MERIDA, Mex. – Despite relentless coverage of the Mexican drug war by U.S. news media over the last several years, tourism to Mexico is rebounding strongly.
Following three years of sharp decline that began in April 2009, when fears over H1N1 – the virus commonly known as “swine flu” -- effectively shut down most of the nation to foreign travel, visitors arriving in Mexico by air jumped to 22 million in 2011. That number is expected to increase again this year, as worldwide interest in the “end of time” 2012 phenomenon -- the ancient calendar of the Maya ends in December 2012 -- shifts into high gear. The end of the calendar cycle has generated worldwide interest, resulting in a variety of end-time theories, documentaries and even a big-budget Hollywood film.
During the peak of the H1N1 crisis in 2009, Mexico came to a halt as schools, museums, shopping centers and movie theaters were ordered shut, causing hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors to cancel their vacations and trips. While averting a public health crisis, the forceful action taken by Mexican authorities had unintentionally sent the tourism industry into a tailspin.
Since then, the combination of global economic recession and drug-related violence had only exacerbated the decline in tourism.
Today, that is all changing.
"We envisage that 2012 will be a record-breaking year for Mexico in terms of tourism numbers," says Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, Chief Operating Officer of the Mexico Tourism Board. "Mexico's tourism industry is undergoing a stunning transformation -- based on a bold strategy of diversification -- focused on promoting a broader range of tourism products (i.e. cultural tourism, adventure travel and health related-tourism) aimed at attracting a new breed of global consumer."
Even the U.S. State Department has begun to recognize the nuanced nature of “safety” in Mexico, issuing Travel Advisories that reflect what the vast majority of visitors are likely to encounter on the ground in Mexico: “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day,” the State Department reports in its most recent advisory. “The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes.”
Over the past two years, Mexicans have worked to create exceptional travel experiences for visitors. In the southern state of Oaxaca, for instance, the political tumult and street protests of recent years caused by a teacher strike have settled down, and that area of the country is again experiencing a tourism boom, evidenced by frequent advertisements in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker and various travel magazines. Outfits like Oaxaca Culinary Tours are showcasing both food and mescal – an increasingly popular liquor distilled from a variety of cactus found in Oaxaca called maguey. And popular restaurants, like Casa Crespo have built up international followings with menus that feature artisanal food made with local ingredients.
As tourism rebounds in Mexico, more balanced coverage is being reported in the U.S. media. The New York Times, for instance, recently profiled Oaxaca as a “safe” location in its “36 Hours” travel series. The exposure generated tremendous buzz on social media sites, with Americans wanting to know more. As a result, the image of Oaxaca as a colonial city defaced by graffiti and engulfed in labor unrest now seems a distant memory, replaced by a charming place filled with fine foods, artisans making wonderful crafts – from wood carvings to delicate jewelry – and visitors intent on sampling some of the finest mescal produced in the state.
Nothing, however, currently compares to the growing foreign interest in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico’s southeastern region and the ancestral home of the Maya. When “36 Hours in Merida” – Merida is the capital of Yucatan state -- was published two months ago in the New York Times, it generated a great deal of buzz among travel agents. The Merida Bed & Breakfast Association even fashioned an “ideal” weeklong itinerary in Merida to help answer the many questions they were receiving from Americans inquiring about what to do while in town.
In fact, interest in Merida has increased so much that there is now a dedicated series of books for Americans wishing to relocate there. Edited by Eduviges Montejo, The Essential Guide to Living in Merida routinely sells out on Amazon.com. “Not a day goes by without emails from Americans with specific questions,” Eduviges Montejo said. “These queries help shape how each new edition will evolve. For example, we’re now listing a section on bakeries, slow food markets and gourmet shops in the guide, since that’s what readers ask about.”
The Yucatan is also earning a reputation as the place to go to learn about chocolate. In July 2011 the Eco-Museo del Cacao opened to the public, the first ecological park that tells the history of chocolate, from the evolution of the cacao tree to the discovery of chocolate by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, to its ascendance as a delectable food enjoyed around the world. The Eco-Museo del Cacao is a multi-million dollar investment, primarily by Belgian investors. The artisanal chocolates made in Merida found a loyal following after American Express published a story in their magazine, Departures, in September 2011, and now the sweets, called Ki Xocolatl, are being sold on Amazon.com.
The increase in tourism to the peninsula has also acted to diversify the region’s image. What was once an industry that revolved around the flashy discoteques and resort hotels of Cancun, is now becoming the ultimate destination for a more hip and discerning traveler. “Welcome to Tulum, a destination so popular with the fashion crowd this time of year that it almost feels like Fashion Week,” Bob Morris reported in the New York Times last month. “While Teva-wearing backpackers look for sea turtles and New Age naïfs look for nirvana, the fashion obsessed don’t have to look at all to find one other. They are everywhere, artfully dressed down in high-peasant style.”
Growth in tourism has been so robust that a new airport is being planned to accommodate the overflow from Cancun’s international airport. “The infrastructure to support a new airport is in place,” says Shawn Bandick, a Canadian realtor in Playa del Carmen. “They’re putting millions of dollars into infrastructure.” The Maya Riviera International Airport will be near Tulum, closer to the resorts of Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Tulum and the “eco-parks” to the south.
The resurgence in tourism reflects not just a renewed interest on the part of American travelers, but also a strong influx of European visitors. According to Mexico’s Tourism Secretary, 2011 saw increased tourism from Spain (6 percent), Italy (10.5 percent) and France (12.4 percent), to go along with the United States (10.6 percent, despite a 3 percent decrease in air travel) and Canada (9.1 percent). Even more astounding are the increases in tourism from China (30 percent), Russia (55 percent) and Brazil (66 percent).
What the numbers and new media coverage show is that the world is beginning to shift it’s view of Mexico as a destination -- not just for cartel bosses and traffickers, but for travelers seeking refuge from a troubled and troubling world.