Cancun 1970It only took a single black and white aerial photo. I came across this remarkable black and white picture of Punta Cancún, taken in the early 1970’s, and started reflecting on what Cancún has meant to our generation of intrepid travelers.  For one who visited Cancún in 1979 (and like so many was blind to the region’s future), this simple aerial shot begged reflection on how Cancún’s success has been a true gift to travelers around the world.

Regardless of what leisure destinations are your favorites today, or whether you’ve let Cancún’s powder white sand nestle between your toes and her turquoise translucent waters splash your ankles, we all should recognize Cancún as the most successful manmade tourism project in history.

I won’t claim this rose-lensed view is held universally. Some call Cancún an environmental disaster and tourism sprawl gone awry. The resort’s unapologetic embrace of whatever’s new and trendy is an affront to some Mexico purists. I choose to look at the jobs created, the wealth that has indeed trickled down to generations of workers, and the fact that there’s hardly a travel agent who’s not profited (directly or indirectly) from Cancún’s existence. It has been the launch pad for the all-inclusive vacation phenomena, attracts visitors from literally every country in the world, and led directly to México’s other (even more successful?) tourism Mecca: the Riviera Maya.

If you’re older than 40, Cancún’s existence and subsequent growth has all happened in your lifetime. Where today we see Five Diamond high-rise resorts, Luxury Avenue, golf links and party palaces, there were only sand bars, mangroves, marshes and magnificent beaches.

Just last year, Cancún crossed an important milestone, as the resort marked 40 years in existence. On a deserted sand spit, the Mexican government decided to turn a frontier territory (what is today Quintana Roo State) into a jobs and foreign exchange behemoth.  When development was started in 1970, Isla Cancún’s only inhabitants were caretakers of the coconut plantation of Don José de Jesús Lima Gutiérrez. The website tells of these intrepid 1970’s era inhabitants (Gabuch, Maldonado, Cachito, Rudy y El Gato). There were only 117 people living in nearby Puerto Juárez, a fishing village, ferry dock and military base.

The first infrastructure projects tackled drinking water (sink 16 wells), sewerage (dig more than 62 miles of ditches and a treatment plant) and electricity (bring in power lines from Tizimín, Yucatán, some 100 miles away). But shaping the 30 km long Hotel Zone became a mammoth undertaking that today we take for granted.

Trucks moved in almost 600 acres of topsoil. Some 13 million square feet of mangroves were dredged to form Siegfried and Nichupté Channels, improving water exchange between the sea and the lagoons. Maya artifacts and small temples were unearthed and (in most cases) set aside for protection.

Cancún said “Hola!” to the world in 1974 with 332 hotel rooms (today’s total exceeds 28,000). The first hotels opened were the Hotel Parador (still open in downtown), and Playa Blanca, (now the scantily clad Temptations). In 1975, the international airport we enjoy today replaced the first ‘aeropista’ (photo attached; location where today we find Avenida Kabah, in downtown Cancún). The same year, Quintana Roo was granted statehood and the Cancún project was quietly announced to the world.

But what to call it? Even the resort’s name was not easily settled. tells us:

“The coast was comprised of marshes, mangroves, virgin jungle and unexplored beaches. Even its name was not clear: some maps called it “Kankun” (a single word written with the two “k’s”), which means “pot of snakes” or “nest of snakes” in Maya.

However, in the first draft it is written as two words, “Kan Kun,” and occasionally, “Can Cún” (in its Spanish form). The current name of “Cancún” is a natural phonetic development that facilitates pronunciation… or maybe it developed by mere chance.”

Its name might have come about by happenchance, but its longevity and popularity were no accident.  Despite the government having to fund building of the first nine hotels, it didn’t take long for Mexican and international investors to be brought along. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Note: want to learn more? Take a tour of, Cancún’s official tourism portal.

by Greg Custer
Managing Director, Mexico and Latin America
Senior Director, Agent Training Western USA