Magdalena Carral, the newly named CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board (www.visitmexico.com), has both a personal and professional stake in the country’s tourism offerings. Most recently, she was Commissioner of Immigration, during which time she made significant inroads to improving the “entry experience” into Mexico.
“I was very worried about what the tourists were suffering when they entered this country,” she notes. “It is a very difficult area, because you have to work with facilitation versus security, and you have to find a very good balance,” she says. “You have to have a safe country but at the same time you must provide a good first impression. You have to ensure that people are entering your country in a nice way, and that they don’t have to wait too long because people tend to get desperate when they have to stand on lines for a long time.”
As a result, Carral made it a point to hire 500 additional employees to service Mexico’s ports of entry, a dramatic increase over the number of workers that had been appointed in the 10-year span that preceded her tenure.
And while she was actually schooled as an economist, Carral also has a strong professional background in public relations and marketing, an area that also plays closely into the needs of travel promotion. Specifically, she was president and general manager of Edelman Mexico, which assisted in handling the Sectur (Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat) public relations account.
“That really gave me great beneficial insight into the tourism sector because I now know how to work with the agency side of the business,” says Carral. “I know what to ask them for and I’m aware of the difficulties of working with the government. As a result, I’m trying to make things easier for the agency in terms of what we request of them and how we evaluate their work.”
During her time with Edelman, Carral was also able to familiarize herself with many of the important players in Mexico’s tourism market; those relationships are now key to assisting her in carrying out her role in heading up the Mexico Tourism Board, whose members are from both the private and public sectors.
Other life experiences Carral has enjoyed make her present job of promoting Mexico even more personal.
“I am also a traveler, I know my country and I am eager to promote it, it’s a very good product. This is a fantastic job to have,” she notes.
Carral’s passion for her homeland is clear as she speaks of the areas of Mexico that have yet to be discovered by U.S. luxury travelers. For example, the state of Michoacán, due west of Mexico City, is rich in cultural and natural offerings (it’s also the site of the yearly Monarch Butterfly Cultural Festival, which celebrates the phenomenal annual migration that occurs). In fact, Michoacán’s capital, Morelia, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 (Mexico has 25 UNESCO sites in all). Founded in 1541, Morelia contains more than 200 historic buildings, including restored mansions and churches. The city, whose buildings are made mostly of pink-colored stone with intricate facades, represents a blend of renaissance, baroque and neoclassical architectures.
Promoting Mexico is Magdalena Carral's passion. Here, she is shown at the Mexico Tourism Board's pavilion at ITB Berlin in March 2006
“These colonial cities (like Morelia) are working hard to develop luxury hotels because they are aware that even if you have a beautiful site, it’s not complete if you don’t have a place with quality services for tourists to stay,” says Carral.
She notes that one development that may assist these colonial cities to develop their tourism markets is the emergence of a number of low-cost carriers that fly from Mexico City to some of the less traversed regions of the country. Interjet and Volaris are just launching now; a year ago Click Mexicana began flying from Mexico City to Saltillo, Nuevo Laredo, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Huatulco, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Villahermosa and Merida.
Overall, airlift is playing a key role in the health of Mexico’s tourism industry. International flight arrivals into the country are on the rise, increasing 13.1 percent to 11.3 million in 2005 over 2004. Cruise arrivals are also on the upswing, with 6.06 million passengers entering Mexico by ship in 2005; that’s a 2.7 percent increase over 2004.
Indeed, the Mexico Tourism Board’s data indicates that travelers are visiting Mexico for more than a beach experience. Its research shows that a little less than half, or 46.7 percent, of American tourists list beach resorts as their main destination in Mexico, with another 42.7 percent listing cities as their main destination.
A COMBINED FORCE of tourism officials were on hand in Berlin at ITB in March to promote Mexico. From left to right: David Espinosa, Yucatan Tourist Board; Magdalena Carral, Mexico Tourism Board, Gabriela Rodriguez, Quintana Roo tourism and Dario Flota, Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board.
“Cancún has been the main spot they are visiting but Baja California and the Pacific Coast also offer premium resorts like the Four Seasons Punta Mita and Las Ventanas, which have very high-end facilities and everything luxury travelers are looking for,” says Carral. “We’re also a golf destination because we have very high-level golf courses designed by Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus and Robert Von Hagge. So Mexico is being positioned more and more as a premium and luxury destination,” she notes.
Luxury travel advisors should be on the watch for more high-end resort development in Mexico. Rosewood, which manages the legendary Las Ventanas in Cabo Real, is opening two resorts: La Solana in Punta Mita in 2008, and Laguna Kai on the Riviera Maya in 2007 as part of the Mayakoba development on the Riviera Maya. The ambitious Mayakoba development also includes the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, Viceroy Mayakoba, La Casa Que Canta and the Fairmont Mayakoba. Separate from Mayakoba, the Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya opens this fall.
