Chichen Itza Master Plan
Plugging Yucatán into the Tourism Circuit
If Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco has her way, the State of Yucatan will become a series of interlocking circuits of activities for any tourist on any budget, according to a new master plan announced a few weeks ago.
At a banquet held for officials and the press, the Gobernadora’s office unveiled plans not only for Chichen Itza but also for Yucatan State's future tourism, cultural, economic, and educational development, with special emphasis on Merida, Progreso, Izamal, Yaxcaba, and Kaua. The governor and her staff unveiled an ambitious and sweeping vision for a circuit of activities for tourists and locals, including the building of large new attractions, improving the State’s infrastructure to help tourists get between key points, with all activities interwoven with the stated goal of preservation of the Maya language and culture. The plans took a significant step forward with the official announcement of the Plan Maestro Chichén Itzá (Master Plan: "Chichen Itza").
The gathering featured representatives from the federal government, from CULTUR (Patronato de las Unidades de Servicios Culturales y Turísticos) and OMPRI (Organizacion de Mujeres de PRI), as well as representative members from the archaeological, academic, and artistic communities.
Jorge Esma Bazán, Presidente of CULTUR, told the audience in his keynote speech that Yucatan’s tourism projects are part of an integrated plan. Plan Maestro Chichen Itza envisions whisking tourists between the key archaeological sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, then off to the two new planned Maya museums: Museo del Mundo Maya (Museum of the Maya World, in Merida), and the Palacio de la Civilización Maya (Palace of the Maya Civilization), near Chichen Itza in Yaxcaba). Finally, tourists would be given the opportunity to explore the redesigned esplanade under construction in the port city of Progreso, the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, and the natural splendors of Rio Lagartos.
As envisioned, the tourism infrastructure of Yucatan would consist of a series of circuits dedicated to the four inherent features of the peninsula:
- Archaeology circuit: Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, Xcambo, Dzibulchaltun.
- Colonial circuit: Tizimin, Valladolid, Izamal, Mérida, and the haciendas and convents in the area.
- Ecological circuit: Dzitnup, X’Keken, Saci, Balancanche, Cuzama, Ikil, X-canche, and the cenotes around Yaxcaba.
- Coastal circuit: Rio Lagartos, El Cuyo, San Felipe, Telchac Puerto, Dzilam de Bravo, and Progreso.
These circuits have been conceived around the three concepts of profitability, viability and comparability. Profitability would be attempted, but only while at the same time improving the economic and social well-being of the population. Viability signals the intention of assuring that each region benefits from the projects without negatively affecting the environment, culture, society or by draining other resources. Comparability is the final watchword, signaling the planners' intentions to ensure that the benefits and detriments are measurable and that they are measured for consistency over time and geography.
To support these circuits, the vision includes the construction of a series of new tourist attractions, as well as the expansion, promotion and improvement of the existing ones. The project would also improve the infrastructure supporting the tourist attractions in order to easily and quickly move tourists to and from all of Yucatan's current and future attractions. In addition, the state is also proposing creating a series of institutions that will benefit the people of Yucatán culturally, including a University of Maya Language.
New Yucatan Attractions
Palacio de la Civilización Maya in Yaxcaba. This museum is proposed for construction in Yaxcaba, a small village located about ten kilometers from Chichén Itzá. Yaxcaba also happens to be one of the poorest communities in the state. The Palacio will take advantage of existing features of the community, at one end anchored by the town’s cenote, a large freshwater sinkhole that has provided water for the community for centuries. In the plan, a 110-meter white path (sacbe in Maya) will be the architectural element that ties the museum facility together, connecting an entrance plaza with three individual structures. The entrance plaza will be built in a stairstep fashion to evoke the “fragmented structure” of El Castillo, the dominant pyramid at Chichén Itzá. The entrance plaza will house a box office and a reception area for groups. Inside will be a 300-seat IMAX theater and requisite gift shop, as well as a courtyard, an outdoor amphitheater, and a museum section dedicated to the origins of the Maya world. One of the exhibitions will be called “The Treasures of Chichen,” and will exhibit the gold, jade, and other artifacts that have been extracted from Sacred Well.
Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida. The state began construction on a “Museum of the Maya World” in Mérida near the Siglo XXI convention center on December 21, a date whose significance comes from the Maya calendar, which ends on that day in 2012. The museum will exhibit objects of the ancient Maya, including 600-800 artifacts already on exhibit or in storage at the Museo de Antropologia in Merida. There will also be exhibits devoted to other cultures, similar to what is found in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. The museum will be 22,000 square meters (237,000 square feet) and will include exhibition halls, gardens, cafe, a gift shop, and an IMAX theater. Funding for the project is coming from a Proyectos de Prestadores de Servicios (PPS), a private/public partnership. This museum will be the first of its kind in the state of Yucatan.
Tourist Complex in Rio Largartos. The governor’s office released no details regarding this part of the plan, although the Xcaret group, which owns resorts in Quintana Roo, recently announced plans to construct three hotels in Valladolid with the idea of building a series of tours that would include visits to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam.
Expansion of evening programs at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Every night at Chichen Itza, tourists enter the archaeological zone to see a light show projected on the monuments. A similar program had been held at Uxmal, but it was recently stopped due to mechanical issues. Two years ago the state of Yucatan expanded the offerings at Chichen Itza by hosting what has become a series of high-profile concerts of international stars, performing in front of El Castillo. Artists have included Placido Domingo, Sara Brightman, Elton John and, next year will add Paul McCartney to this distinguished list.
A “tourist intelligence” information system. The state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned the idea in a number of speeches. We are unsure if this is an information system to assist tourists or to track them for the benefit of Yucatan tourism.
Promotion of national and international tourism to Yucatán. The state announced plans to launch a “Yucatán 2012” marketing and advertising campaign to take advantage of 2012, the date of the end of the Maya calendar. Again, the state provided no details of this part of the plan, but mentioned it in various speeches.
Purchase of Chichén Itzá. This master plan has been three years in the making. Even before she won election as governor of Yucatan, Ivonne Ortega Pacheco called for a Plan Integral de Chichén Itzá (Chichen Itza Integrated Plan). At World Tourism Day in 2008, she issued a plea to the federal government to help Yucatan build a sustainable tourism industry the same way it built the Cancun resort area from a sparsely populated sand spit in the 1970s.
One area in particular that required “decisive action” from the federal government was Chichen Itza, according to Ortega. “Help us so that the Wonder of the World does not continue to see its environs deforested, it’s water table polluted, and quality of urban development eroded,” she said. As it turned out, the governor did not wait for the federal government, which during her administration has been hamstrung by a weak world economy and more pressing political priorities such as the escalating War on Drugs. Yucatan took matters into its own hands and effected the acquisition of Chichen Itza.
Since the Spanish Conquest, Chichen Itza had been private property. For centuries Hacienda Chichen, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza, was a cattle ranch. In 1894 an American archaeologist, Edward H. Thompson, purchased the hacienda. Thompson explored the ruins of this plantation, which included dredging the giant sinkhole, now known as the Cenote Sagrado, from which he recovered thousands of gold, jade, ceramic, wood and bone artifacts. These were shipped to the United States, to the Carnegie Institute. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Chichen Itza, charging Thompson with theft.
In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had violated no laws and returned the property to his heirs (Thompson had died in 1935). His children sold the hacienda to Yucatan tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon, who more than a decade earlier had built a small hotel, the Mayaland, on property leased from Thompson. The Barbachano family has owned Chichen Itza, including the Mayaland and Hacienda Chichen hotels, ever since.
