June 27, 2009

Travel & Leisure on the "Resort Phenomenon"

I just read through a 2006 Travel & Leisure article by Michael Gross about the development of the "Riviera Maya," and how some compare it to the earlier development of mega resorts at Cancun. Cancun is depicted, at least in this article, as everything that is wrong with tourism development (despite the fact that John McCarthy, head of FONATUR, has deemed it a "symbol of success"), while the Riviera Maya is presented as a low-impact, newer, better version of tourism development. It's an interesting comparison, and well worth reading. Here are a couple of excerpts:

A mere twenty years ago, when I first visited Akumal, a diving village a half-hour's drive south from Mayakoba, this coastline was comatose. I ate an $8 grilled lobster in a dirt-floored restaurant and stayed in a cinder-block hotel, where I left the shower feeling dirty. Nearby Cancún, which had been created from nothing in the 1970's, was a generic mass-market resort town—a row of concrete boxes on the beach. Far worse, the reef just offshore (part of the second-largest reef system in the world) was deteriorating, thanks to poor planning and mistreatment by developers and overuse by tourists.

Though the stretch below Cancún remained pristine, paradisiacal, and virtually untouched by tourism, there really wasn't a Riviera Maya then—only the odd strip of thatched beach cabanas, a handful of dive shops, the Mayan ruins at Tulum, and the national park at Xel-Há, a natural aquarium for snorkelers. A 1983 guidebook noted that the area did not have "much to offer to visitors" and described some of the more desirable accommodations as hip slums.


How did this thin strip of the country reinvent itself as one of the world's great luxury destinations? The tale begins with Fonatur, Mexico's 31-year-old national trust for the development of tourism, which has been responsible for creating the resort areas of Cancún, Los Cabos, Loreto, the Bay of Huatulco, and Ixtapa. In 1995, when Maroma—the first high-end resort on this shore—opened, the area was still known as the Costa Maya, or Mayan Coast. But that year, seeking to capitalize on (and to begin to control) a process that had started on its own, Fonatur undertook extensive market research on what to call the corridor. According to one story, a prescient visitor, inspired by the Côte d'Azur, anointed the place the Riviera Maya. The name of that person has been lost in the decade since, but the title's magical allure has stood up to forces even stronger than Wilma's winds.


Cancún was overbuilt, sometimes illegally, in part because "one of the products of Mexico was corruption," Moreno explains. Also, hotel owners wanted bigger profits, and the workers who'd built Cancún "created pressure to generate more jobs." Then, in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert devastated the region, causing hotels to lose income. Owners started selling rooms cheap; package-tour operators moved in to help fill them, and Cancún began its relentless slide from a high-end destination to the setting for Girls Gone Wild.


Four years ago, the Mexican government admitted the error of its ways and asked tourism officials to create rules and plans that balanced a desire for growth with the need to respect the environment. "The population is priority number one," Fonatur's McCarthy says. "Sustainability is more than birds, bees, and fish. You must create wealth and respect the environment and culture while doing that." Most important for visitors, the new rules placed strict density limits on the Riviera Maya.

Read the rest of the article here.

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