Beyond Beaches: Mexico Takes New Tack for Tourism

In a Bid to Surpass U.K., Italy as Travel Hot Spot, Country Positions Itself as Adventure and Medical Destination

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Not a lot of LinkedIn profiles start with an enthusiastic "Mexico is a country that offers a very special and unique experience to all type of visitors and tourists! ... Come and try it!! Any questions don't hesitate to let us know!"

Gloria Guevara's does. Since Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, tapped her to be secretary of tourism in March 2010, after tourism revenue plummeted in 2009 due to the triple whammy of the H1N1 flu outbreak, drug-war violence and the global economic slump, she's been applying a decade of travel-industry experience to Mexico's challenged brand.

Gloria Guevera, Mexico secretary of tourism
Gloria Guevera, Mexico secretary of tourism
In fact, Ms. Guevara's goal is for Mexico, No. 10 among the top 10 international travel destinations, to climb to the fifth slot by 2018, passing the U.K. at No. 6 and knocking off current No. 5, Italy.

"We learned a lesson in 2009," she said. That lesson is that Mexico needs to diversify and become less dependent on sun and beaches to draw tourists, as well as rely less on the U.S. market, Ms. Guevara said.

For that to happen, she is promoting Mexico as an ideal destination for everything from adventure travel to medical tourism. She and her team like to cite the example of Andres Oppenheimer, a well-known Miami Herald columnist, who needed emergency surgery while in Mexico several years ago. He recovered, analyzed all his bills and compared the cost of his medical care in Mexico with similar heart surgery in the U.S.

"It cost $45,000 in Mexico and would have cost 10 times more in the U.S.," said a Ministry of Tourism executive.

He said Mexico will start promoting medical tourism with the launch of a website this fall with information about hospitals, doctors and procedures.

For those who are more interested in hearty eating than heart surgery, Mexico began promoting 18 gastronomic routes in February, supported by a database of more than 1,500 dishes, Ms. Guevara said.

Ad campaigns that started last year are continuing, such as the international "Mexico, the Place You Thought You Knew" branding effort and, in the U.S., the Mexico Taxi Project, in which U.S. tourists returning from Mexico, unaware that their conversation is being filmed, are asked about their trip by car-service drivers.

Spending is about $160 million a year, between the Mexico Tourism Board and budgets for individual Mexican states and tour operators. But there's also a lot going on behind the scenes to lure tourists, ranging from dropping visa requirements for some countries and streamlining the process for others, to working with the banking industry to accept Chinese credit cards in Mexican ATMs.

For Russian citizens, for instance, the visa process went from 45 days to 24 hours, and the number of Russian tourists rose from 1,000 a year to 42,000 last year, Ms. Guevara said. The number of Chinese tourists rose by 30% last year and was up 32% for the first two months of 2012, as compared to the same period in 2011, she said.

To try to persuade airlines to add more flights to Mexico, an aviation consultancy called SH&E was hired. The company crunched data on 42 Mexican tourism destinations and came up with 205 new routes that could achieve more than 80% occupancy.

"We're sharing [the analysis] with U.S. airlines," Ms. Guevara said. "They like it because we did some of their work, in their language."

Before becoming secretary for tourism, Ms. Guevara was VP and general director in Mexico for Sabre Travel Network, an American travel-technology company.

Her days in office could be numbered, since Mexico elects a new president next month who is likely to make changes in government ministries after taking office in November. But Ms. Guevara points to a national tourism pact signed last year that pledges support for tourism as a national priority and a key to economic growth and development, representing 9% of Mexico's gross national product.

It was signed by not only Mexico's president but state governors, congress and the private sector, so she is hopeful the initiatives she is working on will continue.

"Last year, for the first time, we all agreed on a business plan for an entire country," she said.

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