Got your attention? Good, that’s exactly what Mexico wants. Even if the world doesn’t end (nearly every Maya scholar says a doomsday scenario is hogwash) and even if Mexico isn’t exactly implying it will, the debate and the headlines are tourism gold for the nation, which claimed 22.67 million international arrivals last year and expects visitor numbers in 2012 to be astronomical.
President Felipe Calderon boldly proclaimed last July that the nation would attract 52 million tourists (domestic and international) to southeastern Mexico for the “Year of the Maya” who will spend approximately $23 million.
"Today we are the 10th power for tourism in the world, and we are working hard to be in the top five," he said. "We want the world to know the splendors of the Mayan civilization, with the end goal of positioning Mexico as a privileged and unique touristic destination."
Rodolfo López Negrete Coppel, COO and undersecretary of the Mexico Tourism Board, said that, three months out, the nation is still on target. “All the indicators are very positive,” he claimed.
Yet, to reach that goal, Mexican officials have had to walk a fine line of endorsing the end of the Maya calendar while hinting at the end of the world paranoia and simultaneously denying that it will happen.
“There are some people who take this very seriously,” López Negrete Coppel agreed, “but we do not anticipate any acts of violence or any type of fanatic overreacting.”
Mexican officials have labeled the event the “beginning of a new era,” a catchphrase that’s chipper, upbeat and, like most interpretations of the Maya calendar, cyclical. If any tourists arrive in Mexico this December with survival kits in hand, what officials say they’re more likely find is this: a massive celebration.
Itching For An Apocalypse
A recent Ipsos poll asked 16,262 adults in 21 countries what they thought of an impending apocalypse, and the results show that doomsday theorists are not such a small minority after all. Ten percent of those surveyed believed the “Mayan prophecy is true,” while 8 percent believed the “world will end in 2012.” Moreover, one in seven global citizens believed the end of the world was coming in their lifetime.
So, are we all just itching for an apocalypse? The survey indicates that the idea has certainly bored its way into society’s psyche and that a small but dedicated group of people believe they are privy to a warning about the future.
Headline-makers like doomsday prophet Harold Camping may have helped fuel the flames. Camping predicted the world would end twice in the last year and, according to surveys taken each time, many were genuinely concerned. This past summer, some of the same bloggers heralded a so-called “Zombie apocalypse” as news spread of several bizarre acts of cannibalism from Miami to Montreal.
So perhaps it’s only natural that, as Dec. 21, 2012 approaches, many have found supposed connections between their views of the Maya calendar and the prophecies of Nostradamus, the alignment of celestial bodies and even the Bible. Perhaps it’s just human nature that a whole host of people are trying to make a quick buck out of terrifying the world with various doomsday theories -- out of selling books, making movies and drawing a hefty profit off their “official” 2012 websites.
Yet, as Dr. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, points out in his book “The Order Of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012,” the paranoia says a lot more about us than it does about the Maya.
“It’s as if the ancient Maya could somehow anticipate the fears and struggles we experience in our modern industrial life, and offered a mystical end game we could look forward to,” he writes. “No such luck. The truth of the matter is that the Maya calendar was inseparable from the ancient world that created it: a lost worldview of kings, gods and ancestors. By wrenching this special vision of time and cosmology away from that particular cultural and historical milieu, we do nothing more than manipulate the past for our own purposes and messages.”
“The truth is,” he continues, “no Maya text -- ancient, colonial or modern -- ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world.”
So, where do the current doomsday theories stem from? They’re an interpretation of a single set of tablets discovered in the 1960s at the archeological site of Tortuguero in the state of Tabasco that depict the return of a Maya god at the end of a 13th period.
The Maya civilization reached its peak between 250 and 900AD and was fascinated by mathematics, astronomy and the cycles of time. Its Long Count calendar began in 3114BC and moves forward in 394-year periods known as bak’tuns. The winter solstice in 2012 marks the completion of the 13th bak’tun.
