Mexico's next frontier 

Five-star resorts are taking shape north of Cancun

click to flip through (5) PHOTO COURTESY OF RIU DUNAMAR
  • Photo courtesy of Riu Dunamar

A skinny little slice of land about 40 minutes north of Cancun is just 20 kilometres long and 850 metres at its widest part. To its left is the Chacmuchuc lagoon with its mangroves and a splendid reputation for flyfishing and angling. To its right are those mesmerizing hues of the Caribbean, which transition from veridian to turquoise. At its most northern point, the peninsula ends as the sandy beach slips into the Gulf of Mexico.

This sliver of land, referred to as the Isla Blanca region—or as Costa Mujeres—is undergoing a transformation. The Spanish hotel group Riu has just opened its Riu Dunamar, a contemporary five-storey all-inclusive luxury hotel of 740 rooms set on a 16-hectare site. What was formerly a swath of tropical forest with a hideaway beach bar and a few homes tucked away in the jungle now is transforming into the envy of the beach crowd as the Dunamar hotel, newly opened in late 2017, is packing in the tourists.

Can you ever have enough hotels on the beach? Apparently not. Next to this hotel is another under construction: the Dunamar's sister hotel, the 640-room Riu Palace, which is scheduled to open in November this year. The word from local hoteliers is that all the property on this peninsula has been snapped up and is slated for development. Within two or three years, this will be the new Cancun for planeloads of sun-starved Canadians—Mexico's second-largest source market—plus tourists from typical markets such as the U.K., Germany, and the U.S.

Amid fluctuations in year over year tourist numbers due to factors such as hurricanes and the August 2017 warning issued by the U.S. State Department for those considering travel to Mexico, the numbers regularly bounce back to a level that earns Mexico about US$20 billion each year.

It means that visitors continue to book their yearly hit of sunshine, with the five-star food and service and, most importantly, the sprawling white beaches that fuel Mexico's ranking as the eighth-most-popular tourist destination in the world.

Almost every other beach resort area in Mexico began as a fishing village—or near one—that was developed into a mecca for those seeking the sun: Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun among them. For the past 40-plus years, these areas have played host to millions because the all-inclusive vacation model has made sun and sand affordable for twentysomethings, families and retirees. What began early on with limited breakfast buffets, mediocre accommodations and one swimming pool has evolved into five-star pampering with spas, gyms, signature cuisine, champagne and several onsite pools, swim-up bars, Jet Skis and excursions.

The all-inclusive model typically includes a water park for kids and a club where they can be entertained all day while parents work on their tans. It's all-day buffets with ice-cream bars—aside from Riu Dunamar's five dining restaurants that do not require a reservation. Hoteliers understand that vacationers don't want to work: walk up to the restaurant for dinner; stroll along the beach and rent a Hobie cat or kayak; or sign up for a trip via Sunwing Experiences for a catamaran to Isla Mujeres.

The formula has worked so well, for example, that carrier Sunwing now flies from 19 Canadian gateways to Cancun, among its many sun destinations. And traditional sources of tourists—notably the U.S., Canada and Europe—will eventually be eclipsed by the increasing numbers of them travelling from Latin America, Asia and the newest visitors on the scene: Russians.

Which only goes to prove the riff on author W.P. Kinsella's prescient line: If you build it, they will come.


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