If it weren’t for all of those media reports about the drug violence occurring primarily in Mexico’s border regions, international travelers would undoubtedly be more likely to visit regions south of the U.S. border than they already are.As it stands, Mexico is the 10th most-visited country among international travelers, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO), and the nation’s leaders have set a goal to crack the top 5 worldwide by 2018. Though this would require the country to nearly double the 22 million visitors who arrived from other countries last year (France and the United States top UNWTO’s list with 76.8 million and 59.7 million international arrivals, respectively), Gloria Guevara, Mexico’s secretary of tourism, believes her country is up to the task.
“We have a lot to offer,” she says. “Mexico has 27 world heritage sites. Our cuisine is a world heritage cuisine. We have more than 40,000 archaeological sites. We also have more than 50 top-class golf courses.”
Guevara makes the comments during a roughly 30-minute conversation at the Four Seasons Seattle (on Aug. 3), just one stop on her team’s three-week tour across America to meet with media and tourism industry executives.
Many people from Mexico and even those who visit the country frequently from abroad blame travelers’ concerns about safety amid the drug violence on media sensationalism. However, I feel that I would be remiss in my duties as a travel writer were I not to ask about what authorities are doing to protect visitors.
“Mexico is a large country,” she says. “We have 2,500 municipalities, which are the equivalent of the counties here in the U.S. Out of those 2,500, eighty have issues. When you do the math, you will see that is less than 5 percent. Now, do we have a challenge, an issue? Yes, absolutely! But it’s very localized. Most of the towns are close to the border. The tourist areas are fine. A lot of the time, you will see that they are thousands of miles away from these places.”
Yeah, I get it. I know that Cancun is about a 1,000 miles away from Nuevo Laredo by air and that Los Cabos is about 800 miles away from Tijuana. I also understand that those visiting any American city are just as likely, if not more likely, to become the victim of a crime than anyone visiting Mexico’s tourist destinations. Nevertheless, when I visit a foreign country, I want to get away from the tourism centers for at least a little while and experience authentic local culture. Unfortunately, the travel advisories make this sound like a bad idea.
On the other hand, I did have a pretty good time in Puerto Vallarta’s resort district when I visited a few years ago, and I’m dying to get to Cancun soon. Several of the other topics that came up during my conversation with Guevara only further whetted my appetite for Mexico’s charms.
For instance, sustainability is such a high priority for Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon that it appears as one of 10 major themes in a national list of action items adopted to boost tourism (Calderon has declared 2011 to be Mexico’s Year of Tourism). In keeping with this theme, the Mexican government is encouraging resort developers and operators to meet criteria for social, environmental and economic sustainability. One project, the Mayakoba resort in the Riviera Maya, has already been honored for achievements in sustainable tourism by the Rainforest Alliance, and other resort developers are seeking similar recognition. Furthermore, just last month, the Mexican airline Interjet made the first commercial bio-fuel flight in Latin America, traveling from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez in the southern state of Chiapas. The bio-fuel used for the flight was produced from jatropha curcas, a flowering plant harvested in Chiapas.
Tourism is Mexico’s second largest industry, behind oil, and third largest source of foreign income, behind migrant-worker remittances and oil, so it’s easy to see why Calderon and his cabinet are “all-in” on tourism. Their approach has brought an unprecedented level of investment in infrastructure during the past four years. This includes a reported $7.1 billion on roads, seaports, airports and railroads and another $1.3 billion on such tourism-focused projects as restoring world heritage locations. During this time, the private sector has kicked in a reported $15 billion. All this adds up to a lot of bright, shiny and, in increasing numbers, sustainably developed amenities just waiting to be enjoyed by visitors like us.