By David Agren, Special for USA TODAY
PISTÉ, Mexico - Oregon native Jerry Tischleder showed up early at the Chichén Itzá archaeological site, where thousands have converged to celebrate the end of the Maya calendar and some claim the end of the world.
Tischleder considers the doomsday claim that the Mayas predicted the end of the world would happen Friday to be silly. But he felt that visiting the Maya site here on the supposed eve of destruction was a chance to make memories, even if they only lasted a day.
"We were going to visit Mexico, so it seems like an extra bonus," he says.
Tischleder and others don't buy into stories that the world ending Dec. 21, and scientists have said the claims stem from a misunderstanding of the way cycles work on ancient Maya calendars.
But millions of people apparently do, and local tourism officials have taken advantage of the doomsday discourse to promote the "Mundo Maya" and the Yucatán Peninsula, site of such Maya civilization marvels as Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá.
The predictions of doom have been anything but for the locals. The craze has brought a needed boost to the tourism business. European visitors have been traveling less frequently due to the poor economy and U.S. visitors have been coming to Mexico in smaller numbers.
It's not only the locals who are looking to make some pesos out of the day. Ads for Sol beer promoted Friday as the day for getting parties started. A local reggae group had a hit with the lyrics, "The world is going to end so we're going to get drunk."
Some here say that the doomsday talk has had another benefit in that it has gotten foreigners to come and see that not all of Mexico is overrun with drug violence as news media reports might have them believe. The homicide rate in the state of Yucatán, which occupies the top of the peninsula, is similar to most parts of Canada.
José Manuel Ochoa is an archaeologist and director of the Cobá ruins, which are described by the "Lonely Planet" guide as something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Ochoa said he expects twice the number of usual visitors Dec. 21.
Hotel rooms were hard to come by. At Chichén Itza; Tischleder says most places required a four-day minimum stay. The Cancún Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that end-of-the-world festivities will bring in 40% more tourists this week, compared with last year.
It's also bringing in media from around the world.
"It's big in Japan," says Tokyo Broadcasting System Television correspondent Teruyuki Kashimoto, who says the Maya calendar wasn't well known in Japan previously and that the mass arrests of members of a doomsday cult in China piqued curiosity even more.
"With so many things happening in the world, it was better to come to the source," he says.
Kashimoto wasn't the only one coming from far away.
Greg Knight flew in from Darwin, Australia, for the occasion and planned to participate in a New Age-like "spiritual celebration" called Synthesis 2012 at Chichén Itzá.
Yagbe Onilu of Oakland, flew in for the same celebration, expecting people arriving in for the event to "get aligned." Onilu is a practitioner of Ile-Ife, a belief system of the Yoruba civilization in southwestern Nigeria.
"Anything it takes for a soul to realign ... whether it's through the Mayas, the Incas, the Soul Brothers, the rednecks ... anything that brings you into alignment with yourself, that's the purpose," Onilu says.
"A Maya said to me, 'Why are you here?'" Onilu recalls. "He's not aware (of the realignment.) He's living it every day."
Mayas, who populate villages across the Yucatán Peninsula and whose civilization covered southern Mexico and Central America, appear nonplussed by the attention and don't have big plans for the 21st.
"I'll be at home with my family just like any other Friday," taxi driver Fernando Noh Camaal says. "What's going to happen? Nothing."
Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, a Maya from Guatemala who won the prize for her efforts to protect the rights of native people, was not as apathetic. The false calendar interpretation, she said, was "an offense to the Mayan civilization."
Locals officials like Noé Rodríguez, tourism director in Valladolid, a colonial city 20 miles from Chichén Itza, said the attention given the Maya calendar was actually a sign of respect.
"There's a respect for the Mayas internationally, especially for what they did with math and astronomy," he says.
Dutch photographer Chris van de Weerd came to Chichén Itzá out of a "fascination with the Mayan culture," and a belief there will be "a strange alignment of the planets."
He doesn't believe the world will end.
"It's like the odometer on a car," he says of the changing of the Mayan calendar. "Once it passes a million (miles) it starts again at zero."
His companion Diane van der Kooij offered proof positive that she thought the world would go beyond Friday.
"We bought return plane tickets," she said.