TULUM, Mexico – Nestled amidst pristine rainforests, ancient architectural wonders, and immaculate beaches, the Mexican Riviera continues to captivate millions of visitors annually. In a significant stride towards further tourism development, Tulum, positioned 90 miles south of its illustrious counterpart Cancun, unveiled a major international airport last month, poised to welcome a surge of new tourists each year.
Coinciding with this venture is the initiation of the controversial national Tren Maya (Maya Train) rail line. This transformative project links five Mexican states, connecting the Cancun airport with Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and various Mayan archaeological sites. The federal government anticipates the full 1,525-kilometer line to be operational by March 1.
The pivotal question echoing through the industry is the impact of these tourism stimuli. The environmentally sensitive Mayan Riviera, in proximity to Tulum, has grappled with growing pains, and its infrastructure strains to accommodate the current 2 million annual visitors, many of them Americans. The inauguration of an airport designed for 5 million visitors annually, coupled with the new rail line, raises concerns about exacerbating mass tourism and potentially transforming Tulum into a variant of bustling Cancun or Playa del Carmen. This marks a significant departure for Tulum, long hailed as a hidden gem in the Yucatan.
Globally, cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, and Venice have grappled with the challenge of “overtourism,” a predicament that Tulum may now face. Nonetheless, in regions like Mexico, tourism remains a potent tool for poverty alleviation and economic growth.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport commenced operations on December 1, with Mexican carriers serving five cities. International flights are scheduled to begin arriving in late March, featuring Delta, American, Spirit, and United. United, in particular, plans 22 weekly flights from hubs in Chicago, Houston, and Newark, with seasonal flights from Los Angeles in May. JetBlue’s daily flights from New York are set to begin on June 13.
These airport and rail projects align with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s national infrastructure investment program, a cornerstone of his term ending in September. The first section of the contentious Maya Train initiated service on December 15, linking the Cancun airport and Campeche, a historic Gulf of Mexico port and a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Commencing near Palenque, Mexico, in late 2018, the rail project’s budget has ballooned from an initial $7.4 billion to $28 billion. While the exact fare for the Maya Train remains undetermined, Tren Maya asserts on its website that costs will favor residents, implying higher expenses for national and foreign tourists.
Designed to boost the economies of smaller communities in Mexico’s southeast, the Maya Train has faced criticism for its environmental impact. Millions of trees in the Yucatan Peninsula rainforest have been destroyed, and approximately 3,000 households displaced. Despite being declared a “national security” project, the rail line faces legal challenges seeking environmental impact studies and halting its construction.
Similarly, the new Tulum airport is hailed as a catalyst for economic development, anticipated to generate 15,000 new jobs for the state of Quintana Roo. As Tulum stands at the crossroads of progress, the delicate balance between economic growth and environmental preservation remains a focal point, shaping the future of this once-hidden gem on the Yucatan Peninsula.