The night students sat at rows of desks in the elementary school in Canc√∫n City, a new town on the northeastern tip of Mexico's Yucatàn peninsula. Facing the others nervously, a teen-ager in a floral shirt was saying, "To impress tourists, you must be clean. You should have a...uh, haircut and...." He urgently consulted a slip of paper. "You should be shaved and neatly dressed. Your shoes, uh, uh...."
The audience of would-be bellboys, bartenders and chambermaids listened in sympathetic silence. Like the speaker, most were of Mayan extraction, small and copper-hued people whose ancestors once built a flourishing civilization in the Yucatàn jungle. Now the descendants were building something, too, a vast tourist complex promoted by the Mexican government on the island of Canc√∫n, a 14-mile sliver of sand just off the peninsula's Caribbean coast. These Indians of Yucatàn had linked Canc√∫n to the mainland with a short causeway, and were now lining its shores with hotels, condominiums and the manifold amenities favored by tourists.
They had also built, on the flat and wooded mainland, Canc√∫n City. Equal parts model city and construction camp, the city's population had mushroomed to 20,000 in less than three years. Many of Canc√∫n City's residents had traded thatched huts for masonry cottages, and quite a few had enrolled in night classes to learn the intricacies of mixing drinks and carrying baggage. The school also dealt with culture shock. Since most modern Mayas sleep in hammocks, aspiring chambermaids were shown what a bed was before learning how to change linen. And because many Mayas are shy, all the students were brought together one evening a week for poetry readings, music and recitations of the kind the teen-ager in the floral shirt was struggling to deliver.
"You must wear a sonrisa—a smile," he was saying. He himself, however, was close to tears. "You must have, uh, uh...." He hurriedly concluded, biting off the last word in frustration, "you must have confidence."
January 27, 1975
It is a mark of confidence that Canc√∫n is already welcoming its first visitors, the advance guard of an influx expected to reach one million visitors a year by 1993. The New York City ad agency of Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample recently launched what Account Executive I. Martin Davis calls the "opening salvo" of a campaign to introduce Canc√∫n (pronounced kahn koon) to U.S. sunseekers. "Mayan kings wintered here 1,000 winters ago," the ads proclaim. "Now you may join the procession." But Davis concedes, "Canc√∫n isn't for everyone yet. Right now it's for the explorer, the guy who wants to be not just the first on his block to go somewhere but the first in his whole state."
The pitch is to visit Mexico's newest resort not before it is spoiled but before it is ready. The whisper of trade winds is often drowned out in Canc√∫n by the roar of bulldozers, and vacationers must also contend with potholes in the streets, clouds of construction dust and a scarcity of working telephones. In their hotel rooms, guests may find it as difficult to bounce a peso off their beds as off, well, a hammock.
But the explorers Davis has in mind will find exhilaration all the same. Though direct flights from places such as Miami, Atlanta and New York are not expected to begin much before next winter, a $10 million airport has opened on the mainland 12 miles from Canc√∫n, and scheduled airliners fly in from Mexico City and the Yucatecan capital of Mérida. The taxi ride from the airport is along a new highway that cuts through thickets of chicle-yielding zapote trees. Soon Canc√∫n City comes into view, its paved streets, landscaped plaza and small whitewashed houses a vision on the desolate coast. Then the taxi reaches the causeway and crosses onto the island.
But it is not so much an island as a sandspit, an L-shaped outcropping that shoots this way for a few miles, then veers off that way. Along the one road, which only now is starting to resemble the palm-lined boulevard it is destined to be, shiny new buildings rise up like a row of sugar cubes. The road passes condominiums, a large convention center and the almost obligatory Robert Trent Jones golf course, all of which are nearing completion. So are hotels like the 197-room El Presidente, run by a Mexican chain, and Western International's 250-room Camino Real. Going up at the tip of a promontory and overlooking both shallow lagoons and the open sea is a 300-room outpost of that purveyor of tropical hedonism, Club Méditerranée.
A dozen hotels, providing 2,000 rooms, will be open early next year; five are already in business. They include the lavish Villas Tacul, a cluster of individual casas, each a riot of hand-tooled copper sinks, handwoven tapestries and, depending on which you choose, fountains, patios and gardens. A five-bedroom villa, the biggest available, rents for $250 a day, maid service included. There is also the Canc√∫n-Caribe, with a scalloped beach, a labyrinthine pool and tennis courts under construction.
