Despite Dark Clouds, Mexico Continues to Shine as Meeting Destination

Mexico's idyllic beaches, calm oceans, and ancient culture are enticing. Unfortunately, the recent wave of violence that has been splashed all over U.S. newspapers hasn't done Mexico's beleaguered tourism industry any favors. A recent USA Today story reported that according to the latest official statistics, "the horrific violence that is jacking up the national death toll is largely in nine of Mexico's 31 states," and that while Mexico's 2009 murder rate was still more than twice as high as the U.S.'s rate, the murder rate of two per 100,000 people in Yucatan, the Gulf of Mexico state known for its beaches and Mayan ruins, was comparable to [the rates of] Wyoming and Montana."

Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, and resort areas and tourist destinations do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major drug trafficking routes, according to the U.S. State Department in its most recent Mexico travel advisory. Nevertheless, it adds, "Violence has occurred throughout the country, including in areas frequented by American tourists." To make matters worse, Cancun's mayor was arrested in May on suspicion of protecting two violent drug gangs as he campaigned for governor.

Many members of Mexico's tourism industry, still recovering from last year's troubles caused by the swine flu outbreak, say U.S. perceptions of the country don't match reality.

"The challenge we're having is that the media has not been on our side as far as crime is concerned," explains Andy Ortiz, president and owner of Global Incentive, a Mexico destination management company, past president of Meeting Professionals International's Mexico chapter, and president of Mexico Showcase. "Crime in Cancun is next to zero. Sure, there is crime in the north part of Mexico, where drug cartels try to smuggle drugs into the States. This is nothing new. It's 2,000 miles away."

Great Rates Available

Cancun has had obstacles to overcome. "Between the swine flu and the reports of crime, Cancun has gotten hit pretty hard," says Dianne E. Heffernan, CTC, CMP, director of meetings for Melville, NY-based Austin Meeting Services. "The result is, for this year and next, [hospitality] rates are incredibly great. The destination is hurting and is looking for business."

She has traveled to Cancun seven times since September 2009 for site inspections and to manage programs. "I feel it's a very safe destination. I will go again and will even take my family. There truly is something for everyone. From inexpensive properties to five-star, five-diamond hotels, if you can't find what you're looking for there, it probably doesn't exist."

Heffernan helped plan an 88-attendee sales meeting at the Aqua Cancun resort in April for a reverse pharmaceutical distribution company, and a 25-person incentive for a technology company in June at Le Blanc Spa Resort.

"For meetings and incentives, they get it. They understand what it takes to service these types of programs. The staff is extremely personable. They bend over backwards to make your attendees happy," says Heffernan. "The airlift is amazing. It's one of the easiest places to bring people, and airfare is reasonable."

A highlight of the 25-attendee technology firm incentive was a cocktail reception aboard the Black Pearl, an authentic replica of an old-fashioned pirate ship, followed by dinner at Harry's Prime Steakhouse and Raw Bar, where there was music and a cigar roller.

It was in October 2005 that Hurricane Wilma pounded Cancun, battering everything. Now, nearly five years later, Cancun is better than ever, with its beach restored to its old glory.

"It's like a brand-new destination. There are new hotels, restaurants, and marinas," says Ortiz. Add great airlift, unique activities like zip lining in the jungle or speed-boating through the mangroves, and good value and you have an attractive destination.

New Hotels Come On

The number of hotels to choose from in Mexico for your meeting or incentive is staggering. Secretary of Tourism Gloria Gueva Manzo recently announced that hotels in Mexico have experienced substantial growth. The number of available hotel rooms in the country increased 4.6 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2009.

The newest addition to the Rosewood Hotels & Resorts lineup, the Rosewood San Miguel del Allende, eponymously named for its location, will open in January 2011. The 67-room hotel is accepting reservations at a special introductory rate. The hotel features 5,140 sf of indoor meeting space, as well as prefunction space, a rooftop terrace, an event lawn, and an outdoor amphitheater.

A new attraction is about to be unveiled in Chihuahua's Copper Canyon, one of the largest canyon systems in the world. In the canyon's new Adventure Park is a new, multimillion-dollar cable car system with two cars running simultaneously, one in each direction. Each car has a maximum capacity of 60 passengers, meaning 510 passengers can be transported per hour.

Chihuahua is also home to many unique historical locations. From mansions that have stood since the Mexican Revolution, to the iconic Palacio Federal (now known as Casa Chihuahua), to Pancho Villa's grave, Chihuahua's history cannot be captured wholly in any history book. This amazing city is also one of the stops on the Millenary Tarahumaras route, one of the new "Routes of Mexico," a tourism program created to show travelers all that Mexico has to offer.

The Mexico Tourism Board is aggressively promoting cultural tourism. Casa de los Venados, a 400-year-old hacienda-style house in Valladolid, Mexico, with a more-than-3,000-piece collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art owned by two former meetings industry veterans, fits this bill perfectly. (See more on Casa de los Venados and the couple who owns this amazing gem.)

With a wealth of culture waiting to be discovered by tourists, Mexico President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa affirmed his commitment to tourism.

"Mexico can and will be an economic powerhouse when it comes to services," says Calderon. "As our economy continues to evolve, the financial and tourist services industries will be the engines of our economy in the future. For this reason we are betting heavily on tourism."

Calderon also reiterated his administration's responsibility to protect tourists. "Mexico has a government committed to the safety of its visitors and citizens," says Calderon. "Its citizens are eager to show their generosity and hospitality to any friend from any part of the world."

The Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau has allocated $1.5 million to promote its destination and educate potential visitors about the geographical distance between the area of heavy crime and Cancun. The reality is hotel occupancy is down 20 percent, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. "Our group business for 2011 is looking very good—an increase of over 25 percent from last year. I guess people are starting to see the big picture," declares Ortiz.

Originally published Oct. 1, 2010