Mexico City’s New Airport is a Mess, but Tulum’s Will Be a Winner

Airports, MEX - Mexico City

I’ve written about the Mexico City’s trainwreck of an airport problem more than once, but I really haven’t dedicated enough space to a good idea coming out of Mexico: the new Tulum International Airport (TQO). Unlike, well, pretty much everything else aviation-related in Mexico, getting TQO built makes sense, and airlines are responding to the opportunity very quickly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting this project was some sort of shining example of quick and bureaucracy-free work. After all, construction bids were due a mere dozen years ago and it’s still not officially open. But unlike in Mexico City where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador scrapped a new airport and instead is trying to force people to fly somewhere less convenient, TQO will actually make it easier for people to get where they want to go. Go figure.

If you’re east of the Mississippi, you’re probably very familiar with Cancún and the Riviera Maya. This has been booming as a playground for travelers for awhile now, but the airlines really stepped on the gas post-pandemic.

Annual Seats Departing Cancún for the US

Data via Cirium

Traditionally, Cancún itself was the way to go if you wanted crystal clear waters and a party atmosphere with large hotels. You could be excused for barely realizing you had even left the US. But over time, tourism developed further south along the coast into what is now broadly called the Riviera Maya.

According to Sedetur, at the end of 2022 there were just over 43,000 hotel rooms available in Cancún itself. The part of Riviera Maya in the municipality of Solaridad — primarily areas around Playa del Carmen — was north of 44,000. That doesn’t even include the 10,000 in Tulum.

If you’ve ever been to Riviera Maya, you’ve probably seen the dozens of gigantic resorts that are behind locked gates and past the mangroves where a secluded experience awaits guests. It’s an odd feeling being so far removed from the surrounding area, but it’s proven popular. The town of Playa del Carmen has flourished and has rapidly grown to having more than 300,000 residents.

But when you keep going south, you run into Tulum which is known for its Mayan ruins. That used to be a hot spot for day trips, but now hotels and resorts keep springing up, making it even more popular. It’s also a place where US ex-pats have gone to live.

The problem with this growth around Tulum is that it is really nowhere near an airport. While the Cancún airport is very convenient for those going to Cancún itself, it’s a good 1.5 to 2 hours to drive down to Tulum. Even Playa del Carmen can be 45 minutes to an hour away.

Why does it take so long? Well, I think it’s obvious.

All those drunken frat boys blocking the road can really slow things down. So now, there is a new option. The new Tulum International Airport will be opening in December and airlines are flocking to it.

Aeromexico will open up service on December 1 with 2x daily flights to Mexico City/MEX which Viva Aerobus will also fly 1x daily. Viva will also run Mexico City/Felipe Ángeles and Monterrey less than daily until December 15 when both will go daily. Viva will then start up Guadalajara 3x weekly from December 16 and Tijuana 1x weekly from December 17. I’m sure more will be coming in the domestic market.

I imagine this service will do well, but it’s also partially to appease the government. This is, after all, one of AMLO’s signature infrastructure projects. (Viva is going for extra credit by connecting it to far-flung Felipe Ángeles.)

But the real opportunity in Tulum will likely be what US carriers bring. And so far, they are making big plans.

  • Delta was the first to announce that it will start Atlanta 1x daily on a 737-800 from late March
  • Spirit came in next with a plan to fly 1x daily A321neo service from both Fort Lauderdale and Orlando from late March
  • American just announced last week that it will use 737-800s to fly 2x daily to Dallas/Fort Worth along with 1x daily to both Charlotte and Miami

The idea here is that travelers looking to go to Tulum will consider flying via another hub to avoid the mess that is the bustling Cancún airport. It’s a long and annoying drive, so I wouldn’t bet against this plan.

Further, even those going to Playa del Carmen might want to consider this. It may actually take a bit longer to drive than Cancún, but the hassle factor will be so much less than using the primary airport up north.

