"Romance will always be number one with my business, along with destination weddings," Donna Alkarmi, president of Lone Star Travel tells us.
Alkarmi tells use that most of her clients "don't truly know what they want, other than a good beach and an all-inclusive." So, it is left up to her to decide what to offer them, based on their budget.
Have recent headlines about violence in Mexico affected her business, however?
"No matter what was happening in the media over the past year, it never truly hurt my business," says Alkarmi. "I may have had one or two cancellations, but with over $1 million in sales to Mexico, it’s not a blip on my radar. Of course, I had to talk it up a lot more during those trying times and it did get exhausting. But I stuck with it with great success. The pricing and gorgeous locations all over Mexico will always win over a few media frenzied articles."
Lori Gold has similar sentiments. A travel designer with the Toronto-based Twil Travel, Gold visited Playa del Carmen for the first time eight years ago.
“I fell in love with it,” Gold tells Travel Agent.
Two years ago, she left Canada to split her time between Miami and Playa del Carmen. Now, she’s a new full-time Playa resident.
Mexico sales account for 90 percent of her business, and she’s bullish on the future.
“Mexico is the best value in the Caribbean," says Gold. "The food, service and resorts are all better and more high-end than in other destinations. Access is easier. And, there's also more competition in the market. In Jamaica, for example, you might have 20 to 30 all-inclusives. There are 100 or so here. That brings an incentive to keep prices affordable."
She hasn't had a single cancellation over safety concerns.
"Last year, I was perhaps a bit apprehensive,” says Gold. "I take precautions here that I would take in any city. And Playa del Carmen is a city now, not a small fishing town any more."
She does add, “People are poor here, so robbery is a concern. But, when you compare it to other Caribbean destinations, such as Jamaica or the Bahamas, it isn't as much of a problem."
Romance travel and family travel are two big sources of business. Gold sees ongoing trends in both on the product side. For one thing, tour operators are becoming more creative in designing options for the region.
"People want to go to Tulum and Holbox. Sunwing from Canada has started selling all-inclusive packages to Holbox, which is amazing. It's a tiny island," said Gold.
Adults-only properties are also on the rise. The Spanish chain Hipotels will open Haven Resorts Cancun between Cancun and Riviera Maya. Plans call for 333 rooms, some of them swim-up; five restaurants, nine bars, a spa and 24-hour concierge service. It is set for a September 2018 opening.
More and more, Gold's clients are looking to the Riviera Maya, for its relaxed feel.
"Cancun is a row of high rises. Here, the hotels aren’t more than four stories high. They're spread out and have more grounds. They're so much more private and zen-like," says Gold. "You feel that you're truly in the Caribbean, rather than in Miami or another big city."
An ongoing challenge is to find new experiences for repeat clients.
"So many people keep coming back. If they have older kids, they want to know what else they can do after the cenotes, turtles and Tulum. My goal is to discover non-touristy things for them. I've just found someone who lives in the middle of the jungle and does private tours of his four cenotes, " said Gold.
Where hotels and resorts are concerned, it's all about "taking the all-inclusive to the next level," said Gold.
"I explain to clients that in many ways, the big all-inclusives are alike," says Gold. "One may have a better beach, another may have better pools, but at the end of the day, they're pretty much the same. Right now, people are looking for something other than the typical mega-resort."
She's encouraged by developments in the region over the past year.
"The new Hotel Xcaret is incredibly beautiful, eco-friendly and different from the typical all-inclusive. It's more like a retreat where you can relax and enjoy nature. Guests have unlimited access to all the (Experiencias Xcaret) resorts, which is a huge value. For people who want something different, it's amazing," said Gold.
Another property that’s really hitting its mark is the adults-only UNICO 20°87°. Opened in the Riviera Maya in the spring of 2017, it has swim-up rooms, a wellness center, spa, five restaurants, six bars plus a conference center. It introduced the concept of a round-the-clock anfitrión (local host), or personalized local host.
"It's probably the most high-end adults only property in the area. The food and service are amazing. Spa treatments and included. They emphasize local, personalized experiences. They also have an app to download, which you can use to order food and drinks," said Gold.
On the topic of apps, Mexico's Secretariat of Tourism has released a mobile app as part of its new Tourist Atlas initiative. The Atlas is an online tool that includes digital maps and local tourist information for Mexico’s most popular destinations.
The app can look up information within a three-mile range of the user’s location. It can even point to the closest embassies and consulates.
Mexico is becoming more user-friendly. But will that be enough to keep visitors coming at record levels?
"My Punta Cana numbers are up over last year's summer travel, but they're not taking business away from Mexico," said Alkarmi. "I don't feel Cancun is any more overcrowded then it was 15 years ago. You still have the best beaches with turquoise waters. If you want an ocean view room, you can't beat the pricing and the views."
As Gold sees it, “if you build it, they will come,” is an apt mantra for the region.
"Los Cabos gets a lot of attention for the new hotels. But, we have growth here, as well," said Gold. "Playa Mujeres used to be only four resorts. Everything has expanded here, from Playa del Carmen to Akumal, Tulum and Mahahual. There are still places people haven't touched yet. In the meantime, restaurants are full, hotels are full. Tourism is strong."