Tulum airport opens to U.S. flights, helping tourists skip Cancún crowds

TULUM, MEXICO - DECEMBER 1: Screens and counters are ready to serve, during the inauguration of the Tulum International Airport on December 1, 2023 in Tulum, Mexico. (Photo by Medios y Media/Getty Images) (Medios y Media via Getty Images)

Traveling to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico is about to get easier.

Starting this week, visitors to the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula can say goodbye to the crowded halls of the Cancún airport and potentially hours-long drive south; U.S.-based flights to recently opened Tulum International Airport start Wednesday.

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American Airlines and Delta Air Lines begin flights on March 28, followed by United Airlines on March 31. The new routes will connect Tulum to major hubs like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Miami, and Newark.

Air Canada starts flying to Tulum in May, and JetBlue Airways and Panama’s Copa Airlines in June.

“Imagine taking a morning flight from the United States, and by lunchtime, you’re sipping margaritas on our beautiful beach,” said Laura Diver, the marketing manager for Colibri Boutique Hotels, which manages several properties in Tulum.

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A bumpy start

The Tulum airport, like many of the big recently opened infrastructure projects championed by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, remains a work in progress.

Construction continues despite some domestic flights beginning in December. Karla Cayetano, a reservations manager at the Kanan Tulum resort, said workers were still “finishing some details” to the terminal and access road. Despite this, she said some of the resort’s guests are already arriving there rather than to Cancún.

Ground transportation options are limited and costs are high. David Ortiz Mena, the president of the Tulum Hotel Association, highlighted this as a “great concern” in a December statement. Talks with the airport and government authorities over lowering the ground transportation tax were still underway in mid-March.

And protesters have blocked the access road to the airport, and adjacent Tren Maya station, over land rights.

The issues are not unlike those that have plagued the Tren Maya since it opened in December. Trains are limited and delays are frequent on the ambitious and controversial 947-mile passenger rail loop pushed by the Mexican president. The booking system has been unreliable. Much of the track that will eventually encircle the Yucatán has yet to open.

But the Tulum airport, like the Tren Maya, is widely expected to significantly improve access to the Mayan Riviera once the kinks are worked out.

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Alternative to Cancún

The Mayan Riviera is one of the most popular beach destinations in Mexico. It stretches from north of the all-inclusive resorts of Playa del Carmen to south of chic Tulum, with its beachside Mayan ruins.

Last year, the Riviera Maya boasted the most available hotel rooms - and occupied rooms - in the country, beating nearby Cancún and Los Cabos on the Pacific coast, according to data from the government of Mexico’s tourism secretary.

The Cancún airport is the main gateway for visitors to the region. In fact, last year the airport was the main gateway to all foreign visitors to Mexico, and the most popular among American tourists. A presentation from Mexico’s tourism secretary shows nearly 4.8 million American visitors to Mexico passed through the Cancún airport last year, representing more than a third of all the Americans who visited the country.

That’s why airlines are clamoring to fly to Tulum, even with its early issues. The new airport gives travelers an alternative to the busy Cancún airport.

“We’re pretty excited about some of the [travel] demand we’re seeing,” said Amy Martin, vice president of North America network planning at Delta.

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