Small Luxury Hotels of the World, meanwhile, reports that it also sees potential in the country and has in fact brought in a specialist who will solely focus on business development in Mexico, with the hope of adding to its portfolio over the next year. Meanwhile, The Leading Hotels of the World for its part added five properties in Mexico to its roster over the past two years.
The new resorts will certainly be a boon for Mexico’s already-healthy tourism industry, which in 2005 counted 22.2 million international arrivals; that’s a 7.7 percent increase over 2004. Sectur forecasts that international arrivals will increase by 5.4 percent in 2006 to 23.4 million.
How important is the U.S. market to Mexico? Of those 22.2 million visitors last year, 83 percent came from the United States; another 3.3 originated in Canada. As a result, the Mexico Tourism Board nurtures its relationship with its visitors from the north, in large part by keeping a healthy budget to fund promotional programs in the U.S. and Canada. In 2005, a total of US$29.1 million was invested on a marketing campaign, reflecting a 10 percent increase over the previous year. That healthy budget was developed via a joint venture between Mexico’s foreign key commercial partners and a cooperative comprised of the Mexico Tourism Board, local governments from 34 Mexican destinations and private, domestic tourism entities.
Increasing the number of luxury travelers to the country is a key strategy for the Mexico Tourism Board.
“We are seeking a tourist who stays more time in Mexico, spends more money and who profits from what we are offering in terms of the luxury resorts that exist in Mexico,” says Carral. “We are working in a variety of niches and one of them is certainly luxury, so we have a focused campaign in that area, with a budget allocated for that purpose. We also take part in different trade shows that are focused on luxury travelers,” she adds.
The Mexico Tourism Board advertises in magazines and other media and has a presence at trade shows for the luxury market in France, Las Vegas and New York, says Eduardo Chaillo, the Mexico Tourism Board’s regional director for the U.S. and Canada.
“We also work closely with Virtuoso agents, who specialize in using high-quality suppliers,” he notes.
Chaillo says the Mexico Tourism Board also has on its board of directors representatives from American Express, Mastercard and Visa, “which help us put together customer-relationship marketing strategies in order to reach a great amount of potential high-end visitors. We also are working very hard to position the diversity of our country through the power of our brand, relating it to culture, adventure and health tourism (spas). Within the golf tourism market we also do a lot of things all over the U.S. and Canada, always with our premier destinations as partners,” he says.
One of the major moves the Mexico Tourism Board made recently to increase its presence in the U.S. luxury market is to launch—in association with Questex Media (publisher of Luxury Travel Advisor)—the first Mexico Luxury Travel Expo, which will be held in June in Riviera Maya (see sidebar).
That event will also play a part in promoting Cancún as a re-emerging destination, following the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma last October. While the area, which is the country’s strongest generator of tourist dollars by far, saw 98 percent of its hotels suffer significant damage, Mexico’s federal government immediately invested $250 million to rebuild the resort area.
“I think the recovery has gone very well; we have now 55 percent [as of presstime] of the hotel room availability back, and an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent so it’s filling up nicely,” says Carral. “We expect to have 100 percent room availability by December.” (Note: The Ritz-Carlton Cancún reopens mid-June with a new cooking school and tennis academy.)
Cancún’s beaches are also being redone, with machines busy at work dredging the waters to restore sand to the beaches.
“You will not have the same Cancún, you will have a better Cancún, and that is the opportunity we have,” says Carral. “The federal and local governments have worked in a very coordinated manner.”
Stressing how important it was for Cancún to recover from the ravages of Wilma, Carral notes that Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo stayed in the resort area for almost two weeks after the hurricane.
“He was sleeping in a dormitory where there was no water. He was there pushing for the recovery, and that was a great example for the people of Cancún to keep on working,” she recalls.
Meanwhile, Cancún is moving ahead in other ways. Its airport is being expanded to include a second runway, while a third terminal is being built for U.S.-bound flights.
“There is also an international bid for a new airport in Tulum, so we think we may have another airport in 2007,” says Carral.
All told, while there is clearly an abundance of developing infrastructure throughout the country, as well as a plethora of luxury resorts with top-notch golf, spas and gourmet dining, Carral says Mexico’s finest offerings are found in the attitude its people have toward hospitality.
“Our people are very gracious and attentive toward tourists, that is the feedback we’ve gotten from our visitors,” she reports. “When travelers come here, they are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What we must do is meet their expectations. After all, tourism is an expectation business,” she notes.