Mexican government officials are predicting a surge of visitors to the five southern states that comprise the country's Maya region. In Belize, which bills itself as "heartland of the Maya," airlines have committed tens of thousands of extra seats to accommodate projected interest from foreign visitors. In Guatemala, the country with the most living Maya, officials predict a 10 percent across-the-board increase in tourism.
The end of the world, it turns out, is marked by an economic boom.
"2012 will be a momentous occasion, not only for Belize's large Maya population, but for all Belizeans," said Yanick Dalhouse, the Belize Tourism Board's Director of Marketing. "Given the amount of interest we're seeing from around the world, it's generating global excitement as well."
Dalhouse is referring to the year 2012's significance as the end of the Maya Long Count calendar, a 5,125-year period of time which ends exactly on Gregorian calendar date December 21, 2012, the winter solstice. The date was inscribed in stone 1300 years ago near modern-day Tabasco, Mexico and its actual significance is debated among academics and theorists. There are hundreds of books on the subject and probably hundreds of theories, but the implication for Guatemala, southern Mexico, and Belize is clear and immediate: more visitors.
This region -- along with parts of Honduras and El Salvador -- make up the Mundo Maya, a diverse tropical region which includes the flat lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula and the verdant high country of Guatemala. A vast kingdom of city-states once dominated this region, but by 900 A.D. the Maya had abandoned their grand urban centers to Mother Nature, who hid them for half a millenium. Today, some ten million Maya descendants still live in the region and speak 30 indigenous Mayan languages.
In the southern Mexican states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatán, officials are expecting 52 million visitors next year (both domestic and international), and are planning over 500 Maya cultural events throughout the year. President Felipe Calderon announced this at a special summer solstice press conference in 2011 to launch Mexico's Maya 2012 tourism efforts.
Meanwhile, the city of Tapachula has erected a countdown clock in the town square and resorts along the Riviera Maya are planning special reenactments of the Maya ball game and Sacred Mayan Journey, in which hundreds of paddlers travel in canoes to the island of Cozumel to pay homage to the goddess Ixchel. There are academic Maya studies symposiums being held in Antigua, Uxmal, and Belize City in 2012 and plenty of still-unannounced concerts and gatherings.
Lucy Fleming, a lodge owner in Belize and co-chair of the National Maya 2012 Committee, which is made up of representatives from the Belize Tourism Board, the National Institute of Culture and History, and industry partners, says, "Living in the heartland of the Maya, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world actually knows very little of this fascinating civilization and their incredible achievements."
Ms Fleming's resort property, the Lodge at Chaa Creek, will be hosting a year of activities, special tours, solstice and equinox ceremonies, workshops, and seminars "to introduce the world to the marvels of the ancient Maya civilization."
The idea, she says, is "to celebrate 2012 with the respect, excitement and significance it deserves."
Katie Valk, founder and director of Belize-Trips.com, is a Belize travel specialist who is already seeing increased bookings for 2012 over last year. When clients ask about visiting Maya communities, she often steers them to the southern Toledo district, where several programs try to ensure rural Maya communities see some of the trickle-down from tourism.
People in the Maya communities of Toledo, she says, are divided on the issues of oil drilling and hardwood extraction from protected areas, which is not difficult to understand with so many people living below the poverty level.
"We need to include these people in any benefits derived [from tourism]," says Ms Valk, "and offer attractive employment opportunities working to protect, rather than destroy, the environment."
Major airlines have already committed approximately 37,000 additional airline seats to Belize in 2012, compared to 2011 according to Anthony Hunt, a representative of the tourism sector on Belize's Civil Aviation Authority Board who claims there is no evidence that this increase is due to the Mayan calendar. Hunt says the reason for the new seats is "confidence of the airlines in the strength, stability and growth of the Belize tourism product," but that product is currently being sold under the 2012 tourism board tagline, "Where will you be when the world begins anew?"
Gaspar Pedro González, a Guatemalan novelist and professor at University Mariano Gálvez, grew up in a Q'anjobal Maya village in the Cuchumatan Mountains and has some concerns about the tourism apocalypse.
"Most Maya are not in the capital," he said, "they're out in the villages and communities." And most traditional tourism infrastructure "is not in Maya hands. It is in white people's hands, the Ladinos, they benefit more from tourism economically. But if foreigners want to visit the more remote villages, to visit this essence of the culture, this essence of life, they should go to the smallest villages where they have conserved the Mayan languages and form of life. Surely the Maya will benefit from this tourism."
In 2012, he says, visitors should seek out the opportunity "to meet actual Maya, see their customs, their traditions, their form of life, and learn about their mysticism and philosophy." Even though, he says, in rural Guatemala, "There aren't as many comforts, only simple pensiones. But that is where you'll find the essence of life and the essence of the culture."
Whether or not the Maya benefit from the interest in their culture generated by a foretold (or not) armageddon will depend largely on the priorities of travelers. The year will prove a success for native communities only if foreigners desire more than to rubberneck at the at the end of the world.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer and author of MAYA 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras. To learn more about the Mundo Maya visit his website.