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The myth that the world will end on 21 December 2012 is so widespread that NASA scientists have been fielding questions about it for years. Some people who write in to the organization are genuinely afraid, and a few have even said they’ve contemplated suicide because of it.  

The farfetched doomsday scenario was born from the Mayans’ “long-count” calendar, which was divided into 13 baktuns (or 394-year periods), beginning in 3,114 BC and ending on the 2012 winter solstice, 21 December. But, in the words of NASA: “Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012... just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.”

Actual modern-day Mayans – many of which live throughout Central America – don’t believe that the world will end on 21 December 2012. They say that end-of-the-world theories are a Western invention – and archaeologists agree, noting that the concept of apocalypse is a very Western and Christian one. This year, an archaeological excavation in Xultún, Guatemala even unearthed a Mayan calendar featuring dates well beyond December 2012.

But all of this hasn’t stopped several countries in the Mayan world, including Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, from capitalizing on the 2012 doomsday hype. In fact, projections by the Guatemalan Tourism Institute and the Mexico Tourism Board say “end of the world” travel could boost tourism to the region by 8% to 10% compared to figures from 2011.

In Mexico, the government has launched a “Mundo Maya 2012” campaign, which includes events such as Day Zero, a 24-hour party beginning 20 December at a brand new theme park in Playa del Carmen. Maya 2012 tours abound as well, including a seven-day End of the World bike tour beginning 15 December, which takes visitors around the jungles and ancient ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. The city of Tapachula has also erected an 8ft-tall countdown clock (which has already started ticking)

Belize has been offering a Maya 2012 Passport, which allows travellers access to all of the country’s Mayan sites for one ticket price, valid from 21 December 2011 to 21 December 2012. The country is also hosting a camping night on 20 December at the archaeological site of Caracol – a particularly special event since camping there is not typically allowed.    

In Guatemala, the national government is hosting a public “New Dawn for Humanity” summit at the archaeological site of Tikal, where celebrity acts such as U2 and Bruce Springsteen may perform. The government’s Culture Ministry is also holding an event in Guatemala City on 21 December and expects around 90,000 locals and visitors to attend.

Mayan leaders in Guatemala have come out against such events, which they see as exploiting Mayan culture. Felipe Gomez, a Mayan spiritual leader and one of many indigenous Guatemalans who denounce the doomsday theories as patently false, told the Agence France-Presse that the tourism industry and the government are “turning us into folklore-for-profit”.

Even the ancient Maya didn’t believe that something catastrophic would happen at the end of their long-count calendar cycle. Astronomer Anthony Aveni, author of The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012, said there are no signs of any Mayan predictions linked with 2012. “The whole timekeeping scale is very past directed, not future directed,” Aveni told National Geographic in a 2009 interview. Guatemalan indigenous leader Alvaro Pop agreed, saying in a separate interview with the Agence France-Presse that the ancient Mayan scholars never purported themselves to be prophets at all.

So what exactly do Western apocalypse theorists believe will happen next week? According to NASA, internet hoaxes have spread the following fictions:

  • The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia discovered a mysterious planet – “Nibiru” or “Planet X” – which is now headed toward Earth.
  • Earth will undergo a “pole shift”, causing its continents and oceans to break away from each other, forcing such calamitous events as cities falling into the sea.
  • The galaxy’s planets will align, causing something cataclysmic like a “pole shift” or like the interaction between Earth and a massive black hole created at the centre of the galaxy.

NASA scientists have debunked all of these claims.

None of this means, though, that travellers shouldn’t visit and explore the Mayan World – just the opposite, in fact. Mayan ruins and sacred sites are some of the best places to learn about these ancient people, their history and their beliefs. The indigenous spiritual organization Oxlajuj Ajpop, which Gomez heads up in Guatemala, is holding its own celebrations this month, recognizing 21 December as a spiritual new beginning – just as some see New Year’s Day as each year.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistated the location of Tapachula. This has been fixed.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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