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Cancun Celebrates 12th Birthday as Tourist Stop

March 16, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

CANCUN, Mexico — In this year of a 100th anniversary for the Statue of Liberty, a 150th celebration for Hans Christian Andersen and the same for the state of Texas, let's share a few moments in remembering a 12th birthday.

It was in 1974 that Cancun on Mexico's Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula opened for tourism with the hope that it would become an instant Acapulco, or at the very least an overnight Puerto Vallarta--without the assist of a Liz Taylor and Richard Burton romance.

Tourism had already begun to blossom into Mexico's most promising industry. A few years earlier, future-minded economists in the Central Bank and several private banks saw a need for another Acapulco to relieve their prime-destination city, deluged with tourists and in need of refurbishing. They poured an enormous amount of data into computers and asked where the counterpart to Acapulco should be built.

Ribbon of Sand

Computers and human data-sifters came up with the answer: Cancun, then little more than a ribbon of sand looping close to the Caribbean coast in the shape of the No. 7.

It was about a dozen miles long and less than a quarter-mile wide. The location could be romanced as an island, joined to the mainland by two small bridges that would also create a causeway effect as in the Florida Keys.

The beaches were a luminescent white from the limestone base in the sand, and tended to feel cool to bare feet even under the noonday sun.

There were more than 200 rain-free days a year. The average temperature was 80 degrees and the waters were Caribbean warm. Beaches facing the sea enjoyed a swell that would attract surfers. Beaches looking across the lagoon to the mainland rippled with tranquil water and sloped so gently that a bather could wade out a hundred yards.

The cruise-port island of Cozumel, sacred to the ancient Maya civilization as the earthly home of the Moon Goddess, was just 20 minutes by air offshore, about an hour by ferry. Miami was within an hour and a quarter by air, Mexico City less than two hours.

Government Support

Fonatur, the Mexican government agency charged with planning resorts, took over the planning of a super-resort that would be an Acapulco on the Caribbean. The government, with the help of private capital and an economy that then enjoyed substantial oil revenues, invested more than $80 million in an infrastructure of highways, water and power lines, an international airport.

The mainland settlement at the end of the island causeway at that time had a population made up of about 20 families of cotton pickers. A modern city would have to be built there to house the workers and support structure for all the posh hotels expected to be constructed on the narrow island of white-sand beaches. And of course there would have to be a Robert Trent Jones golf course.

Even in modern tourism, the span of a dozen years can seem like the blink of a cosmic eyelid. So what has happened in these 12 years? Will this birthday one year short of teen-age be celebrated with the realization of a tourism dream?

With a rental car and my wife Elfriede's camera poised for many stops, we have slowly explored the island and the mainland city. We walked along beaches, swam for hours in the soothing water, enjoyed a tranquil and scenic bicycle path.

The basic discovery is that Cancun is neither an instant Acapulco nor an overnight Puerto Vallarta. In 12 short years it has developed its own Mexican Caribbean personality.

Population Explosion

One key statistic gives a clue to the answers we were seeking: The community that began with about 20 families of cotton pickers has grown to a city of about 100,000, geared primarily to support tourism on the narrow causeway island.

The city is a destination, but let's start with the island, now drawing a steadily increasing number of visitors from California and the West Coast to supplement the base of tourism from the East Coast, the Middle West and Canada.

Growth and the height and style of hotel architecture have been carefully regulated. There is no wall-to-wall high-rise, and hotels are interspersed with residential areas and public beaches. Innovation is encouraged, whether it reflects influences of Spain, Egypt, Italy or the Mayans, whose architects harmonized their great edifices with nature.

The deluxe Cancun Sheraton filled its grounds with tropical plants and preserved the Maya ruin next to the beach. Fiesta Americana and its pastel wings with balconies is reminiscent of an Italian hill town.

Surrounded by sea and lagoon, the prestigious Hotel Camino Real is a combination of magnificent contemporary architecture and courtyards verdant with Yucatan foliage. The Krystal Cancun has a touch of Greece. The El Presidente, where we made reservations by phoning from Cozumel, is modern Mexican in styling and decor, with landscaping to enhance the Caribbean mood. Miramar Mission combines the latest in amenities with a feel of the mission age.

Jungle and Club Med

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