Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mexico’s tourism secretary debunks fears and fictions

By: Kenneth Kiesnoski of Travel Weekly
November 22, 2010

Applying generous doses of fact to combat whatever fictions, fears and misperceptions travelers and the trade might entertain about her country, Mexico’s new secretary of tourism, Gloria Guevara, addressed worries about safety and security south of the border in an exclusive Nov. 18 webinar appearance at TravelWeekly.com.

In the hourlong webinar, titled "Mexico: Perception vs. Reality," Guevara assured her host, Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, and thousands of registered webinar participants that Mexico is a safe tourist destination.

Despite a steady stream of negative coverage in the U.S. news media regarding drug-related gang violence along the border and around Acapulco, she said, Mexico remains a popular, safe and, most importantly, value-rich vacation destination.

"All countries or societies have problems to solve," Guevara said, "but Mexico is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world."

Moreover, she said, Mexico is a leading luxury vacation destination. "According to a recent survey conducted by Virtuoso, Mexico came up as the No. 2 country … preferred by their members," Guevara noted. "It is also No. 1 in terms of spas in the world, and three out of 10 Americans report return visits within just 12 months."

Guevara admitted, "There are a few places in Mexico to avoid," but she noted, "It’s easy to do." She specifically cited two towns along the Texas border, Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez; the latter alone accounts for 30% of all drug-related conflict in Mexico.

"But for the rest of the country, you can relax and enjoy yourself," she said. "Our major destinations continue to be world-class, and they can be visited anytime."

Mexico’s major tourism destinations are, for the most part, located hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from crime hot spots. Cancun, for instance, is almost 1,000 miles south of Ciudad Juarez, about the distance between New York and Birmingham, Ala. And Copper Canyon, popular for its desert railway trips, lies 206 miles from the border, the distance from New York to Baltimore.

"Let me ask you: If you were planning a trip to New York, would you cancel it if you heard about challenges in Baltimore?" Guevara asked. "Of course not. Copper Canyon is very safe and very nice."

A big jump in visitors

The figures Guevara cited seem to bear out her facts: Some 22.6 million tourists, 80% of them North Americans, are expected to have visited Mexico by the end of 2010. As of September, inbound tourism was up 18.8% year over year compared with 2009 and 6% better than 2008. And, despite the much-publicized failure of Mexicana Airlines earlier this year, air arrivals from the U.S. were up 15% compared with 2009.

The growth in visitors from other countries is even greater. Arrivals from Canada are up almost 22% over 2009 and 32% over 2008, with 1 million air arrivals this year. Italy is up 22%; Germany, 18%; and Brazil, 94%.

"And the Japanese, who are very cautious travelers, are up 27%," Guevara added. "We have seen an important increase in travelers from around the world."

International air carriers are also noting the interest. New flights and increased capacity to Mexico have been added or are in the works from Alaska Airlines, US Airways, American, Virgin America, Air Canada, Westjet, British Airways, Iberia and other carriers.

"Every major airline is increasing capacity to Mexico because the demand is there," Guevara said.

According to a 2009 tourism ministry survey cited by Guevara, Mexico enjoys an overall 97% repeat-visit rate and received a customer satisfaction score of 9.2 out of 10 from 26,000 international visitors polled.

"They love [Mexico’s] hospitality," Guevara said. "They like how they’re treated and they like the service. I believe there’s never been a better time to visit Mexico.

"Why is that? Our vast array of hotel offerings and highly competitive rates ensure that every dollar spent in Mexico delivers more incredible experiences to our guests."

Asked about fatalities due to drug-gang activity, Guevara stressed that "not one American tourist, or tourist of any nationality, has been killed as a result of drug-related violence in Acapulco" or any other Mexican tourism destination.

In fact, Tijuana, the renowned California border town once popular with day trippers but then overrun by drug gangs, has been reclaimed by Mexican authorities and is now "absolutely safe," according to Guevara.

"It’s a great example of how we’ve been able to recover the space," she said.

Tijuana will welcome 250,000 visitors in 2009, an increase of 15,000 over 2008, Guevara said.

Discussing other recent tourism developments, the secretary noted that Unesco has officially designated Mexican cuisine a piece of intangible world cultural heritage; that the country has launched an "ambassadors" program, in which Mexican students aid and advise international travelers at airports and tourist destinations as part of their national service commitment; and the ongoing development of a Mexican tourism hotline for visitors who encounter problems while on vacation.

Fielded questions from attendees

Webinar attendees flooded TravelWeekly.com with more than 200 questions for Guevara during the session, at one point temporarily freezing the server. Guevara did her best to answer as many as possible within the time allotted.

• On responding to negative media: "For the last couple of years, we as the government made the mistake of leaving a gap of information. When you leave a gap, what happens is that it’s filled with bad information. What we’re doing right now is working with a [public relations] agency to put [these] things in context."

• On the deadly Nov. 14 blast at the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen: "We haven’t received the final report … so we don’t want to draw any conclusion, [but] we’re sure it’s something that’s not going to happen in any other hotels. This was very sad, and of course we’re very concerned and sad for the travelers affected."

• Hotel certification: "We will be standardizing our [hotel] ratings. We will be certifying every single hotel from whatever stars they have to the maximum number of stars, so that you’ll have a seal that will mean the service from that hotel is guaranteed. We’re deciding right now on what standard we should use."

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