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Why Cancún, Latin America’s Most Popular Tourist Destination, Has Excelled for 50 Years

by Staff
Cancún’s 50 years as a major tourism destination were celebrated at Mexico’s International Tourism Expo last week. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Since its first three hotels opened in 1974, Cancún has been America’s go-to sunny getaway, well-known for its luxurious resorts, stunning coastline, and visitor-friendly facilities.

That milestone was celebrated last week at Mexico’s International Tourism Expo.

And to think that investors were not convinced that this new resort town had a chance, so the federal government financed the first nine hotels, beginning with a Hyatt, the Cancun Caribe. The first hotel to be finished was the Playa Blanca, now named Temptation Resort.

This tourism mecca continues to grow and attract more visitors than ever. 

In 2023 alone, Cancún attracted just over 40 million international visitors. For most of them, Mexico’s Caribbean coast has become a repeat holiday destination.

Turquoise waters, delicious food, and thriving nightlife are just some factors that have made Cancún the most popular beach destination in the Americas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The majority of international tourists to Cancún in 2023 were Americans (37%), followed by Canadians (6.5%) and Colombians (35%).

But one of the often overlooked keys to Cancún’s success is the immense number of domestic tourists it receives, making up 36% of total visitors. 

This is not to say that Cancún has not faced its share of challenges. The swine flu pandemic of 2009 and the more recent pandemic impacted Cancún, but not as severely as one would think.

Then there are the severe hurricanes that have impacted the region, including Wilma, whose winds broke all-time speed records in Mexico. 

Unlike Americans, tourists from Europe typically use Cancún as a hub to make their way to more low-key locations afield on the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But despite it all, Cancún has shown impressive resilience and the ability to bounce back after every single challenge to its rule as the emerald water king of the Caribbean.

So why exactly is Cancún so popular?

As much as Cancún has going for it, it has to be said the Caribbean region has several amazing tourist attractions. So what exactly is it about this sandy resort town in the northwest Yucatán Peninsula that has proven so unstoppable?

Nightclubs in Cancún, like the Coco Bongo and The City, have the capacity for thousands of revelers at the same time and a party atmosphere that has made them famous around the world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Thriving hotel zone

The Zona Hotelera is a long, 15-mile stretch packed with resorts, from luxurious all-inclusive options to boutique hotels and budget-friendly choices. Many cater to specific interests, like family vacations, romantic getaways, or spring break revelry.

Vibrant nightlife

Cancún comes alive after dark, with nightclubs, bars, and restaurants offering live music, DJs, and dancing until the early hours. The Party Zone in Punta Cancún is the epicenter of the nightlife scene.

Day trips

No visit to Cancún is complete without a visit to the world-famous archaeological site of Chichén Itzá. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for history and culture buffs, as dozens of other amazing archaeological sites are just a stone’s throw away.

In 2020, Chichén Itzá became Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, surpassing even Teotihuacán near Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Delicious cuisine

Cancun’s culinary scene fuses Mayan, Mexican, and international influences. Fresh seafood, traditional dishes like cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), and mouthwatering street tacos are readily available at competitive prices.

Chichén Itzá may be the most famous of all Maya ruins, but archaeological remains of this grand civilization can even be spotted on Cancún’s sandy beaches. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Cheap flights

Cancún’s international airport receives a whopping 500-plus flights daily, many of which are operated by low-cost airlines based in The United States, Canada, and México. At relatively low prices, several daily flights from European destinations, including Frankfurt, London, and Paris, do not hurt either. 

Aside from flights, Cancún has an extensive transportation infrastructure, including world-class highways, bus routes, and now the Tren Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Other nearby destinations

As popular as Cancún is, it is not the only player on Mexico´s Caribbean coast. Visitors also venture south to other massive resort communities like Playa del Carmen and Tulum — and even destinations further to Bacalar and Mahaual. 

Sunsets on Bacalar’s famous seven-color lagoon are some of the most beautiful in the world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This is not to say that Cancún has no room for improvement. Over the past 10 years, several instances of organized crime groups have indiscriminately opened fire at victims. While most, but not all, of these incidents have happened outside the hotel zone, Méxican authorities have responded with the country’s military to help maintain peace.  

Cancún’s airport seems perpetually full to the brim, so make sure to get there early. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Now that the Tren Maya has begun operations, visitors to Cancún also have the option to hop on a train and visit the colonial cities of Valladolid, Mérida, and Valladolid, and more remote areas of the country like Tabasco and Chiapas — with even more stations to open over the next year or so. 

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