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Another record-breaking year for tourism

Article - May 22, 2012
Mexico's bid to become one of the world's top five tourism destinations is looking good as promotion of its diverse and unique culture adds to the appeal of its famous beach resorts

As it prepares for record-breaking numbers of visitors to descend on its beaches and ancient Mayan sites, Mexico is broadening its appeal in a bid to become one of the world’s top five tourist destinations by 2018.

The United States and Canada still provide the country with its largest number of foreign visitors, but there has also been a significant increase in visitors from the emerging BRIC markets – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – and Europe. According to Gloria Guevara, Secretary of Tourism, 46% more Brazilians, 58% more Russians and 38% more Chinese visited Mexico in 2010 than in the previous year.

“The economies that have been doing well are increasing the number of visitors to our country,” says Ms. Guevara.

Other noteworthy growth comes from Colombia (27%), Argentina (14%), France (12%) and Great Britain (10%). Overall, people from 144 different countries have visited Mexico in the last few years.

According to the Consejo de Promocion Turistica de Mexico (CPTM), the Mexican tourism board, a record 22.67 million international arrivals were recorded in 2011, a 2% increase on the figures for 2010.

Despite unhelpful headlines about the country’s ongoing drugs war and travel warnings from the U.S. State Department, Mexico remains the top pick for Americans traveling abroad, and nearly half of all visitors to Mexico hail from north of the border.

The number of American visitors fell by 3% overall in 2011. However, it rose by 10.6% in the last four months of the year, compared with 2010, and, as the U.S. economy picks up, CPTM Director General Rodolfo Lopez Negrete is optimistic about 2012.
“We are forecasting an increase of 10% from the U.S. market,” he says.

Overall, he anticipates another record year, with up to 52 million domestic and international tourists visiting the southeastern part of the country.

Safer than you think 

Mr. Lopez says the perception that visiting Mexico carries an element of risk does not accord with reality. Most of the drug-related violence that has marred the country’s reputation occurs near the Mexico-U.S. border and along drug-trafficking routes, well away from the tourism hotspots.

“Mexico is a large country, similar in size to Western Europe. Its main destinations are as safe, or safer, than most of the main destinations in the leading countries involved in tourism, including the U.S. and European countries. This is validated by statistics produced by the Ministry of Public Security of Mexico and UNESCO,” he says.


“Twenty years ago, tourists were content to bask on a beach, sip margaritas, and watch girls in bikinis. Globalization has led us to ask for more. Tourism destinations have diversified, and become more competitive.”

Rudolfo Lopez Negrete,
Director General of the Consejo de Promocion Turistica de Mexico (CPTM)

Ms. Guevara agrees, saying that news reports unfairly neglect to pinpoint the area but instead refer to the entire country: “Unfortunately, people are for the most part unfamiliar with our geography. There are 2,500 counties here, and of these, 80 are having problems. Put into perspective, that’s not even 5%. And these hotspots are very concentrated, specifically along the border.”

The U.S. State Department tempers its advice to American tourists to exercise caution by excluding resort areas, such as Cancun and the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, and acknowledges that millions of Americans safely visit Mexico every year. 
“We will continue encouraging the American market to gain confidence, while at the same time developing other important international markets,” says Mr. Lopez.

While security is under the spotlight today, not too long ago it was the H1N1 virus outbreak that made the negative headlines. Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), commends Mexican officials for their quick response.

“They took some of the toughest measures ever and did the right thing. They were very honest and transparent with the people; they said exactly what was going on,” he says. “Within a very, very short period of time, they managed to contain it. I said this at the time and I would like to repeat it now – that the Mexican people fought this battle of behalf of the rest of the world. And they won that battle and won it quickly.”

People still choose to travel to Mexico because of this. “Crises can happen anywhere in the world, but people continue to go to places if they trust that these countries can act in case anything happens. I think Mexico was able to prove that,” adds Dr. Rifai.

