift shop, as well as the Starbucks, until your departure, swerving the arrival of the tourist minibuses and coaches.
The Tulum ancient site welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors in 2019. While numbers were hit by the pandemic in 2020, it was still receiving well over 100,000 each month this year. It’s easy to see why – it is charming, has lots of historical interest, enjoys a beautiful setting and also allows you to explore more of the coast if you are staying in Cancun (located 130km north), including the chance to stop off at luxury resort complex Mayakoba on the way back.
Other day excursions for those based in Cancun or the surrounding area include sailing, diving, snorkelling or deep-sea fishing, but it was the cenotes (deep natural pools) that fascinated me, and so we visited one close by called Tankah Tulum (tankah.com.mx).
A cenote is a natural pit or sinkhole that has collapsed and exposed groundwater. There are thousands across the region, although most are not open to visitors. The advantage of Tankah ecological park is that it is locally run and proceeds go direct to the community, members of whom work as guides and in the open-air restaurant. (You are advised to use biodegradable sunscreen and repellent while swimming since the locals take their water from the cenotes.)
Tankah has four cenotes, including one where bats flew overhead while we swam and another with zip lines across it (I passed on that particular thrill). You can also go canoeing. It’s fabulous to cool down from the heat of the day in these pools (some of them are quite cold) – while I floated around, a large and very tatty black vulture watched from a branch, unimpressed by my incursion into its territory.
FLIPSIDE OF GROWTH
We all like to think we are giving something back when travelling, and even when being a tourist it’s important to work out where your money is going. The reality, though, is that not only is this region completely dependent on tourism but it was planned that way by the Mexican government. Fifty years ago, the coastal area was home to a few fishermen and some beautiful beaches. Today, if you ask those who work here where they are from, younger people will probably have grown up in the region but only because their parents moved here for the tourism jobs. Anyone middle aged will have been born elsewhere.
While 9 per cent of Mexico’s GDP comes from tourism, in Quintana Roo, the state in which Riviera Maya is located, it makes up 90 per cent of economic activity. Visit Cancun’s Zona Hotelera and you will see the level of planning that went into the destination – still, there are well-documented problems further south as tourism has expanded, especially in areas where infrastructure has not kept pace. Watch The Dark Side of Tulum on Youtube (bit.ly/youtubetulum) or read The Cut article “Who killed Tulum?” (bit.ly/tulumthecut), which charts the history of the eponymous town close to the ancient ruins, and you’ll get a good idea of what has happened to the area. Then there are the plans for a new airport at Tulum, which, while an environmental disaster, is simply part of greater expansion as developers see the future as more of the same – increase the number of tourists; offer new and “unspoilt” locations.
So what is to be done? There’s little doubt of the enduring appeal of Mexico for international visitors, and particularly for the North American market. People want to visit this coast, even if, paradoxically, many visitors take pictures of the sea to post on social media but never go in it.
Robert-Jan Woltering is regional vice-president for Accor’s luxury brands in Mexico and Central America and general manager of the Fairmont Mayakoba. He is clear that the US market will always be big for Mexico for the simple reason that “it’s so close and nearby. It’s about two hours from Texas, even less from Florida and direct flights from New York are only four hours.”
Juan Corvinos, Hilton’s vice-president of development for the Caribbean and Latin America (CALA), reports impressive growth here for the group, which currently has 172 properties in the CALA region. “More than 100 hotels are in the pipeline so we have 30,000 rooms [at the moment] and another 15,000 coming,” he says. “Go back to 2013 and we had only 62 properties.” A new all-inclusive Hilton Cancun is due to open in November (the previous Hilton was bought by Iberostar in 2011), with a Waldorf Astoria launching next to it in 2022.
Brian King is Marriott International’s regional CALA president. He says the group’s source markets for the region are overwhelmingly the US, at 80 per cent of visitors, followed by Canada, Colombia, Brazil and then the UK. Pre-Covid, China was in seventh place and rising.
Chris Calabrese, vice-president and general manager of the co-located JW Marriott Cancun (reviewed on page 77) and Marriott Cancun, had spent the previous decade building up business from China. “Before Covid, China was our number-two market for these hotels,” he says. “We went to ILTM [the International Luxury Travel Market trade show] in China and Singapore and had success in attracting major groups. We definitely want to go back to Asia and help to restart that business.”
For corporate groups as well as leisure travellers, staying in an all-inclusive resort is proving popular and King believes that the pandemic will ultimately accelerate this trend. “I have never taken friends, family and colleagues for granted but I took access to them for granted, so the ability to gather together for a longer period to enjoy time with one another makes this a long-term trend,” he says.
This is something that will be seen globally, King suggests, but is particularly evident in the Caribbean and Latin America. “There are about 870 all-inclusive hotels worldwide, which is about 325,000 rooms, and 56 per cent of those are concentrated in CALA,” he says. “The demand for those has been unbelievable.” For people organising family holidays it is understandable, since it is easier to keep to a set budget, although it is not so great for the restaurant owner across the road.
Calabrese says his packages allow groups one night off-property for dining but that generally organisers – and their guests – want the convenience of all-inclusive. With his hotels offering a dozen or more restaurants and bars combined, there’s little reason to leave other than to offer visitors the chance to try a specific experience. While the Fairmont Mayakoba, which hosts ILTM North America, does not currently have an all-inclusive option, Woltering is planning to offer it in future because of demand.
So the development will continue, and the appeal of Mexico will grow as more and more travellers get to experience the weather, the hospitality, the history and the convenience of getting there, both from North America and further afield. The challenge for Cancun in particular, and the region more generally, is how to preserve the beauty of this coast for future generations.