Unlike enthusiasts of other doomsday theories who suggest putting together survival kits, southeastern Mexico, the heart of Maya territory, plans a yearlong celebration.
Mexico's tourism agency expects to draw 52 million visitors by next year only to the regions of Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Campeche. All of Mexico usually lures about 22 million foreigners in a year.
It's selling the date, the Winter Solstice in the coming year, as a time of renewal. Many archeologists argue that the 2012 reference on a 1,300-year-old stone tablet only marks the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar.
"The world will not end. It is an era," said Yeanet Zaldo, a tourism spokeswoman for the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun. "For us, it is a message of hope."
Cities and towns in the Mayan region on Wednesday will start the yearlong countdown. In Chiapas the town of Tapachula on the Guatemalan border will start a countdown on an 8-foot digital clock in the main park exactly a year before the mysterious date.
In the nearby archaeological site of Izapa, Maya priests will burn incense, chant and offer prayers.
In the tropical jungle of Quintana Roo, between the resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, people are putting messages and photos in a time capsule that will be buried for 50 years. Maya priests and Indian dancers will perform a ritual at the time capsule ceremony.
Yucatan state has announced plans to complete the Maya Museum of Merida by next summer.
"People who still live in Mayan villages will host rites and burn incense for us to go back in time and try to understand the Mayan wisdom," Zaldo said.
The Maya reputation for wisdom has people taking the alleged prediction seriously.
The Mayan civilization, which reached its height from 300 AD to 900 AD, had a talent for astronomy
Its Long Count calendar begins in 3,114 BC, marking time in roughly 394-year periods known as Baktuns. Thirteen was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas, and they wrote that the 13th Baktun ends on Dec. 21, 2012.
The doomsday theories stem from a stone tablet discovered in the 1960s at the archaeological site of Tortuguero in the Gulf of Mexico state of Tabasco that describes the return of a Mayan god at the end of a 13th period.
Believers have taken the end-of-the world fears to the Internet with hundreds of thousands of websites and blogs.
"The Maya are viewed by many westerners as exotic folks that were supposed to have had some special, secret knowledge," said Mayan scholar Sven Gronemeyer. "What happens is that our expectations and fears get projected on the Maya calendar."
Gronemeyer of La Trobe University in Australia compares the supposed Mayan prophecies to the "Y2K" hype, when people feared all computer systems would crash when the new millennium began on Jan. 1, 2000.
For some reason, Gronemeyer says, people have ignored evidence that dates beyond 2012 were recorded.
The blogosphere exploded with more speculation when Mexico's archaeology institute acknowledged on Nov. 24 a second reference to Dec. 21, 2012, on a brick found at other ruins.
"Human beings seem to be attracted by apocalyptic ideas and always assume the worst," Gronemeyer said.
It's all a bit frustrating for serious Mayan researchers whose field has made huge strides in recent years.
"This new historical and archaeological knowledge is so much more interesting and mind-blowing than the fantastical claims about Maya prophecies one sees on TV, books or on the Internet," David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an email to The Associated Press. "We're dealing with thousands of newly deciphered texts and trying to weave together a coherent picture of Maya history and culture, which to me is as exciting as it gets."
While the 2012 hype might increase interest in the Maya, "that will probably be offset by the long and difficult effort ahead to correct the ubiquitous lies and misconceptions, even after 2012 has come and gone," he wrote.
Jonnie Channell of Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that 2012 "is going to be one of those things where people are definitely going to have to plan," not because of impending apocalypse, but because hotel rooms in the Maya region are probably going to be full.
Channell, who owns Maya Sites Travel Services, is surprised that she already has 24 reservations for three tour packages she is offering to major Mayan ruin sites in the week leading up to the solstice.
She named one "Beginning the New Calendar Era Under the Yucatan Stars."
"We put together these tours, and we've got lots of signups, and people are excited about it," she said. "If anybody think it's going to be the end of the world, then they better stay home."