Epigraphists and Maya experts like Stuart say the prophecy foretells the beginning of a new era, according to the traditional Long Count calendar, but they argue that the Maya never mentioned that the world nor time would end. Several other Maya ruins, after all, describe dates far beyond 2012.
The occasion, however, has offered Mayanists and the local Maya themselves (many of whom work in the tourism industry) a soapbox from which to show the world the intricacies of one of its greatest and still mysterious civilizations. And where better to drum up interest, where better to place that soapbox than southern Mexico?
Mundo Maya 2012
Many who’ve dedicated their lives to studying and promoting Maya culture can be quite defensive about the subject of a doomsday scenario. Take Brendon O'Brien of the Albuquerque -based Maya Sites Travel Services, whose December 2012 tours, he says, are already 75 percent full. When asked about his upcoming trips, O’Brien said “the hoopla is media fabricated and our clients know better.”
“Mayanists are generally smart … a cut above the average bear,” he added. “We have been doing tours to the Maya regions for 12 years and never had a ‘kook’ or fanatic on our tours that I know of. We have had no one express any concerns about being in a foreign country on those dates or some end-of-the- world scenario.”
The Mexican government, too, is trying to give prospective travelers something a bit more substantial -- and much less stressful -- to ruminate on than the “end of the world.”
López Negrete Coppel said the administration decided on the following elucidation: There will an end of an era, so to speak, but there will also be a new beginning.
To hear it in his words, this fresh start sounds pretty good.
“This new era is predicted to be full of prosperity, economic growth and peace,” López Negrete Coppel enthused. “That is our interpretation, and the reaction to that has been very positive.”
And why wouldn’t it be? In the five Mexican states covered under the Mundo Maya campaign -- Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatan -- López Negrete Coppel said he expects a full season with the hotels running at 100 percent by the second week of December and the biggest numbers the nation has ever seen.
Mexico, whose travel and tourism industry now contributes 13.2 percent of the GDP, set aside $10 million for the Mundo Maya 2012 initiative last summer and invited four neighboring countries with historic Maya ties -- Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- to collaborate. The campaign includes aggressive infrastructure investment in roads and facilities to improve access to archeological sites and develop projects like a Palace of Maya Civilization at Chichen Itza and the Museum of the Mayan World in Merida, both set to open by the end of this month.
Continuing on the celebratory (and less apocalyptic) path, Cancun tourism officials have sponsored a “Pyramid of Positive Thinking” in Tulum, about 82 miles south of Cancun’s hotel zone. The modern pyramid, the brainchild of Mexican artist Xavier de Maria y Campos, is to be composed of up to 700,000 “positive thoughts” placed in recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles. The bottles will be layered with soil containing regional plant seeds that will eventually blanket the pyramid in green foliage and usher in a “new era of positive thinking” when complete on Dec. 21, 2012.
Over 500 Maya-themed events will take place in southeastern Mexico by the close of 2012, including blowout celebrations at the two most renowned Maya sites in each of the five Mexican states covered in the Mundo Maya circuit.
But beyond the money and attention, what Mexico really hopes to get out of the Year of the Maya is a little respect. Sure, the government acknowledges that just 40,000 of its estimated 200,000 archeological sites are properly registered. Sure, just 200 of those are open to the public. But the more Mexico can diversify its tourism offerings away from the beach and into the interior, the more it can protect its heritage, draw international crowds from beyond North America and ultimately prosper.
“One of the beauties of tourism is that it spreads social wealth,” López Negrete Coppel noted. “It reaches the farthest corners of the country, reaches deep in the jungles and to the little villages.”
The Mundo Maya campaign, he said, is like a rallying cry: We’re not just America’s playground south of the border. We’re not just sun, sand and too many tequila shots. We’re a nation with a cultural wealth on par with China or Egypt.
That, he said, is Mexico’s plan for the new era. And who knows, if the doomsday bloggers hadn’t raised such a fuss, Mexico might not have had the impetus to realize it.