One of the pieces to Yucatan’s tourism puzzle was ending the private ownership of Chichen Itza land (the monuments already belonged to the federal government). When Yucatan Gov. Ortega Pacheco issued her plea for federal assistance, the Mexican government had already explored taking the Chichen Itza property by expropriation. That tactic had failed, so the governor’s administration took matters into its own hands and this past spring announced that it had reached an agreement with Hans Jurgen Thies Barbachano to purchase the central archaeological zone for $220 million Mexican Pesos. Now, the land and the monuments are owned by the government, and plans for development can go forward.
Infrastructure in the Mayan World
Improvements and remodeling of Chichen Itza International Airport in Kaua. The airport at Kuau, 17 kilometers from Chichen Itza, had been a pet project of the current governor’s uncle, the late Víctor Cervera Pacheco, when he was governor. Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco promises to make this small airport in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula a key element in her transportation strategy and has spent a considerable sum of state funds to improve the airport.
Redesign and renovation of the Malecon in Progreso. Yucatan, despite its extensive coastline, has only one major port, Progreso. While several cruise ship lines already visit the port, the state of Yucatan is looking to increase that traffic and has begun creating a beautiful and elaborate esplanade via massive reconstruction of the Maleconwalkway and the frontage road that runs along the coastline north from the terminal.
Redesign and rebuild roadways to support all parts of the “tourist circuit.” Numerous road projects have been announced and several were recently financed by the Mexican Congress. Other projects, such as infrastructure improvements in the historic city centers of Izamal and Valladolid, were mentioned, but no details were released.
Construction of cross-peninsular trenes rapidos (fast trains). One of the first proposals of the new Ortega Pacheco administration was construction of a “bullet train” across the Yucatán Peninsula, from Mérida to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid, and eventually onto the Maya Riviera in the state of Quintana Roo. Skeptics have dismissed the proposal, and the Mexican Congress has not chosen to finance the dream, but the governor has warned the state legislature that she will be seeking funds to construct the first phase of the train next year. While it will not be a bullet train, such as those in Japan or France, it will be the first regular passenger service train in Yucatán in decades.
Several cultural projects were listed, but no details were released. Among the cultural projects mentioned are:
- Create a Casa de la Cultura del Mundo Maya (House of Culture of the Maya World)
- Promote the foundation of a University of Maya Language
- Impel an alliance between the rural population and the inhabitants of the city of Merida.
How It All Comes Together
The state secretaries of Tourism, Economics, and Education gave addresses on their individual departmental visions of how Plan Maestro Chichen Itza could grow the Yucatan economy, while preserving Yucatan's rich cultural heritage. They proposed ways that their areas of interest would be stimulated and supported by the growth of tourism, driven by extensive Government spending at key sites across Yucatan state. These proposals and visions were well received by the roughly 600 invited guests from the private and government sectors.
Governor Ortega described her views on the future of Yucatan: "Aspiramos a que Chichén Itzá deje de ser sitio de paso para los visitantes y se convierta en el punto de partida de una nueva dinámica turística y también de una nueva lógica productiva en la entidad...” ("We are working towards and hoping for a Chichén Itzá that stops being just a point for visitors to pass through, that becomes the departure point for new tourist dynamics and a new starting point of productivity and profit for the (Yucatan).")
In summary, the Governor articulated her plans for dramatic developments in Yucatan that would rival the investments in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. She envisions that just as it was historically, Chichen Itza would again be the axle and hub of prosperity for the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Her visions include the foundation of a University of the Maya Language to protect and promote Maya culture, a Peninsular bullet train and modernized highway projects linking Chichen Itza with Merida, Progreso, Cancun and the new Palace of the Maya Civilization and the Maya Museum developments. Her proposals were met with hearty applause.
Master Plan: big on ideas, short on details
Governor Ortega and her departmental secretaries certainly provided sweeping projections of what could be built and what could be gained, which leaves unresolved the difficult details of how these grand designs can be funded, how the still-encumbered lands might be acquired, and the construction of vast complexes.
And, of course, the big question is still unanswered: If they build it, will you come?