I am always asked, “when will an airport be built to service the Costa Maya/Mahahual area”, and my answer has always been, probably never! It just never seemed realistic, given that even if the entire town of Mahahual is filled, it still nowhere near the needed population to justify the cost of an airport. Over the years, we’ve heard lots of local chatter about an expansion or relocation of the Chetumal airport, but to be honest, I just put those discussions in the same file as the proposed bridge from Xcalak to Chetumal, a second cruise ship port in Mahahual, a light rail to Cancun and the legend of Big Foot. None seemed all that likely to really show up in my lifetime. Seems I was wrong though. No, they didn’t find Big Foot, but it does appear that Mexico has much bigger plans for Costa Maya, and all revolve around the Chetumal airport as a central hub for southern Quintana Roo tourism.
It might be good to first define for some what the Costa Maya actually is. The state of Quintana Roo, Mexico’s only Caribbean state, is divided, for tourism purposes, into three zones. The northern zone is the Riviera Maya and extends from Cancun to Tulum. The central portion is called Zona Maya, and is home to archaeological sites and a mostly undeveloped, diamond in the rough bio reserve area called Sian Kaan. The southern third is the Costa Maya, 4-5 hours from the Cancun airport, and includes Mahahual, its cruise ship port Puerto Costa Maya, as well as the Bacalar jungle lagoon system, its own archaeological sites, the capital city of Chetumal and the entry into Belize. That is a lot of cool places!
Chetumal airport actually received it’s international designation a few years ago, but the facility needed upgrading in order to accommodate the size of jets the carriers need to use in order to make profits. The result that we saw here was that nothing changed, and the airport continued to only host one or two regional carrier flights a day from Mexico City. The international designation was simply the first step in the process to justify the search for budget funds needed to upgrade the existing airport, or to find a suitable replacement area. Most of us figured neither would ever happen. After all, Mahahual only has a few hundred hotel rooms. You can’t build an airport to service a few hundred rooms, right?
Regardless of what I thought though, the chatter immediately moved to the idea that the existing airport could not be expanded to allow needed runway area for larger jets, so everyone began to speculate where a new airport might be built. While we were all guessing and chattering, the Government and the local airport owners, began to look at the most reasonable idea, which was of course to just upgrade the existing facility. As it turns out, the Chetumal airport could be expanded to accommodate the larger jets, it just needed land that had been granted to native tribes, called “ejidos,” for runway expansion. The ejido had been granted the land decades ago via an old method of possession ownership, that left the land vulnerable to a government process, similar to eminent domain in the US, should they ever need it. The existing airport was also built partly on the tribal lands and that process had been done many years ago to allow that. The ejido was still being paid for that property when the expansion came about, so the arrangement needed to be amended to reflect the additional property’s current value. That process, and the payment arrangements are still ongoing, and the current ejido owners are of course not happy, but there is little they can do, except negotiate the best deal they can, and they are currently doing that. That process is in the final stages now, far enough along for the work to have begun on the runway extension, as well as the terminal expansion and immigration/customs areas. I have not heard the completion date, but from the pace of work I am seeing, it should be done sometime next year.
So what does the airport expansion mean to Costa Maya and why is the government investing all that money for such a small area? Because the plan is to use Chetumal as the hub, both hotel and air, for tourists from other parts of Mexico, as well as international travelers. The hope is that Chetumal will become the hotel destination for visitors wanting to see the entire region. No reason you can’t wake up at the recently built Fiesta Americana in Chetumal for example, jump in a transport, and enjoy a day on the beach in Mahahual or its huge new water park, and still return to the same hotel in the evening for dinner. Same for day trips to Bacalar, casino gambling and shows in Belize, water taxi service to San Pedro, as well as archaeological sites and the Sian Kaan Bio Reserve. No, Mahahual does not have the carrying capacity to justify an airport. But if you combine the entire area, and you go after the domestic market that has existing carriers servicing large cities like Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, then yes, the area’s tourist attractions then can bring the needed volume to justify the expense of an airport. Already one additional national carrier has committed flights into Chetumal, and with the larger runway opening, there will be many more and some will be US carriers of course. The number will I assume be based on demand, and like I said, there is a lot of cool stuff in southern Quintana Roo.
For a revenue strapped government, Mexico’s wise use of its investment dollars in tourism always seems to impress me with the slow, but steady progress it produces. In the development of Costa Maya, they first invested in a road and infrastructure into a remote area. They then joint ventured a port project with a private developer, and financed the building of a new and modern small city, Mahahual a few years later. As that has grown, it is now time to connect it to the regional destinations of the area; Chetumal, the Bacalar lagoon system, Belize and the jungle and archaeological sites that are everywhere in the area. It has taken 15 years to get to this point, and given the economic constraints Mexico works under, the progress is impressive. The Government never seems to have enough money to do things as fast as some of us would like, but then again, what government does. The new airport expansion, and the resulting future development of tourism in Costa Maya it will produce, are just more examples of timely and well spent money. Good work Mexico!
Una vez más, buen trabajo México!!