A deserted island
Four decades ago, Cancún 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.
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 Cún” (in its Spanish form). The current name of “Cancún” is a natural phonetic development that facilitates pronunciation… or maybe it developed by mere chance.
The Master Plan
The Cancún 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 airstrip (located in the area designated for city development, at the site of present-day Kabah Avenue, in front of the Ecological Park).
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 Cancún-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 BahÌa de Mujeres to Punta Cancún 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 Cancún’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 Cancún Caribe); the international airport was inaugurated with 2,600 meters of runway and operating capacity for wide-cabin airplanes; and Infratur and Foqatur 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 Cancún project (under the Isla Mujeres district government) became part of Benito Juarez district.
From 1989 to date, Cancún 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 500,000 inhabitants in the urban area. Cancún 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 and Puerto Rico.
The future is promising. Puerto Cancún, 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. In addition, major resort development is contemplated for the 131-kilometer / 81 miles Cancún-Tulum tourism corridor.