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
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.