Making waves: from boom to doom of Mexico's southeastern wilderness

It’s hard to follow the fast paced growth of population on the peninsula. Only 60 years ago the Yucatan changed from wilderness into tourism hotspot. From the 1960s the demand of the area increased so extensively, that it outgrew its infrastructure, whose development dragged behind. The area is still virgin, but anything else than untouched.

Mexico’s tip in the Southeast is home to the Mayan civilization since 2500 BC. Between 300-900 AD the native population formed high cultures and big cities like Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. It was a quiet place to live and forage in the jungle – until the Spaniards arrived. In 1517 they set foot on the peninsula for the first time and brought next to diseases and christianity another disaster: ignorance and exploitation.

«When Francisco Hernández de Córdova arrived on this coast, he asked the natives where he was. They replied in their language, that they didn’t understand him. To Córdova their answer sounded like the word „Yucatán“. Thus, he named the region after the first word he heard here.»

— Quote from an article about the history of the Yucatan from

What happened next is history. In this new lands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea  and the Gulf of Mexico, the Spanish invaders would reduce the native population from an estimated 5 million to 3.5 million in only one century.

The arrival of the conquistadors resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.

The arrival of the conquistadors resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.

Far off by nature

Despite the many external influences one thing remained: the special location of the Yucatan. Because of the layout of the landmass, the peninsula was – and still is – very isolated from the rest of Mexico. Until the middle of the 20th century the area only was connected with the outside world by sea. Not before the 1950s the peninsula was linked to the rest of Mexico by railway and eventually by highway ten years later. As a result, the culture of this area remained pretty unique – until today.

The tourist invasion

Before the 50s only adventurous travelers dared to move forward into the dense sacred Mayan forests and jungles. But after the success of Acapulco, which made Mexico know as jet-set holiday location, the country was looking for a second promising destination for the lucrative tourism sector. So, the city planner of the then booming Miami Beach got the task to design an equally successful town for Mexico – the present-day Cancún.

So it happened, that the first commercial planes arrived to Mérida in the 1960s. Cozumel and Cancún got its international airports in the 1980s. Since then, the Yucatán peninsula, which supports one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, also accommodates the country’s largest amount of visitors.

Cancún during the years.

Cancún during the years.

Until the Seventies, Cancún was a small fishing settlement of about 100 Mayan descendants. In 2018 its population is estimated to rise over 700.000 people.

In 2006, the city of Playa del Carmen, located 60 kilometers south of Cancún, was believed to be one of the fastest growing cities in the world. And each year it remains under the fastest growing cities in Mexico and the whole Latin America. 

And Tulum? It exploded from 8 hospitality locations on the beach in 2000 to around 450 in the year 2018. That are 25 new hotels or restaurants per year on an untouched beach or pure jungle ground. Population exploded from 3’000 in 1995 to 35’000 in 2018 with 2 million tourists per year. Scary to think of how Tulum and its environment will look like, if it continues to grow like this…

From boom to doom

The region is truly unique in many ways, but especially in nature. It is the world’s most forested areas in the world in terms of biomass per hectare. Sounds beautiful. But truth is, all that is at threat. The uncontrolled population and tourist inflow demands more and more space for housing. Flora and fauna have to move out of the way for too many humans, who again bring destruction like the first invasion of foreigners. When everyone wants to have a piece of paradise, soon there won’t be much left. Where we and the environment are going from now, lies nowhere but in our own hands.