If you believe in a popular interpretation of Mayan prophesies we've got just one year left until the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012. To celebrate the ominous occasion - and to make a few extra bucks - Mexican tourism officials are inviting travelers to the heart of Mayan country for a year-long countdown to the end of the world.

The Mexican government expects 52 million tourists to visit the Mayan heartland in the southern states of Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Tabasco.

The tourism office said Wednesday in a communique that visitors will likely spend about 270 million pesos ($19.5 million) in the coming year.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Maya calendar will come to the end of its current cycle, thus Wednesday marked the beginning of the countdown of the last year in the culture's long-term solar calendar.

Many have interpreted this as a sign of the apocalypse.

The doomsday theories stem from a set of tablets discovered in the 1960s at the archaeological site of Tortuguero in the state of Tabasco that depict the return of a Mayan god at the end of a 13th period.

The Mayan 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 Baktuns. The winter solstice in 2012 marks the completion of the 13th Baktun, a date of particular significance that reflects celestial alignments recognized by modern astronomers.

The notion that the world will end is largely an idea spread by thousands of doomsday bloggers - a concept that gained further traction after the release of the Hollywood blockbuster film 2012. Archaeologists and Maya experts say the prophecy foretells a powerful god's return to earth and the beginning of a new era.

Many experts similarly predict the metaphorical end of an era, not the end of the world.

Nonetheless, tourism officials hope to capitalize on the international buzz.

The Maya cosmology has sparked the interest of tourists and students of the matter worldwide, something that will be an important element of tourist promotion, the tourism office said Wednesday.

Several cities began promotional schemes this week. The city of Tapachula on the Guatemalan border unveiled an eight-foot digital clock in its main park to begin the countdown exactly a year before the date. In the nearby archaeological site of Izapa, Maya priests burned incense, chanted and offered prayers.

On the Caribbean coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, residents and tourists alike placed messages and photos in a time capsule to be buried for 50 years.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History will open three additional ruins to tourists this year, though they say Mayan thinking has been misinterpreted and the year simply marks the end of a cycle.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced recently that there would be nearly 500 Maya-themed events throughout the year in southern Mexico, including workshops, music, and dance festivals.

In an average year, the whole of Mexico gets only 22 million tourists. Visitor numbers in 2012 are expected to be astronomical.