Lots have been set aside for Holiday Inn and Marriott, and work will soon begin on marinas and waterfront boutiques. But already much has gone up since Alan Saturn, a lawyer from Nashville, and his wife Nancy saw Canc√∫n a year ago. At a party in Nashville, the Saturns had heard a visiting Mexican rave about Canc√∫n. They impulsively contacted a travel agent, who somehow came up with confirmed hotel reservations. It was only after they flew to Mérida and made the four-hour drive to Canc√∫n that they discovered there were not yet any hotels or much of anything else.
"We reached the island, and a guard stopped us," Saturn recalls. "I waved my reservation and he pulled his gun. At dinner that night we wound up in the chow line with the construction workers. We finally found a place to stay 65 miles away." As for being the first in one's state to visit Canc√∫n, Tennessee has long since been taken.
The men who bring you Canc√∫n are not the Mexicans of myth and memory, those faceless people snoozing beneath sombreros by the roadside. Canc√∫n's creators can be found in Mexico City's financial district hard at work for a government trust called Fonatur—a Spanish acronym for National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism. A Xerox 7000 hums in Fonatur's bustling office, and scale models of beach-front property are everywhere. The men of Fonatur do not take a siesta break. When they leave for the day they carry attaché cases crammed with blueprints, maps and, one suspects, snorkeling gear.
It is Fonatur's mission to impose a measure of planning on a tourist boom that brought 3.6 million foreigners into Mexico in 1974. Nine of every 10 visitors were Americans, many of whom preferred close-to-home vacations at a time of economic woe. Along Mexico's rugged Pacific Coast the flood of sun-loving Americans has encouraged every little fishing village to dream of becoming the next Acapulco. As for the first Acapulco, its hills are encrusted with slums, its lovely bay periodically polluted and its oceanfront lined with high rises and Colonel Sanders pollo frito stands. Until now these problems have been assumed, in Mexico as elsewhere, to be the unavoidable price of successful tourism.
But Fonatur is out to prove otherwise. It is run by a tall, baldish, chain-smoking official who lived in the U.S. long enough to earn a master's degree in business from Harvard and to take as a bride one of Boston's blue-blooded Cabots. In his cheery office Antonio Enriquez-Savignac says, "The government frankly wasn't happy with places like Acapulco. Private developers always called the shots, putting up their hotels and stopping at that. The government was called in belatedly to clean up sewage and modernize the airport. This cost money and created political problems. Since the government winds up doing it all anyway, why not develop resort areas ourselves?"
While Canc√∫n is its first and biggest development, Fonatur has a similar project in the works at Ixtapa, up the coast from Acapulco, and smaller complexes planned for Baja California and Oaxaca. The government functions, in effect, as real-estate developer. In Canc√∫n it quietly bought up the land—the island was uninhabited—and began installing $50 million worth of "infrastructure," such things as electricity, highways and the airport. Meanwhile, it went after private investors.
But first a geography lesson was necessary. Before the moneymen would consent to build hotels and the rest, Enriquez-Savignac and his aides had to show them how Mexico poked a pretty leg into the Caribbean, and how Canc√∫n, at the big toe, is just a 70-minute flight from Miami—closer to mainland U.S. than San Juan or St. Thomas. They also pointed out how Canc√∫n reaches toward shore, embracing mangrove-lined lagoons teeming with bonefish and lobster. These lagoons are linked by inlets darkened by overhanging branches and patrolled by snowy egrets and Louisiana herons. Other waterways lead to the sea, where dazzling white-sand beaches stretch for miles, sheltered by the northern edge of an extensive reef that continues southward to Belize.
The sporting potential of this coast is largely untapped. The reef of Yucatàn has coral outcroppings and grottoes for snorkelers, and there are sunken Spanish galleons for the scuba crowd. It is an 80-minute ferry ride from the mainland to the nearby island of Cozumel, a tourist haven whose clear waters are popular with skin divers. Canc√∫n's water can only be clear, too; last inhabited by the Mayas, the island has been frequented in the centuries since only by smugglers, native fishermen and a Mexican government official who used it as a trysting spot with his mistress.
To introduce prospective investors to Canc√∫n, Fonatur hired as "leisure assistant" a swarthy, curly-haired Yucatecan named Rudolfo Leal, a fisherman's son from Cozumel. Leal took VIPs where the barracuda, mackerel or sailfish were biting, sometimes broiling their catch on the beach in banana leaves. He also dived for conch for the salad. Then he invariably asked slyly, "Dessert?" He would vanish up a palm tree, and return to lay freshly sliced coconut before his wide-eyed guests.
