T+L spoke with Gloria Guevara, Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, in the closing days of the administration of Felipe Calderón, in whose cabinet she served, and days before the end of the cycle of the Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new era.
Q: Mexico is the number one international destination for U.S. travelers. In fact, it has grown by record numbers in 2011 and is on track to exceed these figures in 2012. To what do you attribute the growth?
A: Yes, in 2011, we had a record number of international visitors, 23.4 million. Of these, 10.1 flew into Mexico, and of those 5.7 were from the United States. First, I would have to say that the increase is due to an increased interest and appreciation in Mexico, that is, in the richness of the destination: the natural landscape, from Baja California to the Yucatán, our beaches and colonial cities, history, arts and culture, cuisine, and, of course, the hospitality of our people. But the growth in tourism also is a result of the creation, and for the first time, of an overall tourism business plan.
Q: Tell us about the plan.
A: President Calderón dedicated one full year, 2011, to tourism, to building the foundation of an integrated tourism plan and strategy, involving federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector and enterprise. This overall plan was unprecedented, involved major investment, increased budgets for infrastructure–several billion dollars alone spent on airports, railroads, and highways in the past five years–to marketing. We diversified our product, developing various segments, including multi-faceted cultural and adventure and eco-tourism programs, in addition to the ever popular sun and beach segment. And a part of our strategy also involved diversifying our outreach to foreign nationalities.
Q: From which countries come the largest number of your visitors?
A: First, the United States, then Canada, which has grown significantly, the UK, Spain, and Argentina. However, in a close sixth place is Brazil. And some months, Brazil moves into fifth place. Overall, we have visitors from more than 130 countries. And notably an increase by more than 87 percent so far this year compared to last from Russia. There is a direct flight from Moscow to Cancún but Russian tourists travel everywhere from the Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua in the north of the country, where I encountered a group, to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, and Mexico City, of course. Also, the Russians spend on average $1,000 per person per day, which is very high.
Q: Are there new destinations on the horizon?
A: Yes. As you know, Cancún, was the initiative of Fonatur, one of the arms of the ministry of tourism. Prior to its development, nothing existed there. We have developed others, notably Los Cabos and Huatulco. All are known as fully-integrated centers. The new development is Playa Espiritú on Mexico's Pacific coast, approximately 80 kilometers south of Mazatlán. The plan would be for it ultimately to be twice the size of Cancún in terms of hotel rooms, with approximately 44,000. It would include a marina and golf. We are in the process of building the infrastructure and we are including all the experience we have gained from the other developments so that Espiritú is 100% sustainable.
Q: Traditional Mexico cuisine was recently designated by UNESCO to its list of intangible cultural heritage or cultural treasure. Along with the traditional French gastronomic meal, this citation represented the first time UNESCO considered food. What does this signify?
A: As part of the declaration, we completed a data base and were able to determine that there exist at least 1,500 traditional dishes, which speaks to the diversity of the foods as well as the forms of cooking. Partly as a consequence, we have developed 18 gastronomical routes, which can take the traveler throughout the country, allowing them to try various specialties, learn to cook some of them, and visit cultural sites along the way. Particularly interesting are the cocinas tradicionales of the indigenous people in Michoacán, tied to the Day of the Dead celebrations. The UNESCO designation offers a great opportunity for us to share what we have. There are seven different levels of Mexican cuisine, the most sophisticated and difficult to prepare involves ingredients that are not found outside of the country. Like the notion of terroir and French wine, the ingredients depend on the type of soil—and certain foods and ingredients grow only in Mexico.
Mario R. Mercado is arts editor at Travel + Leisure.