Cancún is still one of Mexico's top tourist destinations and tourism very much remains the driving force behind the economy. For many years the city had mostly been spared from Mexico's drug-related violence but recent turf wars have prompted a growing number of shootings and killings between rival drug gangs. What does this mean for tourists? Very little in a practical sense, as they are rarely targeted.
By some estimates Mexico's ongoing drug war has claimed more than 150,000 lives since 2006. For many years Cancún saw drug-related violence as a problem happening elsewhere in the country, in places such as the once glamorous resort town of Acapulco, where violent crime is now a part of everyday life. Sadly, Cancún can no longer sit back and watch what's happening 1500km away – it's now grappling with a very real problem of its own as disputes between criminal groups heat up over control of the local drug market. State authorities have said publicly that the main issue in Cancún and nearby cities is rooted in drug sales to tourists. Most of the violence has occurred in downtown neighborhoods and unfortunately it has changed how locals live, especially local business owners who fear they may become victims of expanding extortion rackets. Threats of extortion have forced some businesses to permanently close. Mexico sent military forces into Cancún in 2017 in hopes of bringing the problem under control but even if the military has some degree of success in curbing violent crime, government corruption and collusion still remain a big part of the problem.
As if drug-related violence weren't enough, Cancún is facing another huge issue: seaweed surges. In recent years the city and the entire Caribbean coast have seen unprecedented amounts of sargassum seaweed wash ashore. In 2018, it arrived on such a large scale that otherwise turquoise waters had turned brown and mounds of smelly decomposing algae were piling up on white-sand beaches unlike anything locals had seen before. Why the seaweed inundations? Some theories blame increasing ocean temperatures, shifting currents or a relatively new problem called nutrient pollution (when nutrient-rich fertilizers dumped into oceans cause algae blooms). Or it could be a combination of the three. When does the seaweed usually arrive and how long does it stay? No one knows for sure. Mexico has spent millions of dollars on cleanup efforts but workers simply can't keep up with the Herculean task. The city has even resorted to placing ocean barriers at strategic points offshore in hopes of keeping the algae bloom at bay.
Mexico says it is moving forward with an ambitious plan to build a tourist train that will connect Cancún to the southern state of Chiapas. The so-called Maya Train is expected to cost as much as US$8 billion and would be completed by 2022 if all goes according to plan. The government says the train will stimulate tourism and provide many jobs in regions that sorely need employment opportunities. The intention is also to bring the Maya communities along the route into the tourism fold. The train was initially slated to make stops in Tulum, Laguna Bacalar, Calakmul and Palenque, Chiapas but a revised plan to lay 1500km of track would have the train coming up through Campeche, Mérida, Chichén Itzá and Valladolid before returning to Cancún.