So fully did Fonatur overcome initial resistance—Rudolfo Leal surely deserves some of the credit—that private investment in Canc√∫n now exceeds $200 million, with Mexicans accounting for a gratifying 87%. And Fonatur pulled it off largely on its own terms. While some of Canc√∫n's buildings, taken individually, would look at home in San Juan or Miami Beach, zoning keeps them low-slung and well-spaced. It is whispered that one of the things holding up Holiday Inn's ground breaking is Fonatur's adamant objection to the U.S. chain's garish sign. Vigilance takes many forms. When a small Mayan temple was unearthed during construction of the golf course Fonatur pressed for design changes; the temple now overlooks the 9th fairway.
Fonatur also talks of setting aside bird sanctuaries and wildlife preserves. Says Enriquez-Savignac, "When you put a bulldozer in the jungle, you are changing things, but we're trying to keep everything compatible with the natural environment. This is part of what we're selling. Twenty years from now guests should still be able to put on masks and see the fish. Or watch the ocean turtles laying their eggs under an August moon."
In relation to Acapulco, Canc√∫n is a second front in Mexico's sun-and-surf offensive. In relation to Caribbean vacation spots like Jamaica or the Bahamas it is more like a sneak attack. Last fall Guillermo Grimm, Fonatur's marketing director, went to Martinique for the annual meeting of the Caribbean Travel Association. Some of the delegates from other islands, he recalls, were "rather cool."
This reaction is easy to understand. Many Caribbean islands have the same problems as Acapulco plus the crime and racial tensions of the largest U.S. cities. Yet here is a new challenger, close to the U.S. market and coming on strong. Press releases refer to Fonatur's staffers as "bright young technocrats." Statistics are churned out suggesting that Canc√∫n has lots of sunshine, little rain. For a while Fonatur implied that Canc√∫n had somehow been chosen by computers following an exhaustive talent hunt among sweet young beaches. Nor has it flinched from capitalizing on troubles elsewhere. "We don't have a racial problem in the Yucatàn," Enriquez-Savignac says. "The Mayas are gentle and friendly."
It may help, of course, that the Mayas live in an area that has seen few strangers. With an economy overly dependent on henequen, a plant from which twine is made, the Yucatàn has been historically isolated from the rest of Mexico, especially as one traveled eastward into Quintana Roo, the harsh and thinly settled area embracing the Caribbean coast. Quintana Roo graduated from territory to statehood just last October. Besides the Indians, its population includes the roustabouts who harvest the local chicle crop, many of them fugitives who found Quintana Roo to be a perfect hiding place.
Like the Yucatàn in general, Quintana Roo abounds in wild pig, quail and jungle deer, not to mention Canadian ducks who wintered in these parts long before anybody heard of Canc√∫n. An authority on the peninsula's wildlife is George Garcia Lopez, who for four decades has been organizing safaris out of Mérida, a busy and spotless city of 250,000. A tall, smooth-skinned man of 68 with a twitching eye that accounts for his nickname of Semàforo, Garcia recently suffered the further indignity of having three teeth pulled. Afterward he sat in pajamas in his high-ceilinged den, dabbing a handkerchief to his mouth.
"There's every kind of hunting within 30 miles of Canc√∫n," he said. "There's big game, too, but I must warn you—our government has just approved new license fees of $480 for jaguar and $240 for ocelot. I went to Mexico City and fought with the government for seven days, but for nothing." He winced, though it was hard to say whether because of his sore mouth or the memory of his unsuccessful lobbying, then added, "I took my wife along, and for seven days I fought with her, too."
But hunting is downplayed in Canc√∫n, the assumption being that few guests of Villas Tacul or El Presidente will want to trudge through the wilderness to rendezvous with ticks and vipers. Hiking across the Yucatàn's archaeological sites is another matter. Some of these ruins already receive tourists, and Canc√∫n is within range of them via rented car or bus excursions organized by the hotels.
Perhaps the most appealing of the ancient Mayan cities is Uxmal, whose graceful temples and elaborate stone friezes date from the eighth century. Uxmal is a five-hour drive into the Yucatàn interior, and visitors can combine it with an overnight stay in nearby Mérida. Somewhat closer is sprawling Chichén Ità, with its massive pyramid, its grassy ball court—the largest yet found in pre-Columbian America—and its cenote, a gaping sinkhole into whose inky waters Mayan priests flung humans to their deaths as sacrifices to the gods. And it is just a 90-minute drive along the Quintana Roo coast to the ruins of Tulum, a walled city on cliffs high above the Caribbean. Archaeologists consider Tulum less important than Uxmal or Chichén Ità, but its builders obviously knew a thing or two about real estate.
