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The incredible growth of Cancun, Mexico's leading tourist resort

Edited extract from the book Geo-Mexico

Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton

Relax in a beach chair in the shade of a thatch-roofed palapa and enjoy Cancun's exceptional beaches.
© Elisa Velazquez, 2008
Cancun beach
© Elisa Velazquez, 2008

Mexico’s mass tourism industry in the past forty years has been dominated by large-scale, purpose-built developments partially funded by federal funds. In 1967, responding to bullish predictions of US demand for beach vacations,  Mexico’s central bank identified the five best places for completely new, purpose-built tourist resorts. Top of the list, as part of a 30-year plan, was the uninhabited barrier island now known as Cancún. The other choice locations were Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Loreto and Huatulco.

The National Fund for Tourism Infrastructure (renamed the National Tourism Development Fund, Fonatur, in 1974) began building Cancún in 1970 and Ixtapa in 1971.

Cancún has become Mexico’s foremost tourist resort. Factors considered in the choice of Cancún included water temperatures, the quality of beaches, varied attractions, sunshine hours and travel distances from the main markets. The stated benefits were thousands of new jobs, increased revenues, the development of a previously peripheral region and the diversification of the national economy.

Public funds were used to purchase land, improve it by fumigation and drainage, and install all necessary basic infrastructure (airport, highways, potable water, electricity, telephone lines, convention center, golf course, harbors). Private sector investors developed hotels, a shopping center and supporting services.

By 1975, Cancún had 1769 rooms in service; by 2008, it boasted about 150 hotels and more than 27,000 rooms. Second only to Mexico City, Cancún airport now handles 200 flights a day. The influx of people to Cancún has been especially dramatic. The city has had to cope with unprecedented growth rates as its population shot up from 30,000 in 1980 to about 600,000 today (see graph).

The number of tourists in Cancún dipped slightly in 2001–2002 due, in part, to the 2001 9/11 tragedy in the USA. Hurricane Wilma (2005) put many hotel rooms temporarily out of commission. Cancún is now only one focus of an extensive tourist corridor along the Quintana Roo coast, stretching as far south as Tulum.

Chapter 19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, from which this extract is taken, looks in much more detail at Mexico's purpose-built resorts as well as many other  aspects of tourism, resorts and hotels  in Mexico.


Published or Updated on: March 15, 2010 by Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton © 2010
Contact Richard Rhoda, Tony Burton

Author of Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique (Sombrero Books, 2016),  Western Mexico, A Traveler's Treasury (4th edition, Sombrero Books, 2013) and "Lake Chapala Through the Ages; an anthology of travelers' tales" (Sombrero Books, 2008), available from all good book stores, and via his author's page at Co-author of "Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico" (Sombrero Books, 2010). His blog is at

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