TULUM, Mexico — Everardo Tejada had heard about the Mayan doomsday scenario, the one that supposedly predicts the world will end this year. With that in mind, he believed he didn’t have much to lose in trying something out of the ordinary. Instead of the end, he’s sure he’s found a beginning — in Mexico’s booming south. “As a kid, like everyone else, I dreamed of going north to the United States. Not anymore. I know it’s hard to believe, but this part of Mexico doesn’t feel like Mexico. It’s something else.”
Generations of men and women have chosen the north — the United States — as their escape valve, a place of reinvention and new jobs. But with U.S. jobs largely dried up because of the bad economy, especially in the construction sector, Mexicans are increasingly staying in their hometowns, finding jobs and carving out a livelihood, or, like Tejada, migrating inside Mexico in search of work.
A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center buttresses earlier studies pointing to a decline in Mexican migration. It says the number of Mexicans living illegally in the United States fell from 7 million in 2007 to 6.1 million last year, the biggest drop in modern history.
One destination drawing Mexicans from other parts of the country is the Mayan Riviera, along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, an area booming with tourism jobs and far from the drug-related violence that has killed more than 50,000 people in recent years.
Mexico’s census bureau reported a 4.1 percent population increase to about 1.3 million in the Mayan Riviera last year, compared with 1.4 percent nationwide, making it the fastest-growing region in Mexico. Some communities, such as Tulum, report growth of more than 15 percent. Fueling the growth and internal migration are new investments and infrastructure projects.
The boom is partly due to a new campaign to lure American tourists back to Mexico with the slogan “The Mexico You Thought You Knew.” The government is wooing foreign tourists by making it easier to get visas and offering special packages. This month, Mexico will host 20 top tourism ministers from around the world in nearby Merida, a meeting aimed at enticing more visitors.
Texas’ recent warning that residents should avoid travel to Mexico convinced Mexican tourism officials that they must do more to lure international tourists, in part by taking their message directly to Americans and bypassing governments, which they say have used Mexico’s drug war to score political points.
The strategy seems to be working. The Mexican Ministry of Tourism says 2011 set records, with 22.67 million international visitors, an increase of 2 percent from the prior year.
The Mayan calendar is adding to the buzz as the curious set out here looking for the end of the world, which some interpret the calendar as predicting on Dec. 21, 2012. (The date’s significance is hotly debated among Maya experts.)
Tejada was born and raised in the city of Guadalajara and grew up believing his future lay in the north, just as it had for past generations of his family and friends. But on a vacation with his wife through Tulum, he changed his mind and decided the American dream was gone. Jobs were scarce, and crossing the border carried too much risk of violence.
Tejada took a job as a waiter at an Italian restaurant, learned a few Italian words and developed an Italian accent. He’s now the head waiter and has moved his entire family to the region. Sometimes at night, he finds it surreal when he turns on his television and watches the violence that has gripped other parts of his country, including Guadalajara.
“It’s sad, and sometimes I have to remind myself that this is still Mexico,” he said, “that we’re building opportunities in such violent times.”