Modern-day Yucatecans have long since misplaced the great architectural and mathematical gifts of their forebears, but most of them still speak Maya and their womenfolk can still be seen walking along lonely roads in their loose-fitting white huipiles. The Mayas have clung to their ancient ways despite the periodic oppressions of past Mexican governments, a sorry record that Canc√∫n may help reverse. Not only does tourism create jobs, but Fonatur, anxious to avoid the kind of slums found elsewhere in Mexico, has been selling some of Canc√∫n City's new residents two-bedroom homes with electricity and indoor plumbing for as little as $5,000. It is a neat bit of welfare statism: the homes on the mainland are partly subsidized by Fonatur's land sales on the island.
But the men of Fonatur are no longer quick to imply that Canc√∫n is some sort of Utopia in the jungle. It is largely a matter of image. "Nobody wants to visit a place that sounds cold and Orwellian," says Guillermo Grimm. "Tourists don't like to feel programmed." A new official line has emerged. Fonatur's bright young technocrats now tell everybody that Canc√∫n was selected by people, not computers.
The question of image aside, Canc√∫n is not perfect. This explains the beleaguered air of Jorge Gleesen, one of Fonatur's top on-the-scene officials. A bony, Ichabodian fellow in horn-rimmed glasses, Gleesen scoots around Canc√∫n in a radio-equipped Volkswagen, trying to keep abreast of visiting bankers, investors, journalists and politicians' wives. "We're badly understaffed," he complains, adding sardonically, "Oh, well, this is Mexico. Everything will get done sooner or later."
Fonatur's good intentions are mocked in other ways, too. Frigid nortes sometimes whip up whitecaps and bend palms, and early visitors have complained of being bitten by mosquitoes and stung by high prices. Gleesen and other Fonatur aides are also embarrassed by their inability to provide housing, subsidized or otherwise, fast enough in Canc√∫n City. The result is exactly the sort of shantytown everybody hoped to avoid. Located on the city's outskirts, this so-called colonic evokes a frontier boomtown: rickety shacks, pungent odors and 5,000 souls huddled together with no plumbing and few electric lights, men. outnumbering women six to one.
For now, anyway, the dusty and noisy colonia is the liveliest spot in Canc√∫n City. On a recent Saturday night, boxing matches, a street dance and a touring burlesque show were all going on at once when it suddenly started raining. What little electricity there was promptly failed. With most events washed out, a huge crowd stood in the mud and stared in silence at the sparks flying from a damaged high wire, their broad features illuminated by the flickering light.
Fonatur officials call the colonia "transitional" and insist that it eventually will be torn down. One who foresees problems in any case is Herbert L. Hiller, former executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association and now a professor at Florida International University. "They've created a company town and they're sticking great numbers of tourists on a fortress of an island," Hiller says. "The conditions could lead to the same resentments and political tensions you find elsewhere." Hiller also sees Canc√∫n's superpowered venture into mass tourism as possibly ill-timed. "They're coming in with high technology and high energy consumption during an era of growing shortages. A lot of people are getting to be turned off by that sort of place."
Others seem just as sure that Canc√∫n is about to become the Caribbean's next In spot. A Mexican clothing manufacturer has bullishly introduced a line of guayaberra shirts under the Canc√∫n label, and Mexican songwriters are busy turning out the Spanish-language equivalents of Moon Over Canc√∫n. Since housing shortages and high prices are usually caused by heavy demand, even Canc√∫n's problems can be seen as symptoms of success; indeed, enough explorers are arriving that some hotels are accepting reservations only on a seven-days-minimum basis.
All this brings a gold-toothed smile to the face of José Claudio Chac, one of the night students at Canc√∫n City's elementary school. "I come from a village near Mérida, and now I'm a carpenter working on the Maya Caribe Hotel," he said after class one evening. "When it's finished I will become a bellboy, but I hope to go into hotel administration someday. Because of Canc√∫n, we'll all eat better and dress better." It is worth noting that this go-getter's last name, Chac, is also the name of a Mayan god to whom the Indians of Yucatàn have remained faithful through the centuries, worshipping him simultaneously with Jesucristo. But tourists are beginning to arrive in bikinis and wraparound sunglasses, and perhaps Chac's hold will be weakened at last.
He is the god of rain.