New Riviera Maya Resorts
Published: April 2009
By Michael Gross
Not so long ago, Mexico's Riviera Maya was a sleepy stretch of Caribbean coastline. Now every
hotel group wants in on the action. <span class="author">Michael Gross</span> traces the evolution of
an "it" destination
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.
How did this thin strip of the country reinvent itself as one of the world's great luxury
destinations?The tale begins with Fonatur, Mexico's 31-year-old national trust for the development
of tourism, which has been responsible for creating the resort areas of Cancún, Los
Cabos, Loreto, the Bay of Huatulco, and Ixtapa. In 1995, when Maroma—the first high-end
resort on this shore—opened, the area was still known as the Costa Maya, or Mayan Coast.
But that year, seeking to capitalize on (and to begin to control) a process that had started
on its own, Fonatur undertook extensive market research on what to call the corridor. According
to one story, a prescient visitor, inspired by the Côte d'Azur, anointed the place the
Riviera Maya. The name of that person has been lost in the decade since, but the title's magical
allure has stood up to forces even stronger than Wilma's winds.
Fonatur's president, John McCarthy, says bluntly that the creation of the Riviera Maya was "really accidental—it happened by itself."
Actually, it had help from the private sector, or more speciﬁcally, José Luis
Moreno, who was a hippie ("I still am," he says) when he came to the Yucatán in 1963.
A diver and architect, he began his career creating schools, houses, and a nightclub, in Isla
Mujeres and Cancún. He built luxury houses in Akumal, a white-sand beach town between
Tulum and Cancún; one of his clients, Pablo Busch, a Mexican underwater archaeologist
and hunter, bought 10 miles of land there, on which Moreno built a hotel (it soon closed).
Moreno later built a house on the beach north of Playa del Carmen. In 1988, after disease
killed the coconut palms, Moreno built another house, and before long the Maroma hotel was
born. Soon, other independent luxury properties followed, including the lavish Paraíso
de la Bonita and Playa del Carmen's ultrahip Hotel Deseo. Like Maroma, they became magnets.
"Quality attracts the people who make destinations," says Samir Saab, whose group Prohotel
owns Ikal del Mar, which they managed to build in the jungle without cutting down the trees.
Now, many credit Moreno as the area's pioneer, but the founder of Maroma, sitting on the terrace
of his house on its lush grounds, laughs at that. "It's called civilization," Moreno says.
"You can't stop it."
The Riviera Maya is hardly the first place to have blossomed from nothingness. In 1941, the
El Rancho Vegas hotel and casino was built along a two-lane highway between Los Angeles and
Las Vegas. By the end of that decade, the famed Vegas Strip was established. The birth of
tourist Dubai is another case in point: in 1995, eyeing diminishing oil reserves, its ruler
instituted an aggressive tourism policy, and today more than five million people visit the
tiny emirate annually. Bhutan followed a similar course; in 2004, the government invited Amanresorts
and Christina Ong to build two luxury hotels, instantly remaking the country as the destination
du jour for the fashion and celebrity set.
In each instance, visionary hoteliers—gamblers, really—set things in motion, the government saw what was happening and began facilitating development, a critical mass was achieved, and, finally, a second wave of big-brand, big-money hotels arrived to seal the deal. But never has this happened in quite as startling a manner as on the Riviera Maya.
As a result, some fear there could be trouble ahead for the Riviera Maya, even though the
area's resorts are far better planned and quite some distance from one another. When the government
started selling titles to vacant properties, the coast was quickly bought up—and land
prices soared. Now the pressure to produce proﬁts is as intense as it once was in Cancún.
"I saw the same picture we are watching today, then," says Moreno, referring to the 1970's
and the Inter-American Development Bank, which had been established in 1959 by the Organization
of American States, and which Moreno says was formed to halt the spread of Communism with
cash. The IDB offered "rivers of money," Moreno says, "on condition it be used to develop
private enterprise." One result was Cancún; built on vacant land, it grew exponentially.
