Mayan ‘end of the world’ poses rare travel marketing prospect

By Gay Nagle Myers

Where will you be on 12/21/2012?

It’s an important day if one is to believe the doom-sayers. In fact, it could well be the last day, in the highly unlikely event that their dire prophecies prove true and the end of the world really does coincide with the winter solstice on Dec. 21.

Armageddon? Apocalypse? Hype? Just plain foolishness? Yes indeed! — and a once-in-a-lifetime tourism marketing opportunity to boot.

CancunMayaMuseumThe 5,125-year-old Mayan calendar, also known as the Long Count calendar, begins in 3114 B.C. and ends, of course, on 12/21/2012.

Here’s the thing: The Mayans themselves aren’t buying into theories that the end of their calendar means that the time’s up for our planet. But neither are they about to squander the many tourism opportunities presented by predictions that they clearly consider nonsense.

In fact, most Mayans are pretty excited about the “new beginning” and the “transition,” as they call the day.

Planning for 12/21 has been in the works for more than a year, and the tourists are coming from every corner of the globe — not to witness the obliteration of the world so much as to take part in the celebrations of historical and religious sites, customs, traditions and rituals to mark the end of the Mayan cycle of time.

Visitors have been arriving all year, but don’t worry if you missed all the fun up until now. There are plenty more parties and fireworks planned for this month — and the Mexican Mayans know how to throw a party, as do resorts up and down Mexico’s Caribbean coast from Cancun to Tulum.

So even if the world were to end on 12/21, at least it would go out with a party to end all parties. Literally.

In fact, celebrations and observances aren’t limited to just that coast or the Yucatan region now tagged as Mundo Maya (Mayan World). They are also taking place throughout much of Mexico and Central America that day.

The five southeastern states comprising the ancient world of the Maya are Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, home to Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Feasting on the frenzy, tour companies, tourist boards, attractions and hotels have rolled out all manner of Maya-themed packages, events, festivals and excursions, from seaside meditation classes to stargazing at a Mayan observatory and rappelling while dropping seeds in the forests of Quintana Roo to leave a mark on the earth.

Xcaret, Cancun’s eco-archaeological park, offers a special nightly show called Xcaret Mexico Espectacular through Dec. 21 to commemorate the Mayan culture.

On the big day itself, visitors will watch the freeing of 104 macaws into the sky. The birds are significant to the Mayans because they represent the sun in the Mayan culture.

The Mayan calendar is a bit more complicated than our at-a-glance desk calendars, wall calendars or mobile devices we use to mark off each day of the year.

Mayan Wedding CeremoniesThe Mayan version is based on a 20-day cycle in 394 increments known as baktuns. Dec. 21 marks the end of 13 baktuns and the conclusion of a key cycle of time.

But the Mayans insist the end of the cycle does not mean the end of the world.

That doesn’t dissuade goofball theorists from attributing whatever meaning they want to the Mayan calendar, which is carved into heavy stone stelae inscribed with intricate symbols that are indecipherable to anyone but scholars, astrologers and the Mayan people themselves.

And what those who can read the calendar say is that on Dec. 22, a new 5,125-year Mayan calendar starts marking time once more in baktuns. It’s simply the Mayan version of out with the old, in with the new.

Early on, the Mexico Tourism Board forecasted an onslaught of visitors to the Mayan region this year: more than 50 million domestic and international arrivals, according to one estimate.

The biggest draw, of course, are the archaeological sites, ranging from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan (1.2 million tourists a year) to lesser-known sites such as La Ruinas, a small campground near Playa del Carmen with a couple of temple structures.

Cancun timed the recent opening of the $15 million Cancun Maya Museum to coincide with the 12/21/2012 events.

Designed to promote the region’s Mayan culture and roots, the structure took six years to build and features 350 artifacts and relics, including an exhibit of 14,000-year-old skeletal remains discovered in the last 12 years in Tulum’s cenotes, or underwater caves and pools, believed to have calming and purifying properties.

“The museum comes at a symbolic time for our culture as we bid farewell to one era and welcome another,” said Jesus Almaguer, CEO of the Cancun CVB.

The San Miguelito site, next to the museum, recently opened to visitors. It was inhabited more than 800 years ago until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

A current exhibit at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology explains the Mayan calendar system and concludes “that the end of the world will not be on Dec. 21,” according to Alfonso de Maria y Campos, the museum’s director.

Of the $30 million budgeted by Mexico for advertising and marketing this year, a big chunk was allocated for promotion of the Mayan region and events surrounding the calendar change.

The official countdown began on Dec. 21, 2011, when indigenous people of the region gathered at various sites to dance around sacred fires in preparation for this month’s event.

Maya-related websites have placed countdown clocks on their home pages. There’s even an iPhone app, iMaya, which gives users a way to learn about the various Mayan cycles of time.

Pyramid of Positive ThinkingThe Pyramid of Positive Thoughts, a modern-day structure at Aldea Zama in Tulum built by a local artist, has seen a lot of foot traffic this year. Visitors were invited to place recycled bottles filled with handwritten well-wishes within “the sacred geometry of the pyramid so that the thoughts could become reality,” the artist explained.

For those unable to make the trip, positive thoughts could be submitted via the Pyramid’s official Facebook page.

Hotels rescripted their traditional wedding packages this year to incorporate Mayan ceremonies and rituals performed on the beach by Mayan shamans.

Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, the earth and the moon, reportedly lived on Cozumel. An event in May re-created the Sacred Maya Crossing in which 300 people paddled canoes from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel to pay their respects to Ixchel and to prepare themselves for the calendar change.

With all the special events leading up to the big day, Mexico is clearly expecting to reap big rewards from all this Mayan marketing frenzy.

But even if it doesn’t live up to the hype and hope, it won’t be the end of the world.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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