Image: New York, N.Y. ... in Sin City
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At the New York-New York casino in Las Vegas, you can grab a bite in Greenwich Village and a shot of the Statue of Liberty without leaving the Strip, columnist Rob Lovitt writes.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/25/2007 9:23:22 AM ET 2007-09-25T13:23:22

The early-morning sun was barely over the horizon, but the straw-market peddlers were already hawking their wares. Local “handicrafts” (with what appeared to be mass-produced labels). Costume jewelry and designer knockoffs. Sarongs, serapes and the same suggestive T-shirts you see in every cruise port across the Caribbean. I was tuning them out as usual when one enterprising vendor grabbed my attention.

“Hey amigo, c’mere. I got some really weird s#%t in here.”

He wasn’t kidding. Alas, modesty precludes me from describing his offerings in more, um, anatomical detail, yet even a quick glance revealed more than I really needed to see. I certainly wasn’t going to give him any money, but I had to give him points for trying.

I’ve thought about my off-color amigo and his vendor friends several times in the month since Hurricane Dean roared across the Caribbean. Working out of the cruise port of Costa Maya, they were based at what became ground zero when the Category 5 storm slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula on August 21.

With winds gusting to 200 mph, the storm essentially flattened the port (as well as the nearby town of Mahahual). The port is expected to be out of commission until September 2008, although reconstruction efforts are apparently already underway.

That’s a good thing — and it’ll be even better if they decide to build something more than just another Mayan-inspired shopping mall.

Trinkets, time shares and shots of tequila
Located 125 miles south of Cozumel, Costa Maya was carved out of the jungle six years ago, a built-from-scratch complex developed expressly for cruise-ship passengers. It was designed in the style of a Mayan village with open plazas and palapa-style buildings. With an amphitheater, freeform pool and two restaurants, it was also, as the site’s promotional literature put it, “an entertainment complex [with a] 70,000-square-foot shopping center.”

All of which could make for a rather surreal experience. On any given day, one or more cruise ships would pull up to the pier and disgorge a few thousand passengers into a walled complex of mock Mayan statues, poured-concrete “relics” and giant animal heads rendered in plastic and fiberglass. There were shops selling trinkets and time shares, restaurants with nachos and tacos and, above it all, a giant inflatable Dos Equis bottle tethered to the roof.

There was also a bungie trampoline and a beachfront volleyball court, folkloric dance performances and photo ops with employees in serapes and sombreros. There were banana daiquiris in yard-long glasses, piña coladas in monkey-shaped coconut shells and enough tequila shots to fuel regular table dances and conga lines. And it if it all got to be too much, there was always a lounge chair or hammock nearby for that well-deserved siesta.

Given its party atmosphere, Costa Maya wasn’t quite Disneyland, but it wasn’t really Mexico, either. Somewhere between the two, it was a scenic, self-contained haven that provided the flavor of foreign travel without any of the fuss or bother.

Keepin’ it (un)real
Personally, I’m not sure the world needs another imitation destination. We’ve already got plenty of theme parks with idealized downtowns and “living museums” that celebrate ways of life we long ago abandoned. “I can’t begin to account for it, but it appears that in this country these days we really only want something when it isn’t really real,” wrote humorist Bill Bryson in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”

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Like, say, Las Vegas? At the New York-New York casino, you can grab a bite in Greenwich Village and a shot of the Statue of Liberty without leaving the Strip. At Paris Las Vegas, you can stroll cobblestone streets, admire the Arc de Triomphe and even get married atop the Eiffel Tower — without the language barrier or any long-distance travel.

If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then Las Vegas is a lot more virtuous than I thought.

And, by that measure, what is one to make of Falconcity of Wonders, the $1.5-billion project currently being constructed in Dubai? Designed in the shape of a falcon, the 1,000-acre “city” will feature office space, shopping malls and residential communities, along with replicas of the Taj Mahal, Tower of Pisa and a half-dozen other wonders of the ancient and modern world.

I can already see the locals giving directions to visitors: “Go past the Grand Pyramid and turn left at the Eiffel Tower. If you hit the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, you’ve gone too far.”

Like I said, I think the world already has enough imitation destinations, which is why I hope the folks at Costa Maya decide to create something other than a Mayan-inspired shopping mall this time around. I hope they offer fewer off-color curios and more cultural experiences. Most of all, I hope they encourage more visitors to explore the authentic destinations that wait outside the gate.

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