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New Riviera Maya Resorts

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-gorilla–like 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.

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