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New Riviera Maya Resorts

On October 21, just a few weeks after Tropical Storm Stan walloped the Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, Hurricane Wilma blew in, wreaking havoc. Rains and 140 mph winds left most of the area without electricity, telephones, water, or passable roads, and government officials estimated that the area would lose $1.5 billion in tourism income. Yet just a few days later, workers were swarming everywhere and the beach was alive with the sound of buzz saws.

Torrential storms notwithstanding, a gold-rush giddiness animates the so-called Riviera Maya, the corridor that starts just below Cancún and stretches south, along the coast, to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. Mandarin Oriental is hard at work on a new hotel. So is Capella Hotels & Resorts, a new chain of boutique properties run by former Ritz-­Carlton executives. The owners of  ­Tulum's new Amansala, a boho-chic yoga retreat popular with the fashion elite, are now busy turning notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar's former estate into a hotel. And speaking of Ritz-Carlton, the group is said to be looking for beachfront on which to plant its own flag, as are Regent and Four ­Seasons.

That's just the small stuff.

Spanish development and construction company Obrascón, Huarte, Lain has spent the last 10 years creating Mayakoba, a magnificent jungle-and-beach resort a few minutes south of Puerto Morelos that, when completed, will include hotels run by six name-brand luxury companies: Fairmont, Rosewood, Banyan Tree, La Casa Que Canta, Viceroy, and one more to be announced. Mayakoba aims to raise the bar for eco-resorts. After eight years of biological and hydrographic studies, OHL uncovered a system of freshwater canals and lagoons that had been hidden for millennia beneath the Yucatán's limestone crust; guests will get around on silent electric boats, sharing these waters with herons, cormorants, and manatees equipped with GPS to protect them. The developers estimate that the place will cost a staggering $1.5 billion. Although the opening of the first hotel, a Fairmont, has been delayed until this spring because of Hurricane Wilma, it won't be long before guests at each of the properties will be able to avail themselves of the services of all, including an eco-sensitive Greg Norman golf course, with cenotes as water hazards.

Indeed, Wilma has been viewed as a mere plot twist in the larger story here, which is about how hotels have created a world-class travel destination, and how a newly enlightened government has stepped in to guide them and help them invent a new luxury travel brand.

A mere twenty years ago, when I first visited Akumal, a diving village a half-hour's drive south from Mayakoba, this coastline was comatose. I ate an $8 grilled lobster in a dirt-floored restaurant and stayed in a cinder-block hotel, where I left the shower feeling dirty. Nearby Cancún, which had been created from nothing in the 1970's, was a generic mass-market resort town—a row of concrete boxes on the beach. Far worse, the reef just offshore (part of the second-largest reef system in the world) was deteriorating, thanks to poor planning and mistreatment by developers and overuse by tourists.

Though the stretch below Cancún remained pristine, paradisiacal, and virtually untouched by tourism, there really wasn't a Riviera Maya then—only the odd strip of thatched beach cabanas, a handful of dive shops, the Mayan ruins at Tulum, and the national park at Xel-Há, a natural aquarium for snorkelers. A 1983 guidebook noted that the area did not have "much to offer to visitors" and described some of the more desirable accommodations as hip slums.

A current visitors' map, distributed gratis at the airport, lists 87 hotels between Cancún airport and Tulum—and that statistic is incomplete. By 2025, officials say, there will be 110,000 hotel rooms on Mexico's Caribbean coast.

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