Meagan Drillinger
Meagan Drillinger

There is no Cancun without Erika Mitzunaga, and there is no Erika Mitzunaga without Cancun. After more than 30 years living and breathing Cancun tourism, Mitzunaga, destination architect, industry pioneer and most recently serving as public relations and communication director for the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach all-inclusive, is retiring at the end of January, exactly 33 years after she accepted her first role at the resort. 

Those of us who have had the privilege to work with Mitzunaga know how passionate she is about Cancun, and how her remarkable decades of service to the destination have helped play a pivotal role in it becoming the No. 1 tourist destination in Mexico.

Mitzunaga has called Cancun home since the 1970s, the decade when the destination was selected by the Mexican government to be developed for tourism. She is taking with her more than 50 years of memories, as she watched Cancun grow from the ground up. What she leaves behind is an indelible mark on Mexico's ever-growing tourism landscape.

Who better to ask about Cancun's past, present and future than the woman who literally grew up with it?

In the beginning

"In 1972, my father assumed the role of resident architect for the construction of Cancun International Airport, now the most well-connected airport in the country," she said. "In 1976, my family and I arrived when part of the slender Cancun Island had already been expanded, connected by the bridge we locals still fondly refer to as the Calinda Bridge. At the age of 12, I had the privilege of witnessing and growing up alongside the development of this remarkable tourist haven."

Cancun originated as a financial initiative in the 1970s, conceived to generate much-needed revenue for the Mexican government and support the national industry. The ambitious goal was to establish an unprecedented global tourist destination.

"In the 1970s, Cancun bore resemblance to nascent tourist destinations, attracting intrepid travelers who sought accommodations in the small hotels of Puerto Juarez, now the location of the ferry to Isla Mujeres," Mitzunaga said. "Toward the end of the '70s, iconic hotels like El Presidente (now Presidente Intercontinental), El Camino Real (now Hyatt Ziva) and Cancun Caribe Hotel (now another Hyatt property) were erected, marking the city's evolution."

By 1981, Cancun had nearly 2,500 hotel rooms, with major international markets including New York, Florida and Texas. The dominant market, however, was still the national market.

For Mitzunaga, however, who was not even a teenager yet, her fondest memories of early Cancun were of climbing immense sand dunes to reach the beach, enjoying the cool nights and relishing the sense of security in this youthful city, "where walking home from the Hotel Zone was the norm," she said. 

As Mitzunaga was growing up, so too was Cancun. After spending a year in junior high school in Canada, in 1981 Mitzunaga returned to Cancun, where she took a job as an assistant to the owner of Plaza Caracol, the first shopping plaza in Cancun. That same year, Cancun took center stage as it hosted the North-South Summit, featuring a guest list of heavy hitters like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Pierre Trudeau, Jose Lopez Portillo, Indira Gandhi and Kurt Waldheim. 

"This event spurred significant infrastructure developments, including the expansion of Kukulkan Boulevard with an additional lane and extended kilometers to connect the Hotel Zone to the airport directly," Mitzunaga said. "Previously, the airport was only accessible through the city. The heightened visibility propelled Cancun into a prominent global position."

Growing up with Cancun

Mitzunaga has seen Cancun through its most important growth spurts, like the conversion to a predominantly all-inclusive model and the development of what is now the Riviera Maya.

"The most significant transformation, in my view, unfolded gradually with the shift from initially European plan hotels, which did not include meals, to the emergence of all-inclusive accommodations," she said. "This shift had a profound impact on the distribution of tourist expenditures, with a current concentration within the hotels, diverting less towards local businesses."

She added that another pivotal change happened in the '90s with the construction of the Cancun-Tulum highway, catalyzing the development of what has become the Riviera Maya.

Her path to tourism

Mitzunaga never intended to work in tourism. She pursued a degree in International Affairs at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. After completing her studies and embarking on a four-month journey through Europe, she says she experienced a profound sense of loneliness that led her back to her parents' home in Cancun.

"In Cancun, where job opportunities beyond hotels, parks and restaurants are scarce, a compelling prospect emerged with the opening of the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach," she said. 

The then-PR manager, Naomi Saito, was seeking someone to assist in the extensive activities. Mitzunaga was hired in January 1991, which launched her professional journey into public relations.

In 1996, the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) was established, marking a milestone and providing institutional support for destination promotion. In 2008, Mitzunaga left her position at the Grand Fiesta Americana to work with the CVB as the public relations manager, organizing noteworthy events, such as hosting Miss Spain in Cancun and orchestrating Travel Blog Exchange in 2014.

"It was a role I very much enjoyed," she said. But after six years away from Coral Beach, she decided to return "home" as director of public relations in 2015. 

A future of evolution and growth

No matter how many milestones we reach, or accomplishments we can tuck under our belts, growth and evolution continue to be part of our stories. Cancun received more than 20 million visitors in 2023 to its more than 120,000 hotel rooms. It is certainly an industry giant, but that does not mean it does not have room to evolve.

Cancun's Hotel Zone may be nearly 100 percent developed, however, to the north in Costa Mujeres, there are important investments, and an additional 3,000 hotel rooms are being built. A bridge crossing the Nichupte Lagoon will reduce traffic, and the Maya Train stations are starting to open with the goal to motivate visitors to explore the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. The Tulum airport will certainly help generate more tourism for the south of the state, as well. 

"Numerous hotels in Cancun are embracing inclusivity, with hoteliers enrolling in courses to cater to emerging market niches," Mitzunaga said. "From my perspective, sustainability stands out as a crucial opportunity. While many hotel chains and nonprofit organizations are making efforts, there appears to be ample room for improvement in this realm. The current market demand not only revolves around environmental considerations, but also extends to the social aspect. The community seeks enhanced recreational spaces, top-tier healthcare facilities, improved street lighting and increased investment in public safety."

Mitzunaga's journey is far from over, too. Following her retirement from the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, she plans to return to the classroom to teach sales and marketing at the Universidad del Caribe.

'I feel part of Cancun's history'

With Cancun growing faster than ever, it's sometimes difficult to remember where it started and why the industry fell in love with it in the first place. Mitzunaga reflects daily on the city she has called home, with which she has had a symbiotic relationship for more than 50 years.

"Having traveled to over 50 countries, I can confidently say that I've never encountered beaches more enchanting than those in Quintana Roo .... The hues of the ocean are not merely aqua green; they manifest as intense blues, captivating turquoise and gentle light blues -- a vibrant symphony associated with the depths, sea grass and the pristine sand," she said. "When you factor in the rich heritage of one of the most significant pre-Hispanic cultures and the myriad recreational activities offered by the destination, it's easy to overlook the fact that we inhabit a little bit of paradise."

Mitzunaga is admittedly a person who doesn't like going to the beach. But being able to see the sea every morning resonates with her on every level.

Pulling a line from her biography on LinkedIn says it best: "I am an internationalist by profession and dedicated to tourism by conviction, in love with our people and culture, it is through tourism and spreading stories supported by specialized media that I have contributed to this beautiful destination, both from the hotel industry and from the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Cancun."

"I feel part of Cancun's history," she said. "I am a pioneer. I grew up with Cancun, and it is something I treasure very much."

For all of us who have had the pleasure of working with her over the past three decades, we recognize the amazing contributions she has made to our industry. To her, we say thank you and that we treasure you very much, as well.


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