Outside Cancún, where Moreno and a partner owned their beachfront coconut plantation,
there was only one hotel for 20 miles in either direction, and it could be reached only by
Cancún was overbuilt, sometimes illegally, in part because "one of the products of
Mexico was corruption," Moreno explains. Also, hotel owners wanted bigger profits, and the
workers who'd built Cancún "created pressure to generate more jobs." Then, in 1988,
Hurricane Gilbert devastated the region, causing hotels to lose income. Owners started selling
rooms cheap; package-tour operators moved in to help fill them, and Cancún began its
relentless slide from a high-end destination to the setting for Girls Gone Wild.
Four years ago, the Mexican government admitted the error of its ways and asked tourism officials
to create rules and plans that balanced a desire for growth with the need to respect the environment.
"The population is priority number one," Fonatur's McCarthy says. "Sustainability is more
than birds, bees, and fish. You must create wealth and respect the environment and culture
while doing that." Most important for visitors, the new rules placed strict density limits
on the Riviera Maya.
Those rules were already being formulated when world events redrew the luxury map. Post 9/11,
many tourists rediscovered Mexico's accessibility from the United States. All-inclusive resorts,
most of them owned by Spanish companies like Iberostar, developed a large presence in the
area. Direct descendants of the package-tour operators who'd filled Cancún's hotels
after Gilbert, they were everything the new Riviera Maya does not want to be. Their big-box
properties ﬂattened the natural landscape and wounded the jungle ecosystem. Worse,
to some minds, they harmed the local economy. Since all-inclusive visitors pay in advance,
often in Europe, they deprive Mexico of desperately needed tax revenues. Such chains sometimes
"break the laws," Moreno says, and encourage corruption "at all levels."
The new breed of hoteliers saw what the all-inclusives didn't. Maroma's success attracted
other independents and they, in turn, attracted the big hotel groups. Rafael Micha, co-owner
of Hotel Deseo and Básico, thinks a new cycle will begin, with what he calls lone-ranger
hotels. "Some consumers will go to the mall for the big brands," Micha says, but others will
go "to the place with the feel of those who first built this." "It starts and it spreads,
and the hidden jewels are still there, but off the beaten track," says Melissa Perlman, who
cofounded Amansala on Tulum's beach after 9/11. "When I ﬁrst came here"—in 1995—"it
was really sleepy. This is still sleepy." But with 900-pound-gorillalike concentrations of
luxury brands such as Mayakoba filling in the beachfront to the north, and boutique hotels
pulling the party people to Playa del Carmen, Amansala should be on the beaten track soon.
Today, the Riviera Maya is such a success that the hoteliers of Cancún want to re-brand
their city as part of it and catch some of its glow. That's because the latest iteration of
this destination has proved to be a powerful magnet, attracting not just visitors, not just
investment dollars, but also intelligent developers who have learned from past mistakes. "We
took the vision of the government and tried to evolve it by investing a lot," Juan Aguilar,
the executive in charge of building Mayakoba, says. "We are not Cancún. We realized
we can only earn back our investment by going high-end."
Chris Cahill, the president and chief operating ofﬁcer of Fairmont, is betting millions
that Aguilar is right. "The difference is density," Cahill says. "When a destination is ruined
it's because of heavy, heavy concentration. I think everyone recognizes the uniqueness of
this area and no one wants to replicate Cancún. I think it will have staying power."
Mayakoba will have only 1,200 rooms, even though 3,900 are allowed under density rules. With
its different yet complementary hotel brands and an environment that's been carefully planned
and engineered, Mayakoba, says Aguilar, will let "guests feel the jungle," while remaining
close to the man-made—the links, the spas, the bars, the restaurants, the indoor-outdoor
showers, the plasma-screen TV's. It truly is a grand experiment.
