Mexico has been a destination for tourist seeking sun and fun for decades. Some areas have risen in popularity and then fallen and others have maintained the level of tourism and popularity. What can Playa Del Carmen learn from other resort towns to help it succeed and continue on a good path?
Everyone that loves to visit Playa or already lives here wants it to stay the same or be better. This is where it is interesting to compare Playa Del Carmen to other cities to see how we are doing. We have been traveling around Mexico to find out the answer to this question. We looked at Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán to see what they have done right and what has not worked for them.
The city of Cancun was a forerunner to Playa Del Carmen. It is just up the coast about 45 minutes to the north. It was here where tourism was born for the Riviera Maya. Cancun has been growing for 40+ years now. So what has Cancun done that is good and what is bad about it?
Cancun has been able to fill hotels and maintain the level of tourist for some time. It has created a name that is known globally and when new flight routes are started, tourist are lined up to start coming because they know the name and reputation.
Cancun has a good airport with global connections. There were nearly 16 million people arriving last year to the airport.
Cancun renovated it’s large hotels and keeps it fresh for visitors. Different shows, discos and is now attracting more TV awards shows and big name concerts.
Of the three cities we looked at, Cancun has the best public transportation system. Frequent air conditioned busses roll from the hotel zone to the downtown and around town. Compared to other countries they might not be the best, but they are decent by Mexican standards.
Cancun has developed the Hotel Zone to look like a tropical paradise without the lower class development. This makes it a beautiful area for tourist.
Cancun developed in such a way that tourist are separated from the city and the divide continues. The entire city does not enjoy the prosperity and the effect has left the downtown not much of a tourist attraction. It also drives prices in the Hotel Zone to be all tourist prices, which are much higher then what normal local prices are. This can eventually be off-putting to people because the overall price of a vacation is inflated by paying tourist prices all the time. Just try to find a good Mexican restaurant with local prices in the Hotel Zone. Some people actually live in the Hotel Zone and you can read about what is like in our article.
Cancun is known for many things but some of the first things that come to mind is spring break and all inclusive hotels. These things bring money to the city but it does have a downside. People coming for spring break only spend about half of what other tourist spend and the conduct of such visitors can create a bad image for the city and worried parents back home. Having all inclusive hotels leaves out small businesses and the scale of the city and beach is one large hotel after another without the small scale charm that some seek.
Puerto Vallarta was more of an access port to the interior towns in the countryside for years. It was the mining that was important there. It was not until 1962 that the first flight route from Los Angeles was available. This brought movie stars and filming of movies which really helped put Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination. So for some 50 years people have been visiting Vallarta and enjoying its beaches. Puerto Vallarta has maintained tourism because it offers a charming location and is easily accessible from the west coast of the United States and Canada.
What has Puerto Vallarta done right? Puerto Vallarta has kept the charm of the old and added new. There is an entire area of the city that is called Nuevo Vallarta where most of the large all inclusive hotels are and the old town still has cobble stone streets and older buildings. It has not forgotten that it is Mexican but also caters to an international crowd and offers modern hotels at all budget levels.
Puerto Vallarta has invested a lot into making the main avenues maintained with palm trees and ground plantings. This makes driving around town nice and makes you feel that you are in a nice tropical destination that cares about how it looks.
Puerto Vallarta also has invested a lot in public art. In fact it is famous for its statues along the sea walk and are photographed as icons of the city. Not only is public art adding to the culture of the city it makes it much more interesting for tourist. Puerto Vallarta has not left it up to stores to place bronze sculptures outside of it’s stores as a tourist attraction but added public art through the city.
Puerto Vallarta is walkable. More the old town but the Malcon sea walk is a grand promenade for tourist to walk ad enjoy the ocean air as well as visit businesses.
Puerto Vallarta has reused its housing stock and not fallen into the Mexican idea to build lots of little concrete box houses as new neighborhoods for residents.
Puerto Vallarta also has both iconic restaurants where memories are made and people return year after year. One famous breakfast place has been serving up breakfast for over 20 years now and making memories for people each time they visit. Having some familiarity is nice for people. In order to have long running business there has to be a business friendly environment. This includes having affordable rents for spaces and also keep smaller spaces for young entrepreneurs.
Mention Puerto Vallarta and “Chic” does not really come to mind. It is nice but some of the trendy upmarket crowd does not have a wide selection of new places.
Remember the beach is the main product you are selling and without it you start to loose your tourist. Due to the fact the city is at the foot of hills, there are rivers and rain flow into the ocean. Some of these streams can get a little trashy. The beach clubs do spread out awfully close to the ocean. It does not leave space for people to spread out on their own of see the beach that much in places. There are a lot of sellers on the beach. It can be nice that everything from fish on a stick to beaded necklaces are offered to you while lounging but this can get old after a while and cheapen the beach area.
