Last updated: 07:00 AM ET, Sat June 27 2015

Opinion Home | Magic of Mexico

  • Greg Custer | June 27, 2015 7:00 AM ET

    Mexico's Gift to the Travel Industry

    Mexico's Gift to the Travel Industry

    PHOTO: Punta Cancun in the early 1970s (photo courtesy of INFOTUR)

    It only took a single black and white aerial photo. I came across this remarkable picture and started reflecting on what Cancun has meant to our generation of travel sellers.  For one who visited Cancun in 1979 (and like so many was blind to the region’s future), this simple aerial shot begged reflection on how Cancun’s success has been a true gift to travel sellers around the world.

    Regardless of what leisure destinations you sell today, or whether you’ve let Cancun’s powder sugar white sand between your toes and turquoise translucent waters splash your ankles, we all should recognize Cancun as the most successful manmade tourism project in history.

    I won’t claim this rose-lensed view is held universally. Some call Cancun an environmental disaster and tourism sprawl gone awry. The resort’s unapologetic embrace of whatever’s new and trendy is an affront to some Mexico purists.

    I choose to look at the jobs created, the wealth that has indeed trickled down to generations of workers, and the fact there’s hardly a travel seller who’s not profited (directly or indirectly) from Cancun’s existence. It has been the launch pad for the all-inclusive vacation phenomena, attracts visitors from literally every country in the world, and led directly to Mexico’s other (even more successful?) tourism Mecca: the Riviera Maya.

    If you’re older than 40, Cancun’s existence and subsequent growth has all happened in your lifetime. Where today we see and sell Five Diamond high-rise resorts, Luxury Avenue, golf links and party palaces, there were only sand bars, mangroves, marshes and magnificent beaches.

    Just last year, Cancun crossed an important milestone, as the resort marked 40 years in existence. On a deserted sand spit, the Mexican government decided to turn a frontier territory (what is today Quintana Roo State) into a jobs and foreign exchange behemoth. 

    When development was started in 1970, Isla Cancún’s only inhabitants were caretakers of the coconut plantation of Don José de Jesús Lima Gutiérrez. The website tells of about these intrepid 1970’s era inhabitants (Gabuch, Maldonado, Cachito, Rudy y El Gato). There were only 117 people living in nearby Puerto Juarez, a fishing village, ferry dock and military base.

    The first infrastructure projects tackled drinking water (sink 16 wells), sewerage (dig more than 62 miles of ditches and a treatment plant) and electricity (bring in power lines from Tizimin, Yucatán, some 100 miles away). But shaping the 30-kilometer long Hotel Zone became a mammoth undertaking that we today take for granted.

    Trucks moved in almost 600 acres of topsoil. Some 13 million square feet of mangroves were dredged to form Siegfried and Nichupté Channels, improving water exchange between the sea and the lagoons. Mayan artifacts and small temples were unearthed and (in most cases) set aside for protection.

    Cancun said hola to the world in 1974 with 332 hotel rooms (today’s total exceeds 28,000). The first hotels opened (Hotel Parador, still open in downtown, and Playa Blanca, now the scantly clad Temptations). In 1975, the international airport we enjoy today replaced the first ‘aeropista’ (location where today we find Avenida Kabah, in downtown Cancun). The same year, Quintana Roo was granted statehood and the Cancún project was quietly announced to the world. 

    PHOTO: Cancun’s original ‘aeropista’ control tower. (photo courtesy of Revista Pioneros)

    But what to call it? Even the resort’s name was not easily settled. tells us:

    “The coast was comprised of marshes, mangroves, virgin jungle and unexplored beaches. Even its name was not clear: some maps called it “Kankun” (a single word written with the two “k’s”), which means “pot of snakes” or “nest of snakes” in Maya.

    However, in the first draft it is written as two words, “Kan Kun,” and occasionally, “Can Cún” (in its Spanish form). The current name of “Cancún” is a natural phonetic development that facilitates pronunciation… or maybe it developed by mere chance.”

    Its name might have come about by happenchance, but its longevity and popularity were no accident.  Despite the government having to fund building of the first nine hotels, it didn’t take long for Mexican and international investors to be brought along. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    Photo courtesy of Camaleon360

    Note: Want to learn more? Take a tour of, Cancun’s official travel agent portal.

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Greg Custer Magic of Mexico

Greg Custer Greg Custer is a California native with more than 35 years working in various international travel industry capacities. He spent 14 years in aviation (TWA, Mexicana, Aerocalifornia). With a love for studying all things Latin America, (BA/MA UCLA, Latin American Studies) he is a leading authority on travel agent educational programs for Latin American tourism boards. Greg is fluent in written and spoken Spanish and has conducted hundreds of training workshops for travel agents. He is an accomplished travel photographer and author (with wife Jane) of the “Magic of Mexico” travel agent study guide. He resides in Ajijic (Jalisco) Mexico, enjoying one foot in the modern world and the other in Mexican pueblo life.
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