On my last night at the eco-conscious hideaway Ikal del Mar, a week before Wilma hit the
region, I had dinner with Dario Flota, head of the Riviera Maya tourist board, which not only
promotes the region but tries to keep the government and private interests in tune. "Our main
problem is social," Flota told me. "Where will workers live?Where will children study and
play?" Playa del Carmen's population is growing by 16 percent a year. The state of Quintana
Roo is an economic engine, producing a third of Mexico's tourism income. A high-speed railroad
or a second airport at Tulum are being considered. Every move Flota makes is questioned. And
the Mexican government is looking ahead and beginning to develop an extension it calls Grand
Maya, south of Tulum. But—ominous music should play here—"the Spanish are already
there, buying everything," says Moreno.
The smart Mexican money is looking even farther down the coast, toward Belize, says Carlos
Gosselin, another Mexican architect who worked on Cancún and years later opened an
independent luxury hotel, Paraíso de la Bonita. The land he bought for that property,
just outside Cancún, cost a mere $1.50 per square meter in 1974. Now it's worth 250
times that, he estimates, sounding more worried than elated.
"There's no more land in our country!" Gosselin cries. "It's going to be a big disaster."
"We'll run out of world soon," agrees Moreno, who three years ago sold 75 percent of his
hotel to Orient Express in order to expand it. But he isn't giving up on the Riviera Maya,
either. "I still have more land," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "The Spanish want to
buy it but we don't want to sell. We are going to keep fighting."
Flota, too, worries about the all-inclusives that have corrupted the process, ignoring the
rules and getting away with eco-murder. "They own airlines, tour operators, and local transport,"
he tells me. One huge new hotel was recently judged in court to have been illegally overbuilt,
yet it remains open, Flota adds. Still, he is philosophical—and hopeful. "All destinations
experience this," he says as we wash down nouvelle Mexican cuisine with French red wine. "It's
part of a cycle." He gestures toward the beach, vowing, "We will take great care to save this."
Michael Gross is a contributing editor for T+L and the author
of 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building (Broadway).
Hurricane Wilma, which hit the Yucatán Peninsula in October, did extensive damage
to the coast. At press time, most of the Riviera Maya hotels that were closed following the
storm had reopened.
Paraíso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso
Balinese sculptures, marble pillars, and Bulgari-stocked bathrooms makes this the most over-the-top
resort on the coast.
Doubles from $700
KM 328, Carr. Cancún-Chetumal, Bahía Petenpich 800/223-6800 or 52-998/872-8300
Maroma Resort & Spa
The launching pad for the Riviera Maya is reopening its doors this
month after an extensive floor-to-ceiling renovation.
Doubles from $480
KM 51, Carr. Cancún-Tulum; 866/454-9351 or 52-998/872-8200
Briefly delayed due to Hurricane Wilma, the first hotel at Mayakoba is set to open this spring.
Doubles from $439
Carr. Federal Cancún, Playa del Carmen; 800/441-1414
Ikal del Mar
A sexy, eco-conscious hideaway in the jungle.
Doubles from $650
Xcalacoco; 888/230-7330 or 52-984/877-3000
The owners of Ikal opened this family-oriented retreat between Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Doubles from $525
Km 264, Carr. Tulum-Cancún, Playa del Carmen; 800/525-4800 or 52-984/840-9003
The name of this sleek Playa del Carmen party hotel means desire.
Doubles from $158
5 Avda. and Calle 12, Playa del Carmen; 52-984/879-3620
Sister hotel to Deseo, this equally festive property embraces a utilitarian motif with its
cheeky use of rubber and latex.
Doubles from $158
Calle 10 between Avdas. 5 and 10, Playa del Carmen; 52-984/879-4448
Popular for its Bikini Bootcamp program.
Doubles from $125
Km 7.7, Carr. TulumBoca Paila; 52-984/100-0717
This four-room beachfront hotel has established a following, thanks to its lounge parties.
Doubles from $198
Km 1.5, Carr. TulumBoca Paila; 52-984/804-1452