Taxis are not metered and charge high rates. The good thing is there is bus service that is very affordable but the bad thing is, it is not air-conditioned and the coble stone streets offer a very bumpy and winding way around town. Most busses are old US school busses as well which are not the most comfortable or environmentally friendly.
Mazatlán is on the pacific coast of Mexico about 7 hours north of Puerto Vallarta. It was a popular destination because it had a beach, an old town, some history, and a hotel area called the Golden Zone. It has been in decline though to the point where cruises stopped going there. The drug violence a couple years back really drove tourism away and the city started to get dirtier and did not move forward.
As mentioned above the city got out of control with drug violence. This severally hurt the tourist sector.
Mazatlán has not invested in itself. The old historic center remains the same over the years with some people striving to keep old restored buildings with businesses going while other historic buildings lay in ruin. For years the main market that was once a produce and tourist market has been neglected. Buildings along the beach have even stopped in construction or left empty.
The areas where tourist would go are some of the better areas of the city and there has not been too much wealth created for its citizens. Most of the city has been left to developers to create neighborhoods of identical housing for low income residents. These areas only deteriorate after a few years. These types of neighborhoods might seem like a good idea for residents but in the long run then only keep people impoverished.
Have trash to throw out? It is hard to find trash cans in Mazatlán. This has created a culture of people throwing and stuffing trash anywhere they see fit. This leads to the city looking trashy.
Mazatlán does have unique cars that are used as taxis. They are called pulmonías. Having these modified VW cars driving around makes Mazatlán unique.
In the Golden Zone which is for tourist there are some new upscale housing developments that are trying to attract investors and retires to move to Mazatlán.
So what can Playa Del Carmen learn from these cities?
You have to keep it unique. Don’t become a destination where people walk around and go from Starbucks to Senor Frogs and only leave money in corporate pockets. Leave space for individual businesses and entrepreneurs to make Playa and unique place to visit. Don’t make Playa look like every Caribbean port of call for tourist.
Keep the beach in good shape and remember it is the main product. Playa needs to maintain and continue to work on infrastructure to keep the ocean waters clean. This can mean public education so everyone works on this. We have upscale beach clubs and places where you can take a towel and lay down. Lets keep the variety so everyone can use the beach without being crowded out.
Don’t race to the bottom to squeeze out all the tourist dollars. Lowering prices to get the cheaper tourist because less people are coming either because it is less popular or less beautiful. Keeping it mixed with both upscale and lower end can make for a wide range of tourist. Having a vibrant upscale tourist market can bring in better paying jobs and international recognition for Playa Del Carmen. It can also be less stress on the city by having less people for the same amount of money spent.
Have good public transportation. Right now most tourist stay in the center of Playa without the need for public transportation but as the city grows there will be a need for better busses, bus routes and bus maps. Hopefully ADO will have earlier and later access directly from the Cancun airport to Playa Del Carmen. We are close to the airport but it still is 45 minutes away so we need service for all the flights that people take in and out of the area.
We do have some dedicated bike lanes like Puerto Vallarta and this does take stress off the traffic in the streets. Continuing to promote scooters by adding parking for them and bike lanes will further add to the ease of flow in the city.
Make sure the city grows together as one and not divided between tourism and locals. Everyone should enjoy the prosperity and the natural resources of the area. Make all of Playa beautiful and an attraction.
Make neighborhoods that are going to last and improve. Having gated communities everywhere and neighborhoods that look nice when built but then deteriorate is not going to make Playa Del Carmen a great city.
Keep traditions, some things old and also accept the new. There is a balance that needs to be taken here and a little hard because Playa is a new city.
Government will need to be focused on keeping the city clean. This can mean standards of international levels since Playa Del Carmen is an international destination.
Keep Playa Del Carmen beautiful by adding more trees and making up proud to live here with nice avenues.
Keep promoting the arts in Playa. We have wonderful new murals and the sculpture in Parque Fundadores which certainly adds to the city. No one ever says there is too much art in s city though.
We all love Playa Del Carmen and want to see the best for it. Lets hope all the powers that be learn from other resort towns in Mexico so we can continue to grow at a sustainable level and get better for everyone. We all can do a small part by being more environmentally aware while here on vacation or living here, going to good small businesses and by spending money there, by doing so we say that we enjoy their uniqueness, rent or ride a bike in town, and mention all the things you like about Playa online so officials will take note.