Development to make Cancun into not only an inhabitable city, but a top tourist destination began in the early 1970s, and by 1974 the first hotels were filled with American and European guests.
Cancun became so popular, in fact, that expansion continued on into the 1980s. By 1982 Cancun was the largest city in the Quintana Roo region, with 70 thousand permanent residents and 5,700 hotel rooms; still expansion continued. By 1988, there were more than 200 thousand residents, 12 thousand hotel rooms, and plans to create over 10 thousand more. The continual construction of Cancun began to take its toll on the environment.
Though the sandy white beaches, crystal blue waters, and crisp green tropical plants gave the impression that the environment was thriving, much had been lost in the process of building well over 100 hotels in under 20 years. Sixty-thousand hectares of rainforest were destroyed, several species of tropical plants and animals earned their way onto the endangered list, and the lagoon system was contaminated. Despite the fact that a once thick rainforest existed in the region, hotels had to begin importing tropical shrubbery to decorate their landscapes. Worried about the future of Cancun's ecological system, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed an agreement in 1993 prohibiting further development in areas of Cancun that would be set aside as conservation areas.
This law came at just the right time to prevent further ecological destruction and perhaps even disaster. From 1994 on, 45 zones were established as conservation areas, and any further development had to be environmentally friendly.
Two hits to Cancun's economy and ecology occurred not at the hands of humans, but mother nature. In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert struck Mexico, sinking over 80 ships, leaving 35 thousand people homeless, and causing over $1 billion in damage. On top of that, Cancun lost $87 million in revenue over the months of October, November, and December when tourism was in decline as a result of the Hurricane.
17 years later, the most intense and one of the costliest Hurricanes in history struck Cancun. Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, killing 62 people and costing almost $30 million in damage in Mexico, Cuba, and the United States. Many of Cancun's beaches faced accelerated erosion due to Wilma.
Luckily, Cancun learned from these two events, and in 2007 when Hurricane Dean headed towards Cancun, authorities halted all inbound flights carrying tourists and convinced major airlines to send empty airplanes to transport tourists from the island and out of harms way. This prevented people from crowding shelters, and all though Dean aided in the erosion of some of the island's beaches, there were no deaths incurred.
Despite any hardships that Cancun may have faced in the past, the city continues to thrive and develop today. As of 2010, Cancun remains Mexico's largest tourist destination (and the world's most popular). 500 thousand residents fill jobs in the hospitality industry, 24 thousand hotel rooms remain steadily filled with guests, and development continues on. Golf courses, shopping centers, a hospital, and still more hotels are in the works. As long as tourists continue to seek out the beauty and excitement of a vacation in the city, the future of Cancun looks to be a bright one.
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