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Tulum’s new airport finally welcomes US flights — and it’s no Cancun

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There’s a new airport option for U.S. travelers hoping to make the trek to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula — one that doesn’t involve the packed terminals and dense crowds of Cancun.

On Thursday, Tulum’s brand new Felipe Carrillo International Airport (TQO) welcomed the first flights from U.S. airlines. It was an occasion marked by music, dancing and decor on both sides of the border.

Situated nearly 100 miles from the busy Cancun International Airport (CUN), every bit of the Tulum airport is actually new — from the runway to the building and even the access road that leads to the terminal.

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One of several infrastructure mega projects touted by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, construction on the airport began in earnest in 2022 following years of discussion.

The airport technically opened in December, but that was just for domestic flights operating within Mexico.

The broader grand opening came on Thursday, starting when American Airlines Flight 1131 arrived from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), receiving a water cannon salute upon arrival.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

For any airline, flying to a new city is a big deal. That’s even truer when it’s a new airport altogether, American’s senior vice president of DFW hub operations Jim Moses told TPG in a pre-flight interview.

“Our teams have been working really hard — both with the Mexican authorities, with Tulum International Airport — on all the prep work that goes into making all this happen,” Moses said.

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SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

“All the logistics that go into it, the support for the flights that go in and out of there,” Moses explained, “[It’s] just a lot of work to start a new city … a new airport.”

On top of inaugurating twice-daily Tulum service from DFW Thursday, American also launched new nonstop routes to the new airport from its hubs at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) and Miami International Airport (MIA).

American went all out in Tulum, too, with its check-in counters decked out in balloons and signage.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

There also was a party-like atmosphere at American’s departing gate at Tulum, which hosted a news conference celebrating the launch of flights to the U.S. along with food, beverages and lots of balloons.

And American wasn’t alone.

Delta Air Lines’ first flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) also touched down at the new airport Thursday.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Delta had its own celebrations at the check-in counters with balloons, cupcakes and even souvenir Delta Air Lines playing cards available for passengers.

TPG’s Clint Henderson was on the inaugural Delta flight from Tulum Thursday afternoon. Delta Air Lines Flight 1772 left from the shiny new D3 gate. There wasn’t nearly the celebration that American Airlines was having next door, but flight attendants and Delta airport employees were buzzing with excitement. Passengers on Delta’s inaugural departure were treated to free margaritas, a flight attendant in the gate area told TPG.

United Airlines will launch its own inaugural Tulum service on Sunday from Newark Liberty International Airport (IAH) and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).

And the growth will continue from there.

United plans to add nonstops from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) later this spring.

JetBlue is also venturing into Tulum, with plans to launch service later this spring from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

CIRIUM

Beyond routes to the U.S. and domestic Mexican routes, Air Canada will offer nonstops to Montreal and Toronto, and Copa plans to fly from Tulum to Panama City.

Spirit Airlines hoped to launch service to Tulum, but had to postpone those plans amid fleet constraints.

Altogether, airlines plan to offer some 170,000 seats out of Tulum by July, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium — quite the jump from the mere 45,000 or so flown by Mexican carriers last month.

How Tulum airport compares to Cancun

CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

Eventually, Tulum’s new airport has the capacity to handle about 4 million passengers annually, according to the airport’s website.

Even with its fast growth at the beginning of operations, don’t expect the experience at the new airport to be anything like Cancun.

The elder Yucatan hub is far bigger and busier, with four terminals, dozens of gates airlines arriving from around the world.

Just last year, in fact, Cancun saw nearly 4.8 million travelers from the U.S. alone pass through its customs facilities, according to a recent report from Mexico’s tourism minister.

Tulum figures to be far less crowded, with its single terminal and 13 gates.

For travelers hoping to avoid the throngs of other passengers, that’s likely a good thing, said Wisconsin-based travel advisor Rose Gray, of Fox World Travel — whose clients have increasingly bemoaned the crowds in Cancun.

“It just seems like on a daily basis we’re hearing people say, ‘I waited two hours for my luggage,’ or, ‘The lines to check in were unbelievably long,’ or all those kinds of complaints,” Gray said. “I think this is hopefully going to lighten that load a bit.”

On top of a far shorter wait for checked luggage, the airport itself is more modern, with natural light pouring into the ticketing area through a translucent roof, and more technically advanced identify verification stations at check-in and security.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

On the concourse, travelers will find floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views of the jetway, and modern sculpted ceilings that give a small taste of Mayan aesthetic.

The airport is also a far more convenient option for travelers hoping to visit Tulum itself and other nearby parts of the Riviera Maya. After all, visiting Tulum and surrounding area, historically, has required a flight to Cancun and then a lengthy ride by car or shuttle.

“I look at it as that niche market, but it is a market that, we’ve had customers talk to us about wanting to fly right into Tulum,” Moses told TPG. “So I think this is going to fit into our portfolio in Mexico incredibly nicely.”

Growing pains likely

Still. that’s not to say the airport won’t have its own growing pains.

For starters, the airport is not actually in Tulum. It’s 20-plus miles from town, and a good 40-minute ride from many of the region’s top beach resorts.

GOOGLE MAPS

Parts of the airport remain under construction, too — most notably concessions, with few food options for passengers beyond a bag of chips — though signs clearly show more choices are on the way.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Inside the terminal, there were signs for future restaurants you’ll know like Burger King and Applebee’s — plus local establishments, too. For now, though, there are just three small shops selling snacks.

CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

There is space for a lounge, but none are currently ready.

Finally, there are two children’s playgrounds post security, which should help those traveling with little ones.

The Wi-Fi wasn’t working at the airport and airport employees weren’t sure how long it would take to get set up, but said it was coming — eventually.

The air conditioning seemingly wasn’t ready for launch of U.S. flights, either. The airport had set up large mobile air conditioners, but it was quite hot in the terminal. A gate agent said he hoped it would be fixed shortly.

CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

Also still under construction: the airport’s Tren Maya station — a stop on Mexico’s massive new rail line that will encircle much of the Yucatan Peninsula — once it’s fully open, at least. That’s expected later this year.

In the meantime, local hotel leaders have raised concerns in recent months about “uncompetitive” pricing for existing ground transportation options. Some local reports have suggested confusing ground transportation options — or pricing that seems above normal for the region, with few alternate options.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Still, the airport figures to offer travelers a convenient new way to explore this region of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula — especially as airlines add more flights and the airport’s operations get fully on track in the months ahead.

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