1519 to1980: From Three Residents to Booming Tourist Hot Spot

After hundreds of years of occupation and development, the Maya society began abandoning their Yucatan Peninsula urban centers in 900 A.D. for reasons unknown to us today.

The remaining Maya population in the immediate Cancun area was depleted further when the Spanish discovered the region in the 16th century and were either killed by European disease, or run off by overzealous conquistadors.

The Spanish quickly determined that the land was of no use to them, and chose rather to settle further inland where they saw economic opportunities to be more prosperous. As a result, Cancun remained largely uninhabited and undeveloped for the next several centuries.


It was not until 1967, when on the heels of Acapulco's 1950s success at becoming a major tourism hot spot, that Mexican President Luis Echeverria Alverez realized tourism could play a major roll in Mexico's economy. The 7-shaped land bar of Cancun (which at the time was still officially unnamed), with it's swampy marshes, mysterious jungles, and swarms of mosquitoes, was chosen for development.

Investors were hesitant to put money towards land they considered uninhabitable, so Mexico financed the project with a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank. After the money was secured, the Mexican government put plans in motion to make Cancun not only inhabitable, but desirable as well. In 1970, development began first with Infrature technicians arriving with the goal of creating a master development plan which included establishing roadways to the coast, designing an airport, and mapping out the city. At this point, there were only three permanent residents.

After the initial project of building roadways into the city was complete, developers began to bring their vision of a tourism-driven Cancun to life. The idea was to separate the city into three sections: a hotel zone, a residential area, and the airport.

Creating the hotel zone was no easy task. Ninety-three miles of electrical wire was stretched from Tizimin to bring power to Cancun, wells were dug for sewage and drinking water, 593 acres of topsoil was brought in to level lands and make the area more visually appealing, and much work was done to improve the channels between the lagoon system and the ocean. With all of the hard work underway, construction on the hotels and attractions such as golf courses soon began as well. By 1974 Cancun's first two hotels, Playa Blanca and Hyatt Cancun Caribe, and the airport were open for business.

Mexico advertised Cancun as being the world's newest and more exclusive tropical destination, and tourists from Europe and America began arriving in droves. Meanwhile, Mexican residents also moved in to take up the jobs in the burgeoning tourism industry.

Though the development of Cancun would do great things for the Mexican economy over the next several decades, not everything was perfect all of the time. Development would soon begin to cause ecological and overpopulation issues, and mother nature would take her wrath out on the area in the form of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005.


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