How Mexico built Cancun from scratch

A 1972 interview reveals a government team's meticulous approach to selecting Mexico's future multimillion-dollar playground

Hotel Camino Real seen from Chac Mool beach. Photo: Texas Monthly, September 1975.

When deciding to build a brand new resort city from the ground up, the federal government just didn’t happen upon Cancun.

In 1968, Mexico used computer models and availed itself of all the best brains and technical know‐how of a modern nation in selecting the site, a nine‐mile strip of jungle island off the coast of Quintana Roo.

By 1972, when bulldozers were already quickly transforming this beautiful fishing village on the Yucatan Peninsula, a New York Times reporter went to Mexico to learn how a government goes about a building multimillion‐dollar playground.

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Antonio Enriquez Savignac, then the 40-year-old, Harvard‐educated head of Infratur (Fund for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure), was found ensconced with his team of Infratur experts on the top floor of a Banco de Mexico building just off Alameda Square in downtown Mexico City. Infratur was the Banco de Mexico’s agency masterminding the government’s first plunge into the resort business.

Asked why the government decide to build a resort, Enriquez replied: “Money.”

“Tourists mean money, and the government turned over the job of developing its tourism infrastructure to the Bank of Mexico—our equivalent of your Federal Reserve Board,” Enriquez continued.

(Enriquez later became secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization before his death in 2007.)

In 1967, the federal government set aside a US$2 million fund to be administered by the bank to determine the feasibility of creating new recreational zones, “preferably where no other viable development alternatives exist.”

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The development of Cancun was approved in 1969 and eventually began in 1970 with the construction of a road from Puerto Juarez and a small airfield. 

In setting up Intrafur, a basic objective was regional economic development, particularly in areas where unemployment was high. Infratur was empowered to buy up land to prevent speculation at the sites it wished to develop and to induce private investment by providing the basics—airports, bridges and roads, and water, electricity and telephone service.

“We knew exactly what we wanted to build—a resort that would attract a massive flow of tourists from the United States,” Enriquez told the Times reporter. “But before we could obtain the go‐ahead, we had to convince the government that tourism was the fastest growing, most dynamic sector of economic growth in the world.

“As bankers, we approached this from a banker’s point of view, taking everything measurable into account, feeding it into a computer and leaving nothing to chance. We pointed out, for example, that the number of Caribbean tourists from the United States had risen from 400,000 in 1961 to 1.5 million in 1969 and that, even with the recession, this figure would top 2 million in 1972. We had to show, in other words, that American tourists were traveling farther and staying longer.”

The Infratur planners agreed that any potential site would have to have perfect weather the year round, eternally blue skies and bluer seas, with white-sand beaches lined with towering palms. In addition, the spot would have to have drinking water available, a plentiful supply of local labor in need of jobs, few mosquitoes or snakes inland and fewer sharks offshore. The hotels, golf courses and marinas — and tourists — would follow.

First, the Infratur economists drew up a consumer profile of the typical beach‐oriented Caribbean tourist and to compile a dossier of their migratory habits.

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Infratur compiled statistics on a variety of successful resorts from the Caribbean to Honolulu, including Miami Beach and Mexico’s own Acapulco. The number of tourists and hotel rooms, average temperatures and rainfall—even the incidence of hurricanes—was fed into a computer.

Not content to just gaze at computer readouts, they then personally checked the swimming conditions, the beaches, the actual living conditions at various places along Mexico’s 6,000 miles of coastline.

“This is where the human element comes in,” Enriquez said. “When we told one old fisherman that we had computerized hurricane statistics from 1880 to the present and found that the ‘eye’ had never passed through his particular area, he cocked a wary eye skyward and said, “Si, Señor, but still, one never knows — the hurricane, she does not have a rudder.’ ”

The team even reproduced hurricanes in a University of Mexico laboratory, with hotels built to scale and waves two inches high. Architects studied the results and ruled that hotels would have to be built to withstand the worst possible assault by the weather.

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The word was out. Almost every beachfront jungle community in Mexico was competing to be the next Acapulco.

In one place, the presence of sharks was a non-starter. In another, leafcutter ants moving down from the mountains and devouring everything in their path disqualified a locale.

The Banco de Mexico placed its fleet of five airplanes at the team’s disposal. The planes normally were used to distribute newly printed currency, and sometimes the Infratur people were pressed into “peso petrol” in exchange for the free transportation.

The team eventually narrowed the choice down to 25 sites and then gave preference to those areas where the people were extremely poor.

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The Yucatan Peninsula and Cancun Island proved to be ideal in this regard.

“There is great poverty and no industry—since sisal has been replaced by plastics—and yet the area has all the ingredients to attract tourism: sun, sea and good weather the year round, plus easy access to some of the world’s greatest archeological treasures, the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum, for example,” said Enriquez.

The government bought up the whole island, most of which it already owned anyway, he said.

The name Cancun was derived from the Maya language and is interpreted variously as the “shape of the serpent” or “pot of gold.” The bankers tend to prefer the latter interpretation, the Times reported.

“Interest in the Cancun project is enormous—beyond our wildest dreams,” Enriquez said, speaking at a time when infrastructure was still in early stages. “We’ve even had offers from large investors to buy up the whole island, but we’re only dealing with people who want to build and create jobs.”

Today, Cancun is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, which is remarkable considering how relatively young it is.

Development of the area as a resort started on Jan. 23, 1970, when Isla Cancun had only three residents: caretakers of the coconut plantation of Don José de Jesús Lima Gutiérrez, who lived on Isla Mujeres. Some 117 people lived in nearby Puerto Juárez, a fishing village and military base.

Investors were actually reluctant to gamble on an unknown area, so the federal government was forced finance the first nine hotels, beginning with a Hyatt, the Cancun Caribe. The first hotel to be finished was the Playa Blanca, now named Temptation Resort.

The rest is history. A building boom in the 1980s and 1990s propelled the resort city. Today, Cancun has over 30,000 hotel rooms, appealing to a range of tastes and budgets.

The city alone generates one-third of Mexico’s tourism revenue and is one of the Caribbean’s most-visited destinations.

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