Growth in Cancún and Tulum highlights the country’s jump to the top of the global destination charts. Some question whether it can—or should—stay there.
By Maya Averbuch May 10, 2022
It’s 2 p.m. in the Mexican resort town of Tulum, and the beach club at the Ikal Hotel is heating up for its “ecstatic dance” session. Inside a thatch-roofed pavilion, a sweaty crowd bops to a “folktronica” track spun by a DJ whose next stop is Berlin. Down a set of wide stone steps, fit thirtysomethings smack volleyballs on a beach that smells of seaweed and sunscreen. A “treehouse” room will set you back $800 a night, and a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine runs $110.
A decade ago, Tulum was a sleepy fishing village that served as a gateway to nearby Mayan ruins. These days it’s part of the international party circuit—marketed as a jungle paradise with really great nightlife. The town’s beach strip is lined with tony restaurants, designer clothing boutiques, and chalkboard ads for yoga classes and hand-poke tattoos. With its clubs, linen-clad models, and ample supplies of weed, ayahuasca, and cocaine, it’s the kind of place where “the hippies become millionaires and the millionaires become hippies,” says tour guide Hervé Pech.
Tulum and its older cousin Cancún, a two-hour drive up the coast, are in the midst of a boom. Tourism is 6% ahead of 2019, and airlines have scheduled 20% more seats on flights from the US this year than they had before the pandemic. Arrivals at Cancún International Airport surpassed 22 million last year, up 82% from 2020. In the past two years more than 16,000 new hotel rooms have been built in the state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancún and Tulum. The expansion is evidence of—and is fueling—Mexico’s move up the global tourism charts. In 2019 the country was the seventh-most-visited destination; today it’s No. 1 or No. 2, depending on whom you listen to.
That’s largely because unlike almost everywhere else, Mexico never really shut down. Even as European capitals were requiring Covid-19 passes and PCR tests and the US largely barred travelers from dozens of countries, Mexico was quick to throw open its doors, no questions asked, no tests required. The government said tourism was such an important driver of the economy that Mexico could ill afford to close its borders. Poverty in Quintana Roo rose early in the pandemic and the state lost 97,000 jobs, but by June 2020 hotels were already opening up again. That December the governor tweeted that people should keep a safe distance to stop Covid—while boasting that Cancún was back to almost 500 flights a day.
For workers who had to wait tables, scrub toilets, and drive buses or taxis for all those visitors, it’s been a mixed blessing. Mexico’s biggest beach destinations circled in and out of the news as they suffered from coronavirus spikes presumably brought on by tourists. Roger Martín Moreno says he thinks he got the virus while handing out drinks and coffee on a tour bus. “It started with a fever, and little by little I started to be short of breath until I could only breathe lying down,” says the 34-year-old, who says at least two drivers from his agency died from Covid.
And there are growing concerns about the boom’s sustainability. The increasing numbers of visitors threaten the area’s signature freshwater caverns, called cenotes, as well as the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Some fear Tulum could go the way of Acapulco, which in the mid-20th century became a glittering destination where Frank Sinatra escaped for a secret birthday, Elizabeth Taylor held her third wedding, and the Shah of Iran’s family holed up after the revolution. But the town suffered from unplanned, explosive growth and, later, drug crime. Today it’s one of the most dangerous places in a dangerous country. “When the drug-trafficking violence got bad, the international tourists fled,” says David Espino, author of Acapulco Killer: Chronicles of a Lost Paradise.
Cancún was intended to be the anti-Acapulco. The government in the 1960s designated the pristine stretch of sandy beach on the Caribbean coast as its next great resort destination, with specific areas for hotels, homes, and an international airport. Large swaths of land were set aside for conservation, streets and parks were laid out, and contractors installed modern electric and wastewater systems. But the city’s hinterlands—what’s come to be known as the Riviera Maya, stretching down to Tulum and beyond—didn’t get the same attention.
In Tulum only 15% of the buildings are connected to the sewage system, meaning tons of untreated waste ends up seeping into the groundwater, fouling the beaches, and killing the reef. Many hotels haven’t been connected to the electric grid, forcing them to use diesel generators. Construction workers from other states often build squatter camps on undeveloped land. A train line along the coast planned to open next year, as well as a local airport expected in 2024, will only add to the crowds. “It’s getting to a state of crisis because it’s grown so fast,” says Gonzalo Merediz, head of a local conservation group.
While the state government says it’s aiming for responsible development, divers say the cenotes are sometimes coated with gunk from nearby settlements and the sun creams that the tourists slather themselves in. That puts guides in a bind: Risk the health of the local environment—and the long-term economic benefits it offers—or be denied tips from customers angered when they’re told they can’t get in the water. “If the cenotes get contaminated, it won’t be worth it,” says diving instructor Alan Chuc.
And many visitors come for easy access to drugs, creating another set of problems. Gangs are engaged in a turf war in the area, which has fueled growing crime such as protection rackets that are hitting everyone from hotel owners to coconut sellers and bikini hawkers on the beaches. Since October, repeated shootings in the area have left alleged criminals and at least three tourists dead. In January two Canadians were murdered in nearby Playa del Carmen. In February two suspected dealers were gunned down in an upscale restaurant in Tulum, and in May a shootout in Cancún left one dead and six people injured.
Locals say police are quick to clean up after shootings to avoid spooking tourists, but not always quick enough. After a shootout in Tulum, one guest who happened to be nearby checked out immediately—in the middle of the night, recalls Samantha Raga, a former manager at a luxury hotel. “She said she didn’t care if she lost her deposit,” Raga says. “She grabbed her bags and left.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.