Cancun City History
Four decades ago, Cancun was a deserted island and few even knew of its existence. Located in a nearly forgotten region of the Caribbean, it consisted of a series of sand dunes in the shape of a number “7" –some parts of which were only 20 meters (66 ft) wide– separated from the mainland by two narrow canals that opened out on to a huge lagoon system.
The coast was comprised of marshes, mangroves, virgin jungle and unexplored beaches. Even its name was not clear: some maps called it “Kankun” (a single word written with the two “k’s”), which means “pot of snakes” or “nest of snakes” in Maya language.
However, in the first Infratur documents (a government agency existing prior to the creation of Fonatur), it is written as two words, “Kan Kun,” and occasionally, “Can Cun” (in its Spanish form). The current name of “Cancun” is a natural phonetic development that facilitates pronunciation... or maybe it developed by mere chance.
During the 60's, studies of the tourism industry at a national and international level revealed its importance as a source of revenue and new jobs and the positive impact that it could have on the economic development of marginal areas of the world.
Since there was no long term tourism policy or financial resources to develop the sector, one of the Mexican government’s priorities was to promote existing tourism destinations (Acapulco, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa - Zihuatanejo and Cozumel), diversify tourism products and seek out other possibilities for development based on the avante garde idea of the time: building integral tourism-based cities from scratch. After evaluating dozens of potential locations, at the beginning of 1969, the Bank of Mexico began development of five integral tourism destinations: Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Loreto, Bahías de Huatulco and Cancun.
Despite certain disadvantages like distance from the region’s major cities (1,820 kilometers / 1,131 miles from Mexico City, 380 kilometers /236 miles from Chetumal, 321 km / 199 miles from Merida and 172 km / 107 miles from Valladolid); deficient highway infrastructure (the Chetumal-Puerto Juarez coastal highway was unfinished; airport located far away); lack of available, trained manpower; and non-existent local capital, there were important reasons to choose Cancun.
Those that weighed heaviest (besides the natural beauty of the area and proximity to some of world’s most famous Mayan sites), was the need to successfully compete with tourism destinations in the Caribbean Basin (which at that time received around four million tourists per year); take advantage of the area’s magnificent beaches and foster development of recently-created Quintana Roo state.
The Territory of Quintana Roo (which still had not been admitted to the Union) was linked to the rest of the country by the Merida-Valladolid-Puerto Juarez highway (built in the previous Presidential term). It had four border areas classified as Duty Free zones: Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Xcalak and Chetumal (a city whose prosperity was derived from imports) and a very precarious economic situation. Under these circumstances, the creation of Cancun as an integral tourism destination was seen as an economic detonator for the region and a way to channel the migratory flow of its inhabitants.

The Cancun Project was officially approved in 1969, but didn’t begin until January, 1970, when the first Infratur technicians arrived. The initial objectives of the project were to open up a road from Puerto Juarez to the island, design a Master Development Plan and build a provisional air strip (located in the area designated for city development, at the site of present-day Kabah Avenue, in front of the actual Ecological Park of the same name).
The basic Master Plan called for three items:
1) Build a tourism zone without permanent residential areas, like a tourism corridor (given the characteristics of the land itself), with hotel installations, shopping centers, golf courses and marinas;
2) Build a residential zone for permanent residents. In other words, an integral city, in the northern part of the territorial reserve, with residential and commercial areas, roads, public buildings, schools, hospitals and markets; and
3) Build an international airport to one side of the Cancun-Tulum highway (under construction at the time), on the mainland south of the island.
Hotel Zone development was, in turn, divided into three phases. The first comprised the area from Bahia de Mujeres to Punta Cancun and the coast up to the inner limit of Bojorquez Lagoon; the second phase ran from Bojorquez Lagoon to Punta Nizuc, and the third from Punta Nizuc south, to the limits of the territorial reserve.
Design and segmentation of the Hotel Zone followed the concept of “supermanzanas” (subdivisions), architecturally known as the “broken plate diagram”: huge city blocks, separated by large avenues. The first segment of Cancun’s urban area concentrated on what would become the city’s main street, Tulum Avenue. City Hall was built on the largest lot in this area.
The first infrastructure projects for drinking water (sink 16 wells, at a distance of 30 kilometers / 18.6 miles), sewerage (dig more than 100 kilometers / 62 miles of ditches for sewers connected to a treatment plant) and electricity (bring in power lines from Tizimin, Yucatán, 150 kilometers / 93 miles away) cannot even compare to the scope and difficulty of the engineering projects required to create the Hotel Zone.
The equivalent of 240 hectares / 593 acres of topsoil was brought in by trucks: 100 (247 acres) for the golf course, 60 (148 acres) for lot 18 A and 60 for the area surrounding the El Rey ruins and fill for over 80 hectares /198 acres (65 ha / 161 acres to widen the island and 15 ha / 37 acres for the airport road). Some 372,000 m3 (13,137.055 ft3) of mangrove systems were dredged to form Siegfried and Nichupté Channels to improve water exchange between the sea and the lagoons.
The first hotels opened in 1974 (Playa Blanca, Bojorquez and Cancun Caribe); the international airport was inaugurated with 2,600 meters of runway and operating capacity for wide-cabin airplanes; and Infratur and Fonatur government agencies were merged to form the National Foundation for the Promotion of Tourism (Fonatur).
The same year, Quintana Roo was granted statehood and the Cancun project (under the Isla Mujeres district government) became part of Benito Juarez district.
There are four distinct phases in Cancun’s development, characterized by times of growth and crisis:

From 1969 to 1975;
From 1976 to 1983;
From 1984 to 1989; and
From 1990 to 2005.

At some time during these periods of growth, seemingly insurmountable problems darkened expectations for the area– a lack of regular flights, the 1982 devaluation, natural disasters, the collapse of North American tourism due to the terrorist attacks of September 11 and, more recently the hurricane Wilma back in October 2005. Nevertheless, the city has demonstrated its ability to bounce back on each occasion.
By 1976, Cancun was firmly established as a tourism destination: 18,000 inhabitants, stable migratory patterns, more than 5,000 jobs, 1,500 hotel rooms and 100,000 visitors in the winter 76-77 season.
The sudden spurt of growth prior to 1982 (5,700 hotel rooms, 70,000 inhabitants and Cancun had become the largest city in Quintana Roo) caused an ecological imbalance in the lagoon system, requiring corrective measures.
From 1983 to 1988, Cancun registered explosive growth with more than 12,000 hotel rooms and another 11,000 projected or under construction and more than 200,000 inhabitants.
From 1989 to date, Cancun has been the nation’s most dynamic city. It contributes a large percentage of Mexico’s tourism-related revenue and accounts for much of Quintana Roo’s gross domestic product. There are currently more than 600,000 inhabitants in the urban area. Cancun has become the country’s largest tourism resort and is the most prosperous city in the Yucatán Peninsula. It is also the Caribbean’s premier destination, surpassing even the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The future is promising. Puerto Cancun, a huge, deluxe marina with low-impact hotels, is projected for development north of the Hotel Zone. To the southwest, toward the airport, more hotels, golf courses and a modern hospital are scheduled for construction. Cancun counts actually with more than 24,000 rooms. In addition, major resort development is contemplated for the 131-kilometer / 81 miles in the Cancun-Tulum tourism corridor nowadays world known as the Mayan Riviera.
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