I do imagine we will see more airlines looking at this place, including the likes of JetBlue and United. I will be surprised if they don’t actually file service to TQO, because it is a rare opportunity to add a new dot to the map with built-in demand.

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18 comments on “Mexico City’s New Airport is a Mess, but Tulum’s Will Be a Winner

  1. We went to Tulum in December of 2020 and had a great time. CUN is awful so this should be a popular option for travelers. Hopefully the infrastructure in/around Tulum gets an upgrade soon as the beach road mad more craters than the moon.

  2. I wonder if Alaska is going to jump on this. It seems like a bit of a no brainer for them, given that they already serve Cancun, and it’d take some of the wind out of both AA’s and importantly DL’s sails.

  3. Debating whether to use the new TQO service on a trip in April – definitely less crowds but will be about 2 weeks after the int’l service starts so could be going through growing pains in the meantime.

  4. Drunken frat boys can never replace Godzilla. But I guess it’s pretty hard for Godzilla to get to Mexico, so the drunks will have to suffice. LOL

    1. I fear drunken frat boys a lot more than Godzilla. Just think about it, we have one on the supreme court for crying out loud.

      1. Well it could be worse. We could have a crack head grifter like the President’s son on the Supreme Court.

          1. You really should have checked your facts:

            “The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country.”


      1. Yes, it’s completely sad. But that’s the way of the world these days.

        Some people can’t help themselves – they absolutely NEED to show their political stripes and/or virtual signal because their inflated ego demands it.

  5. I’m guessing CZM doesn’t really impact this analysis despite being in the same region, being on an island and all. It’s still interesting to note that the big 4 US carriers plus F9 and Sun Country all serve CZM from their major hubs but the airport in total had only 660K passengers last year.

    Seems like the US airlines will also toss in cursory hub service to nearby TQO. But will Tulum grow beyond that at the expense of CZM or even CUN?

    1. I don’t know that there are many people flying into CZM if their vacation is on the mainland. So I think the impact on CZM is probably somewhat limited.

      1. I dunno, it might make sense to fly into CZM and take the ferry if going to Playa del Carmen or points south in lieu of the CUN nightmare and traffic. Obviously nobody would do that post TQO, hence my inquiry.

        1. It was very rare for people to do that because it requires a taxi from the airport to the ferry, waiting for the next ferry, then another taxi from the ferry to your resort.

          Compare that to walking out of the airport, getting in a shuttle, and getting dropped right off at your hotel. It’s extremely rare for it to take longer to go from CZM-Mainland vs CUN to the same location.

  6. Welcome news. I just flew out of CUN yesterday and the place was an absolute zoo – despite steady expansion over the past decade, it’s still far too small for the volume of traffic it’s handling. United, American and Air Canada all had multiple widebodies at Terminal 3, and I pretty much had to elbow my way through the crowds.

    Like LAS and MCO, CUN also attracts a lot of *very* infrequent travelers, so lines at check-in and security were especially slow and sluggish.

    The beaches in this part of Yucatan really are superb, but the whole region (Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum) is becoming overdeveloped. In addition to the stalwart Americans and Canadians, visitors are pouring in from Latin America as well (Avianca, Latam, Aerolineas Argentinas, Sky Airline, Copa and Gol all serve CUN now) and the place seems to be choking on its own success.

  7. Limited High Speen rail will open in December, but by next trail whole Maya Train will be operating with stops in Cancun Airport, Talum Airport, Jaguar Park, Campeche, Merida, Chizen Itza, etc.
    To be clear the new Mexico City airport is state of the art and constantly more accessible. Highway to airport now has better access and by next year will be connected to Mexico City by rail. I was very disappointed when the massive airport was canceled by AMLO, however I did not understand the ecological disaster it would have caused plus so Manu residents were displaced only to benefit very few elitists. Not that land is being converted to the largest ECO park and the natural lake is doing restored. This will be WIN WIN for the residents of Texcoco, Mexico City’s quality of air, and thousands of migratory bird species.

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