“If you practice diving, this is the place to do it,” said Ana Mari Irabien, public relations representative for the Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort, referring to the high number of tourists who enjoy diving deep into the Riviera Maya’s many cenotes and underground rivers.
The Riviera Maya, stretching 120 kilometres along the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, from just south of Puerto Morelos to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, is Mexico’s newest tourism area – and one that’s commonly misunderstood by potential visitors, said Irabien.
PAX is currently on location in Playa del Carmen at Grand Velas to not only learn about the latest offerings at the resort, but also to discover what makes the region unique.
Irabien said travellers might think the Riviera Maya is a town or city, but it is actually a large region that encompasses several key tourism destinations, including Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
That confusion makes it all the more important for travel professionals to be well informed about the area, which was the top choice for Canadians travelling to Mexico in 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available. The more than 730,000 Canadians who arrived in the Riviera Maya in 2014 represented more than half of all Canadian tourist visits to Mexico for the year.
As indicated by the area’s name, the chance to experience Mayan culture is a key highlight.
“Mayan culture did not disappear,” Irabien said, noting that local families still speak the Mayan language and children’s use of indigenous languages in school is protected by law. Tourism initiatives include visits to Mayan villages as well as ancient sites like Tulum, Coba and Muyil.
Golf is another highlight, with courses designed by golf pros Greg Norman and Nick Price, among other top names. Fans of the beach can take heart -- while the region faced a seaweed problem for much of last year, the natural patterns have shifted, and the beaches have been clear for two months.
But for active tourism, the area may be best known for its snorkelling and diving, including at the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in size – and through unique waterways.
PAX toured some of the underground rivers at Xplor Park, which is a short drive from the Grand Velas and a popular excursion for the resort’s guests. After starting the day with a dose of adrenaline on the zipline course, we swam and paddled through caves lined with stalactites and stalagmites (icicle-shaped formations that hang from the ceiling of a cave) formed over millions of years by water dripping through limestone.
While 80 per cent of the hotels in the Riviera Maya are small, boutique properties, their room count represents only 20 per cent of the area’s inventory. The vast majority of the area’s nearly 43,000 hotel rooms are found in the larger, all-inclusive resorts.
Irabien noted, though, that the area is becoming known as a luxury destination, and has hosted the International Luxury Travel Market for five consecutive years. Government regulations implemented to protect the area’s mangroves have made the land significantly more expensive, which makes luxury properties a most logical investment for developers. The Grand Velas property itself is located on a 205-acre property that retains extensive mangroves and a reforested jungle area, home to a diverse population of wildlife.
Most of those luxury properties operate on the European plan, but the Grand Velas Riviera Maya is all-inclusive, with dining at the resort’s six specialty restaurants available to all guests with no additional fees – including Cocina de Autor, the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant at an all-inclusive hotel.
“There is a misconception that all-inclusive has to be cheap and massive,” Irabien said. “We felt you can have an all-inclusive with all the luxury guests deserve.”
Stay tuned to PAX this week for more details of our stay at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, including the latest developments from the spa to the restaurants to the offerings for kids.