Aerial view of Puerto Vallarta
One of the key highlights as Mexico’s travel industry emerges from a difficult period has been the appointment of Gloria Guevara as the secretary of tourism. That’s because Guevara comes with the mandate of restoring confidence in travelers who turned away from the country because of all the negative press over the past year. She needs to address still lingering fears over swine flu, the ongoing drug wars near U.S. border towns and, more recently, the bankruptcy of Mexicana Airlines.
Now, more than ever, there is the need of a synergy between the government and travel agents, who have the power of bringing Mexico tourism back to the forefront. Guevara probably needs to work more closely with agents than any government official ever has.
Fortunately, with extensive tourism industry knowledge and destination promotion experience, she has outstanding credentials in working with travel agents. Prior to being named to her current post, she was vice president and general manager at Sabre Travel Network, Mexico, connecting travel buyers and sellers through the world’s largest travel marketplace.
“Some travel agents know Mexico more than others,” she says. “But I value every one of them. After 15 years with Sabre, travel agents have become very close to my heart. I have really learned to appreciate the value of the industry.”
And in her few months as secretary of tourism, this appreciation has been evident. She has been in touch with agents, in spite of the negative media coverage, educating them on how to handle the situation without losing business. She won’t take credit for the signs of resurgence setting in if you ask her, but her role has been pivotal.
“Travel agents were crucial last year and are still crucial today,” she says. “The travelers depend on their expertise and because of that, despite all of the travel warnings, we are seeing improvements.”
The results have been positive. From educating clients about the geography of Mexico to dispelling crime myths, travel agents have been a key reason why people still travel to the country.
“We think travelers are more aware of the geography of Mexico, which is resulting in increased business,” says John Hanratty, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Travel Impressions. “We have taken an active role in programs and on panels featuring background information on Mexico targeted at travel agents, and believe the agents have exercised strong influence by educating their customers and relating their own travel experiences in Mexico. And campaigns by Mexico’s tourist destinations and government have also made a difference.”
The number of international tourists reaching Mexico by air has risen 35.2 percent in June compared to the same month last year, marking an impressive first half of the year for its tourism industry.
In June, 818,278 tourists of different nationalities visited Mexico vs. 605,435 in the same month last year. Of those, 573,016 travelers arrived by air from the U.S., representing a 23.7 percent growth over June of last year. Even more impressive were the 41,184 arrivals from Canada—21,322 more than in June of 2009 and a whopping 107.4 percent increase.
“Mexico is such an incredibly rich travel destination, from its seaside resorts to the culture and charm of its colonial cities—and all this with an affordable price tag,” Hanratty says. “Group travel to Mexico is on the rise, with destination weddings and family reunions topping the list. Finally, I believe that the entire travel industry has realized the importance of transparency and accurate information to help travelers make informed decisions, no matter the destination.”
The Mexicana bankruptcy last month hurt airlift to the country but even that had a positive countereffect. The increased demand for Mexico among American travelers has been reflected in a handful of new, important flights to the country.
Aeromexico announced a new Monterrey-Miami service that became effective June 28, and its new Monterrey-Houston route started July 5. The airline also introduced special summer services in the high-demand routes, such as Mexico City to Miami, New York, Orlando and San Antonio; Merida to Miami; Monterrey to San Antonio; Los Angeles to Aguascalientes and Bajio; and Chicago to Durango and Guadalajara.
In November, British Airways is slated to begin operating the only direct flight between London and Cancun, for which tickets are already available. China’s Hainan Airlines also has plans to start a nonstop flight to Mexico City.
Other airlines such as US Airways and Frontier Airlines have taken up new routes—US Airways’ Charlotte-Los Cabos and Charlotte-Puerto Vallarta; and Frontier’s San Francisco-Los Cabos, San Francisco-Cancun and Los Angeles-Cancun. Meanwhile, Virgin America is set to launch new nonstop service from San Francisco to Los Cabos and Cancun, as well as Los Angeles to Cancun.
Guevara recently announced that hotels throughout Mexico have experienced substantial growth. The number of available hotel rooms has increased 4.6 percent during the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2009. According to DataTur, which provides statistical information on the hospitality industry, this growth was recorded in 56 of the 70 destinations monitored.
Among the 70 destinations analyzed by DataTur, room availability jumped from 310,391 to 323,916, registering an increase of 13,525 rooms. Across these destinations, the number of hotel rooms occupied during the first six months of this year was 11.3 percent higher than in the same period of 2009.
This increase in hotel rooms has been a nationwide phenomenon, impacting lesser known areas of the country. For example, during January-June, Morelia saw a growth of 19.3 percent room availability and a 30.2 percent increase in room occupancy compared to January-June of last year. Likewise, Huatulco saw a spurt of 9.6 percent in room availability and 15.4 percent growth in room occupancy, while Merida experienced 5.9 percent growth and 6.6 percent growth, respectively.
“Fortunately, the Mexican Tourism Promotion Board is taking steps to work closely with tour operators to support our efforts to promote Mexico due to the downturn in 2009,” says Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president, product development, MLT Vacations. “Mexico is getting positive recognition because it had to lower its prices, so agents are very aware of the tremendous values available, especially the all-inclusive packages.”
Cruise travel is also on the rise, registering a 6 percent increase in the number of American cruise passengers in the first four months of 2010 compared to 2009. The rise in Canadian cruise passengers was a robust 9 percent from the same period last year. Today, Mexico has a repetition rate of 95 percent among cruise passengers.
Last year, Mexican ports received 5 million cruise passengers. This year, the ports expect nearly 6 million. Some lines want to increase their presence in order to accommodate the spurt in demand. In 2009, cruises alone contributed $500 million, despite the economic crisis, swine flu and gang violence.
“With regard to outbreaks of violence, our customers and the general public have gained a much better understanding of where the incidents are taking place,” says Ken Pomerantz, president and chief marketing officer, MLT Vacations. “They understand that the main tourist areas are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and that they remain safe. The one thing we continue to do is to stress to our customers the recommendations of the U.S. Department of State, which really apply for any destination—that tourists use common-sense.”
Educating clients that attractions such as Chichen Itza are thousands of miles from high crime areas has helped improve tourism numbers
Despite the good news, there is still a lot of work that travel agents need to do, says Marianne Braly of Now Voyager Travel in Huntington Beach, CA.
“Getting rid of the misconceptions about Mexico is going to take a long time. These have been around for so long,” says Braly. “The food of Mexico is so much more than tacos and burritos. The tequila is for sipping not guzzling. There was no swine flu in Cabo San Lucas. There isn’t violence everywhere. There is a lot of fascinating history, the stories of the Aztecs are quite interesting and there are lots of ruins to visit. There is an amazing first-class bus system in Mexico and it is not just ‘riding with the chickens’ as many people think.
“When I speak to people about Mexico and tell them all this, they look at me like I’m nuts. But when I take them to Mexico and show it to them…that’s what changes their minds,” she says.