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Cancún History

Step-pyramid El Castillo at Chichen Itza
Credit: Premium Collection | Fotolia

Cancún was one of the main Maya settlements on the Yucatán Peninsula prior to the arrival of the Spanish. But following the Conquest, much of the Maya population died or left as a result of disease, warfare, piracy and famines, leaving only small settlements on nearby Isla Mujeres and Cozumel Island.

The meaning behind Cancún generally is unknown, although some believe the name comes from the Mayas and means “Throne of the snake.”

Before Cancún became the number one tourist destination in Mexico, it was a deserted island that few knew about. About 50 years ago, it was mainly sand dunes and was separated from the mainland by two narrow canals. Its coast was made up of marshes, mangroves, jungle and miles of beaches.

But in 1969, Mexico’s National Tourism Fund FONATUR approved plans for its Cancún Project to establish Cancún as a major tourist destination. The project had three phases. The first phase was to build a zone for tourists with hotels, shopping centers, golf courses and marinas. This zone would include no permanent residential areas. The second phase was to build a residential zone for permanent residents, with commercial areas, roads, public buildings, schools, hospitals and markets. The third phase included the building of an international airport along the major highway to Tulum, which is about 80 miles south of Cancún.

The first hotels and the international airport opened in 1974. That same year, Quintana Roo was granted statehood and Cancún became the seat of the Benito Juarez municipality.

Cancún has grown from nearly 170,000 people in 1990 to a population of over 700,000, in the most recent estimate. It is now the country’s largest tourist resort area and has surpassed the Bahamas and Puerto Rico as a Caribbean tourist destination with nearly 5 million visitors each year.

Today, Cancún’s tourism economy is booming and the entire tourist corridor from Cancún to Tulum is seeing unprecedented growth, fueled by tourism-related job growth. Agriculture, fishing, the service industry and construction are also adding to the economic boom in the area.