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After the Real Cancún

Is Mexico’s booming tourism industry a main revenue source for its economy?

June 14, 2003

Is Mexico's booming tourism industry a main revenue source for its economy?

The 2003 reality TV-style movie "The Real Cancún" exposed the worst side of Mexico’s seaside tourism industry. It was not a pretty sight.

They showed the overcrowded beaches, dull, American-style shopping malls — and Miami Beach-like corridors of high-rise hotels that have proliferated Mexican beaches.

It also illuminated the crowds of intoxicated, 20-something gringos screaming and partying by the sea.

Considered a complete flop, "The Real Cancún" was hastily pulled from most movie theaters in the United States within a few weeks.

However, many thousands will be able to see it on video in the years to come — which has many hotel owners, restaurant investors and tourism agencies anxious.

They are reportedly concerned that the film could damage Mexico’s tourism. The movie constantly portrays Mexican resorts as places full of noise, air pollution, crowds — and bikinis.

Why go all the way to Mexico, then, when tourists can find beaches that are just as good in Santa Monica?

So, what now? What happens now that "The Real Cancún" has hit video stores? Will its message sink in? Is Cancún really destined to crumble?

Let’s look back at its history. The story of Cancún lies embedded in the larger history of Mexican tourism.

Modern tourism began in Mexico in 1959, on the day Fidel Castro, now Cuba’s President, and a force of guerrillas charged down from the hills to start what is known as the Cuban Revolution.

Before the Revolution, Havana had been America’s favorite beach resort in the 1950s. Americans would switch from mojitos — writer Ernest Hemingway's cocktail mix of Cuban mint leaf, club soda, lime and rum — to margaritas.

Enter Acapulco, the first palm tree-lined resort in Mexico. Acapulco became the new Havana. It was flooded with Americans searching for the seaside romance they had seen in the 1964 film "Night of the Iguana."

Acapulco’s resorts had hotels that featured exotic in-room swimming pools, where pink and white jeeps ferried customers around the city — and whose cliff divers looked authentically exotic.

At night, the hotel towers along the bay twinkled like a string of pearls. By the early 1970s, Acapulco had mushroomed into a mega-resort, with 12,000 hotel rooms and 1.5 million residents.

But brochures also hid rampant sewage spills, water contamination, air pollution, traffic jams — and massive shantytowns blanketing the hills surrounding the city.

Acapulco became an urban nightmare — Mexico's first tourism catastrophe. Cancún was born from that experience.

The Mexican government's tourism development agency, FONATUR, decided in the late 1970s to design a new kind of tourist city.

It was to be a planned resort complex, with twin settlements existing side-by-side.

Developers envisioned a well-designed resort — and a "service city" — where resort workers would also live.

Cancún's natural peninsula of miles of white sandy beaches — coupled with its turquoise Caribbean sea waters — seemed like a surefire site for the new resort model.

FONATUR, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, quickly launched the mega-construction project.

Unfortunately, Cancún's planning was laced with missteps that would later threaten its ecological well-being.

Mangrove wetlands and tropical forests were bulldozed to build the hotel zone. Quarries were dug, creating water-filled troughs that became mosquito breeding sites.

Wildlife sanctuaries were exterminated, lagoons were filled and replaced with condominiums, parking lots — and mini-malls.

The planned service city, Cancún, turned into a ghost town as workers moved away from the escalating property values.

A spontaneous squatter city emerged to the south. The design of the resort zone, where “The Real Cancun” was filmed, clung to a global tourism marketing myth: that tourists want comfort and escape — and not too much local culture.

This mirrors the marketing design strategies used in U.S. gambling casinos and shopping mall department stores.

These companies are famous for creating timeless spaces without clocks — nor natural light — to make customers forget the outside world.

Ricardo Legorreta, one of Mexico's leading architects, has designed many important resort hotels.

In describing his relationship with developers during the design and construction phase, he lamented the fact that investors fail to appreciate the importance of connecting the construction to the cultural and ecological setting.

"The main attraction of Mexico's coast is that it has the best climate in the world. Yet, the builders always want to seal the windows — and put air conditioners in all rooms," said Legorreta.

The Cancun resort zone thus turned out to resemble an isolated enclave of sterile, gated condominium complexes with U.S.-style malls, name brand boutiques, restaurants — and high rises.

In short, an ideal setting for reality TV, with no distractions — like, say … Mexicans? Only the brown skinned Mestizo vendors selling jewelry, baskets, trinkets or coconuts reminded us we were south of the border.

Meanwhile, out at sea, the coral reefs are dying.

Mega-tourism along Cancún's Yucatan coastline is seriously threatening the world's second-largest barrier reef, known among scientists as the Meso American Barrier Reef.

Toxic waste, boating, diving, snorkeling, fishing and agriculture — which incidentally produces food for the tourism industry — is causing physical harm, bleaching and diseases that eventually will kill the coral. Experts predict that 30% of this reef may already be ruined.

World-wide coral reef destruction will carry a hefty economic price tag. The coral reef’s natural beauty is what attracts many tourists to beach communities like Cancún.

A recent study by the Geneva-based World Wildlife Fund has suggested that, globally, coral reef decline could cost countries like Mexico $30 billion in economic activity.

Much of that loss falls to developing nations like Mexico — nations that can ill-afford such an economic shortfall.

"Because most of the reef systems are centered in the developing world, that is an incredible revenue-producing stream for developing economies," says Peter Bryant, a specialist in the Endangered Seas Program of the World Wildlife Fund.

While hired actors were swilling tequila — and searching for passion on the shores of the real Cancún — just beyond the horizon, stretched the wondrous sprawling barrier reef eco-system that locals call Sian Ka'an.

It is Mayan for "where the sky is born." But this sky is facing death, not birth.