Mexico: The place you thought you knew

Emphasizing that Mexico has far more to offer its visitors than just its beautiful beaches, the theme of the CPTM’s current campaign is ‘Mexico: The Place You Thought You Knew’

Mexico is rich in geographical, cultural, and historical attractions, notably the inheritance of its pre-Hispanic Mayan civilizations, and these are seen as increasingly important to tourism. This year marks the end of the Mayan 5,126-year-old Long Count calendar, once mistakenly thought to indicate the end of the world.

Travel to the five states that comprise the Mayan World – Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas and the Yucatan – is being heavily promoted, along with cultural, adventure, gastronomic and health tourism.

“In global tourism, the number one reason why people travel is culture, not sun and sand,” says Mr. Lopez. “Twenty years ago, tourists were content to bask on a beach, sip margaritas, and watch girls in bikinis. Globalization has led us to ask for more. Tourism destinations have diversified, and become more competitive. Mexico offers beautiful beaches and culture. This is what differentiates us from others.”

Indeed, Mexico is home to over 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and even its cuisine is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. All this, combined with 40 archeological zones, the highest number of spas in the world, 72 ethnic groups, and famous warm hospitality, makes of Mexico a veritably rich, diverse and fascinating destination. It is no wonder then, that of 10,000 tourists recently interviewed, 98% were repeat visitors.

The top five challenge

In 2010, in an unprecedented act of solidarity within government ranks, President Calderon gathered 250 state governors, ministers, all universities, unions and representatives from the private sector to announce, in front of an audience of thousands, that 2011 would be the Mexican Year of Tourism. They then went on to sign a document confirming their commitment to working towards the goal of slotting Mexico into the global top five tourist destinations by 2018.

“This was the first time in history that the whole country aligned itself behind a single objective,” says Ms. Guevara.

Dr. Rifai is “delighted” by this move – much more than a mere gesture – and says that at the UNWTO they are “thrilled with what is going on in Mexico with regards to the seriousness and importance they are placing on the travel and tourism sector.” He calls the national pact to support sustainable travel and tourism a “powerful statement”.

According to Ms. Guevara, achieving this involves raising overnight visitors from 22.4 million to 50 million as well as raising domestic travel from 161 million trips to 300 million. It also entails an increase in tourist receipts from US$12 billion to US$40 billion.
Whether this is attained is of little concern to the Secretary General of the UNWTO, for whom it is not so much about the end, but rather the means. “What is most important about this declaration is the will behind it,” says Dr. Rifai. “To me, it is more important to establish a goal and work hard to try and achieve it, than the end results. What really matters at the end is how hard you have tried, and I think they are trying very hard in spite of many, many challenges and difficulties. That is why we are very supportive.”

In recognition of President Calderon’s initiative, the UNWTO and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) jointly presented him with the first of a series of international open letters, subsequently sent to other heads of state who are committed to promoting tourism, including the Deputy Premier of China, the President of Indonesia, the Prime Minister of Japan, and the President of South Africa. These open letters, which commit the countries to promote world tourism, and their recipients, will be published in what the UNWTO calls the “Golden Book”.

In May this year, Mexico has hosted the WTTC Americas Summit and throughout the year, President Calderon is leading the G20 and its agenda, in which he has stressed the importance of tourism.

United with the common ambition to push tourism to new heights, Mexico is sending the confident message to the world that it is a beautiful, safe, and welcoming country with more than meets the eye. Dr. Rifai congratulates the country on how it has performed despite detrimental press and encourages it to stay optimistic.

“I think President Calderon, Secretary Guevara, and all of the tourism officials from the different states are doing the right thing. The only proven way to counter negative images is to forget about being defensive about negative stories and concentrate on transmitting the positive stories,” he says. “In the face of every negative story that may come out of Mexico, there are 1,000 positive stories that the country can transmit. But it needs to make them known. That is what the President and Mexico’s entire tourism infrastructure is doing.”