I first visited Tulum, Mexico in 2006 with a friend. We ate cheap carne asada from street vendors, spent hours in the crystal-clear sea with no tourist in sight and booked a bungalow on the uncrowded beach for $15 a night. There was no electricity after 4 pm, and the bungalow was huge, rustic, and came with an outdoor hammock. We literally slept under the stars. At the time, there was no new development in Tulum, or had there been for years.
This was the Tulum I knew. There was something magical here, not because it was off the radar and removed from the beaten path, but it felt like a time warp to authentic Mexican beach town pre-tourism. We didn’t have internet, there were no chain hotels (only small bed and breakfasts and bungalows), no tourists and, most unique to me, a cool, hip community of travelers that prioritized wellness, astronomy, meditation, bohemianism and nature.
Tulum was incredibly “authentic” — but in the past 5 years, the word “authentic” in travel has become a buzzword that’s become a magnet to mass crowds. At the heigh of social media influencers, “authentic” was reduced to a hashtag that inadvertently made unknown destinations mainstream, and Tulum was a casualty.
In 2018, Tulum was voted No. 1 dream destination for millennials (ten years after not a soul knew about the destination), and now, with new, never-before-seen new development coming in Tulum, the “authentic” beach town is most likely officially over.
The transformation of Tulum
Tulum, Mexico has been a long-standing hideaway for holistic-minded, bohemian travelers and young backpackers. Loved for its yoga and spiritual retreats, bare-boned amenities, lack of crowds and $15/night bungalows one could rent on the beach, Tulum is now a party beach town where jetsetters and influencers flock to in droves, changing the dynamic of Tulum.
We can’t fully blame the rich young millennials invading the destination to take videos for their social media feeds and glamorizing the destination. In 2017, the world’s best restaurant NOMA did a pop-up dinner for $300 a plate, and tech companies held company retreats here.
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It was apparent Tulum was attracting a different kind of traveler, those who spent more time framing great backdrops rather than immersing in the destination’s culture. The influx of content creators/influencers/well heeled young travelers raised prices, and they partied in a beach town known for healing, meditation and self awareness. They were erasing the meaning of “authentic,” and Tulum was losing all its luster.
This past May, Dream Hotel Group, known for its swank and celebrity-magnet hotels like The Chatwal in NY, announced it would be opening three hotels in Tulum by 2022. Just this past week, Kimpton Hotels announced the opening of Kimpton Aluna Hotel in Tulum, the brand’s first Mexico property — which happens to be the destination’s very first U.S. hotel and chain hotel to open in the area.
Are the opening of these hotels bad? Not necessarily. Generally, hotels find ways to adapt and integrate in a destination, but these hotel openings signal a new direction. Usually when a large-chain, name-brand hotel opens for the first time in a destination, you know that destination will be forever changed and no longer have the same feeling it did when there were no chain hotels. It’s happened in many places around the world (Palm Springs, Key West, even Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
For decades, locals have fought to preserve Tulum, fending off corporations and uncontrolled development. It’s why Tulum has remained authentic, how travelers can feel connected to the heart and soul of Tulum when they visit. Corporations attract other corporations, and they don’t make money with their developments unless they have visitors. Lots of them. This means that Tulum will be less “authentic” since the type of visitors who will arrive won’t necessarily be the ones who made Tulum so special.
For backpackers (who are the travelers who actually “discover” a destination first before corporations break ground), Tulum lost its authenticity when the social media influencers arrived. With new developments (aside from the different kind of travelers arriving), Tulum will radically change soon.
The biggest sign Tulum is officially over
New York magazine covered the fall of Tulum in a well reported story, revealing the destination was at the brink of corporate takeover and change. However, the story came out in 2019, before the hotel developments were announced, so it didn’t capture the new wave of gentrification marked by U.S. hotel development, one of the biggest indicators change will inevitably come.
These two U.S. chain hotels opening in Tulum will likely trigger a trend of more corporations settling in the area — but the real nail in the coffin is the luxury airport opening in Tulum by 2023.
The new airport will have a luxury terminal for private jets, as well as a regular terminal for all travelers. The airport will significantly cut the 4-hour travel time from Cancun International Airport, meaning more travelers will visit Tulum in record numbers. Once the airport opens, Tulum will be forever changed — though locals and hardcore visitors already saw the signs with the influencers.
Will I return to Tulum, Mexico? Maybe, but I know it won’t be the Tulum I once knew. I just hope the new generation of visitors will try to keep it as special as I knew it, and that the new development in Tulum isn’t drastic.
This story was originally published December 8, 2020.
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