Cashing in on the 'end of the world' tourism

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Published January 30, 2012

| FoxNews.com

For doomsday theorists, Dec. 21, 2012 could mean the end of civilization, according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.  But for some tour operators and property owners, the end of the world also means a chance to cash in on the apocalypse hype.

In the most prominent countries of the Mundo Maya – Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador – the tourism industry is gearing up for a record year, with dozens of Maya-themed offerings designed to lure visitors. 

The Guatemalan city of Tapachula will feature an 8-foot digital count-down clock in its main park, Mexico's Riviera Maya are planning reenactments of a popular Mayan ball game and the Sacred Mayan Journey, in which hundreds of paddlers travel in canoes to the island of Cozumel to pay homage to the goddess Ixchel. In all countries, there will be special solstice and equinox ceremonies, Mayan-themed workshops and music festivals. 

Celebrities have also gotten in on the action: Paul McCartney is scheduled to perform this spring at Chichén Ixtá, an official World Wonder of spectacular Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. McCartney’s concert at the historic site, which Yucatán governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco confirmed on her Twitter account, could be part of the singer’s farewell tour.

As 2012 rolls ahead, hotels, tour companies and other travel vendors have rolled out all sorts of Maya-themed packages and itineraries, which vary from authentic to outrageous. 

If you're thinking about the using this auspicious time to get married you can join the "Mayan Marriage of Many" and tie the knot with 35 other luck couples on an actual Mayan ruin in Belize. The ceremony takes place on Dec.12, with plenty of time to prepare for the end of the world as a married couple, before you're whisked to a tropical honeymoon paradise. Package prices range from $14,030 to $24,030 depending on what extras you add-on. 

For the sports-and-adventure type, try a bike tour through an ancient Mayan villages in Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, where you can experience climbs of up to 1,200 vertical feet and navigate single-track, rocky, narrow trails that transport you "to your own cosmic realm."  Prices for this trip, which begins on Dec. 17, start at the more affordable $1,790.

For those who want to experience spirituality at sea, the “Mayan Galactic Alignment” cruise encourages passengers to “celebrate the ascension of humanity into a higher vibration.” For five days passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph will visit sacred sites along the Yucatan Peninsula, witness the end of the Mayan calendar, considered "the epic metaphysical event of our lifetime," and enter "the 'World of the Fifth Sun' together, in a sacred gathering."  Price for the cruise start at $999.

In Belize, tourists will be able to get access to each of the country’s main archaeological sites, including Altun Ha, Barton Creek Cave and Caracol, with the $25 Maya 2012 Passport, which is available through Dec. 21, 2012.

Plus, for the first time, Belize’s National Institute of Culture & History (NICH) is allowing visitors to camp overnight at the majestic Maya site of Caracol to witness the rising sun over the revered site on the summer and winter solstices and spring and autumnal equinoxes. These Maya Equinox Celebrations are limited to 100 guests per event and allow travelers to camp at Caracol on the evening of the 20th of March, June, September, and December. Click here for more information, The Belize Tourism Board will also be available to take orders at 800-624-0686.

(Of honorable note: one hotel operator in the U.S. we talked to is also hoping to cash in on the Mayan events. The “Live While You’re Alive” package at the swanky Hotel Teatro, in downtown Denver, Colo. includes a night in a luxe suite stocked with Dom Perignon and caviar, private butler, a six-course tasting menu with wine for two, limousine service, a helicopter ride, and a $25,000 shopping spree – all for a whopping $35,000. The price also includes an “if you make it” extra for 2013: a one-night stay in a deluxe room, along with a bottle of Dom.)

The apocalyptic theories behind such tourism offerings stem more from Western influences, such as the doomsday movie "2012," rather than any Maya prophecy. 

Dec. 21, 2012 is significant for the Maya because it coincides with the end of a 5,125-year period in the Long Count calendar. The date marks the end of 13 b’aktun cycles of 393 years each – not the end of the world, many Maya scholars say.

In order to avoid perpetuating misconceptions about impending destruction, some tour operators have been careful to avoid references to “end of the world” or “apocalypse” in their marketing.

In fact, in Belize, the message has been repackaged as an event celebrating a “transition” in the Maya Calendar and the Tourism Board has recently come out with its latest brand: "Where Will You Be When The World Begins Anew Belize? Maya 2012.″ 

“Without being archeologists or historians, from what we see and what we know there’s a pretty big misinterpretation of what this calendar [ending] means,” says Jonathan Brunger, operations manager for Adventure Life, which is offering a 12-day “Celebrate the Maya” tour that includes visits to Maya sites in Honduras and Guatemala. “That’s not going to be a theme of our trip, but I’m sure it’s going to be a conversation piece.”

Travelers looking for an authentic experience – such as interacting with living Maya in their communities -- should do as much research as possible on the trip or tour beforehand, says Joshua Berman, author of Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras (Avalon Travel Publishing).

“There are some really thoughtful packages, and some not-so-thoughtful packages – like a $2012 price tag with no visit to any sort of a Mayan village or temple,” Berman says. “There will be big gatherings, small gatherings, ones that are based on fact and ones that are not. The key is looking for something that allows you interaction with Maya people in their villages.”

Another key: booking early. 

Mexico's tourism agency expects to draw 52 million visitors just to the five states richest in Maya heritage, and Guatemalan officials predict a 10 percent across-the-board bump in tourism.  In Belize, airlines are also planning to accommodate thousands of  last-minute foreign visitors.

One forward-thinking American finds herself on a potential gold mine for booking in advance --way in advance. In 2008, Celeste Oda, an artist who specializes in face-painting and lives in San Jose, Calif., purchased a three-day, two-room stay at Mayaland, an award-winning resort in the Yucatan Peninsula, for approximately $1,500 spanning the Dec. 21 date. A recent online search at the property turned up similar rooms during the same dates at $4,320.

Oda had considered trying to sell the rooms instead of traveling to Mexico for the much-hyped date because she was fearful of the country’s escalating, drug war-related violence. However, the mother of two, who’s in the midst of a divorce, had a recent change of heart.

“I feel like I’m supposed to be there for some strange reason,” she says. “I’m excited to go. I have no idea what’s going to take place – I’m hoping it will be just one big party.”

That’s not to say the Mundo Maya will transform into a Spring Break-style fiesta throughout the coming year, even on Dec. 21. Tour operators with an established presence in the Maya Mundo have been careful to make sure their itineraries focus on responsible, authentic travel – and note that they have been conducting trips in these areas long before, and will continue to conduct them long after, the hype of Dec. 21 passes.

“It’s like Christmas – you’re not running through the streets communing with strangers,” notes Shannon Kring Buset, who’s hosting a renewal-themed trip to Copán, Honduras, in December with JB Journeys, which has been conducting tours in Latin and Central America for more than 20 years.

“For many Maya, it’s more about spending a special day with families.”

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