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 boat.
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.