Visit Mexico - and enjoy the end of the world

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Simeon Tegel reports on how the Mayan doomsday calendar is winning back tourists

The end of the world might not seem like the most obvious "attraction" to include in a holiday itinerary, but tourism officials in Mexico are now using the climax of the Maya calendar next year to woo US tourists who have been put off by the country's brutal drugs war.

According to some – including the Hollywood producers of the disaster movie 2012, which depicts global devastation when the calendar runs down – Maya time terminates on 21 December 2012. Dire predictions have also proliferated in a string of recent books about the fateful day.

Now, with the drugs conflict threatening Mexico's £45bn-a-year tourism industry, the government has decided to market the date to attract visitors to the stunning Mayan archaeological remains that dot the south of the country. "It is an invitation to mobilise the nation and to drive cultural tourism as one of our great assets," said Gloria Guevara Manzo, the tourism minister. "It will allow us to strengthen our national identity and the attachment to our roots."

The Maya, whose heyday was from 250AD to 900AD, lived in the rainforests of what is today southern Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Millions of Maya still live in Central America, mainly in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, speaking more than two dozen different languages. Pictures of their colourful dress and customs fill glossy tourist brochures, yet the Maya often suffer poverty and discrimination, and were victims of genocide during Guatemala's civil war of the 1980s.

The Maya are famous today for being one of Latin America's handful of "monumental cultures", along with the Aztecs and Incas, who each left behind enduring and often breathtaking stone ruins. The reasons behind the downfall of Mayan civilisation in the 10th century are unclear but experts point to the damaging effects of wars between Mayan city states and the ecological depletion caused by growing urban populations.

The Maya were highly accomplished mathematicians and astronomers who measured time using a complex series of cycles that included units of 13, 20 and 260 days as well as calendar years. When these units coincided they gave rise to longer cycles, including one known as the Long Count, lasting approximately 1,877,000 days. It is the current Long Count, which began in 3114BC, that is due to end on 21 December 2012. But will that date be the end of the world or the start of a new epoch?

The government is planning a series of activities, including a marketing blitz targeted principally at the US, the inauguration of new museums, the opening to the public of two new Mayan archaeological sites and, of course, a highly publicised countdown to the doomsday date. The activities will centre on the Maya heartland in the southern states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatán.

The campaign will focus on more mature, relatively affluent tourists likely to be interested in Mexico's rich cultural and historical heritage rather than on younger travellers eager to party at the country's beach resorts. It is a direct response to the negative publicity arising from the horrific violence between Mexico's rival cocaine cartels. Since President Felipe Calderó* took office in 2006, 42,000 people have died in these wars, and the violence has become so intense that the US State Department has issued several alerts to its citizens about visiting Mexico.

The country normally receives more than 20 million visitors a year, 60 per cent of whom are American, and although the last three years have seen a fall in US travellers, this has been offset by a rise in tourists from other countries, including the UK. The London-based tour operator Journey Latin America said its Mexico bookings had risen 10 per cent in 12 months.

Terry Dale, president of the US Tour Operators Association, described the Mayan calendar as a "smart hook" that would allow Mexican authorities to remarket some of their nation's greatest tourist attractions and move the spotlight away from the violence. "Of course you can go and have a safe Mexican experience," he told The Independent. "But we do have our work cut out getting that message across."

Mexico is almost the size of western Europe and much of the conflict is concentrated in the north of the country, along the US border, and in the centre, including Mexico City, whereas tourists tend to visit southern Mexico and the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. John Kewell, vice-president in Mexico of the British security intelligence firm Control Risks, said short-stay visitors should guard against petty crime such as muggings and pickpocketing but need not be worried by the drug conflict.

"You would have to be extremely unlucky as a foreign visitor to become an incidental victim to the narco violence," he added.

Nevertheless, Mr Kewell did urge tourists to take particular care in Acapulco. The pulsating Pacific resort has long been the scene of ferocious turf wars among drug cartels and other organised criminals in the surrounding state of Guerrero, one of the most lawless in Mexico. Most of the violence takes place in the grittier neighbourhoods of the port city, but it does occasionally spill over into the tourist strip along the beach. He also warned about Mexico's frightening trend of "express kidnappings", in which a taxi driver and accomplices take unwitting passengers on a tour of cashpoint machines, forcing them to take out money and hand it over, and occasionally even demanding a ransom from relatives. Tourists can sometimes be targeted, but usually the victims are local.

Mayan wonders...

Palenque: The dazzling remains of this city in the Chiapas rainforest cover roughly one square mile and include more than 1,000 different constructions, although many remain buried beneath the jungle. Its rulers were consumed in bloody wars with other Maya city states and Palenque was abandoned in the 10th century.

Chichén Itzá: Situated on the Yucatán peninsula, it is home to the largest court for Mesoamerican "football", in which the winning or losing captain – archaeologists cannot agree which – was sacrificed at the end of the match.

Uxmal: One of the lesser known sites on the Yucatá* peninsula, is nevertheless a spectacular ruin. Steep pyramids decorated with carvings of mythical creatures rise above the flat dry plains and iguanas lie motionless on the white stone, basking in the tropical sun.

Tikal: In Guatemala, this was the largest of the Maya cities with a population of 200,000. The Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent, at 210ft, is one of the tallest pre-Colombian structures. Jaguars still roam the surrounding rainforest and spider monkeys in the canopies track tourists walking below.

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