By Paul O’Donnell ● The Dallas Morning News
Nov 26, 2019 Updated Nov 27, 2019
Thousands of U.S. travelers will pack their beach clothes and head to Cancun’s sun-soaked coastal resorts for Thanksgiving and Christmas getaways.
The popular Mexican vacation spot tops the international destinations where Americans plan to spend the holidays, according to Airlines Reporting Corp., which tracks sales of airline tickets. It ranks as the No. 1 destination for both Thanksgiving week and the Christmas-New Year’s period.
And that’s a welcome ending to what’s been a challenging year for the region known as the Mexican Caribbean, where 80% of its economy is reliant on tourism and more than 10,000 new hotel rooms are under construction or planned in the next few years.
It’s had to contend with a triple play of troubles in 2019: Smelly seaweed invaded its typically pristine beaches during the summer months, the Mexican government redirected a $300 million fund previously dedicated to promoting the country’s top sites, and cartel-fueled violence spilled into areas near resort towns to further stoke travelers’ ever-present crime concerns.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, the executive director of promotion for the tourism board of Quintana Roo said her organization will spend about $35 million to ensure a steady flow of tourists next year. Lizzie Cole’s job is to tout Cancun and the state’s other popular destinations such as Cozumel, Riviera Maya, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum.
She was in Dallas last week to meet with American Airlines travel planners and agents about a dozen coastal cities she’s in charge of promoting. Some of the region’s key hotel operators came as well.
Before that, Cole put on road shows in Charlotte and Philadelphia. Her message: 19 million people visited the Mexican Caribbean in 2019, including over 5 million who arrived on cruise ships, and she wants them to come back.
“We have a visitor return rate of 52%,” she said. “Most have been here two or three times before. They come back because they found what they were looking for, they feel comfortable and the service they have been receiving is what they expected or even better.”
Major U.S. airlines are crucial to the cause, she said, ticking off a list of new flights being launched or bigger planes replacing smaller ones on existing routes. American Airlines will add a five-day-a-week Cozumel route from Miami. Southwest Airlines is adding new Cancun routes from Dallas, Austin, Nashville, Milwaukee and San Antonio, and a Cozumel flight from Houston.
Despite seaweed woes that Cole acknowledged sent some domestic travelers to the country’s Pacific Coast resorts, the region expects to finish this year with a 1% increase in visitors over last year.
Six out of 10 visitors to Mexico end up in Quintana Roo, a region that hosts about 30,000 destination weddings each year. Besides the U.S., Cole said visitors come from Canada, the UK, Columbia, Spain, France and other parts around the globe.
The U.S. market, which typically accounts for about 4 million visitors, was a little soft this year, she said. She cited the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft as one factor because it forced carriers like American, Southwest and United to operate with reduced capacity, including the cutting of some secondary connections.
Quintana Roo government officials, hotel operators and researchers are hatching an aggressive plan to keep seaweed from taking over its beaches next year, if there’s another algae bloom like the one this year that filled white sand beaches with what Cole described as “mountains of sargassum.”
Cole described the problem as global, stretching from South America to Texas’ Gulf Coast and as far away as Europe. By late summer, Mexico had spent $17 million to remove over half a million tons of sargassum from its Caribbean beaches.
Government officials mobilized by creating a temporary workforce to attack the complicated problem. Seawood piled up so high on some beaches that turtles were unable to climb it to lay their eggs during the summer nesting season. That also meant the seaweed couldn’t be picked up by trucks because of potential damage to nests.
“It’s beyond just having an ugly beach,” she said.
For next year, the state government ordered two barges that will float offshore to harvest seaweed before it arrives on beaches. The barges cost about $750,000 each.
“We don’t know if we’re going to have this same situation next year, but if we are, we are better prepared to counter that,” she said. “By the end of September, our beaches were clean.”
Luxury tour operator Journey Mexico posts regular updates on the state of sargassum. In a Nov. 15 post, it showed seaweed-free images taken at Riviera Maya and Isla Holbox beaches.
The Yucatan train
Quintana Roo took a $12 million to $13 million hit to its annual promotion budget after the election of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
One of the signature proposals of his campaign was to shift the nation’s tourism budget to building a “Mayan train” to link tourist hot spots and spur development along the Yucatan Peninsula. The original plan for a 948-mile route was scaled back in June in a cost-saving move.
Cole said the train could greatly benefit her region but noted that “there are a lot of indigenous communities against it because it’s going to impact their areas.” Preliminary studies are being done on the train’s sustainability, and she said there is no firm time frame for when it will be built or completed.
“It’s a big, big project,” she said.
Developers aren’t waiting for the train’s arrival. Earlier this year, for example, Palladium Hotel Group invested $280 million and opened a new 1,139-room all-inclusive resort in Costa Mujeres. Cole said there’s talk of a new Waldorf Astoria joining the lineup.
Cole said hotel occupancy rates in Quintana Roo typically run in the 80% range. STR said those rates fell below 70% during the three-month period from April to June when the sargassum invasion received extensive attention.
Hotel construction throughout the Caribbean region was up nearly 17% in October, according to hotel data firm STR. Mexico led with 16,303 rooms under construction.
A safe destination?
Violence linked to cartel turf wars receives massive media attention when it occurs near Mexico’s tourist areas. Some airlines cut back on routes in late 2018 as a result of killings and reports of tourists blacking out after consuming small amounts of alcohol. In April, gunmen burst into a bar about 4 miles from Cancun’s hotel zone and opened fire, killing five and wounding five others.
Cole said her tourism board works continuously to address those fears. She noted that the U.S. State Department has no travel restrictions in place for the Mexican Caribbean.
“We want to make sure we provide transparent information ... so people can see what’s really happening,” she said. “This is a relatively new initiative for our state, and one that many tourist destinations around the world are having to deal with as well.”
In 2019, Quintana Roo’s murder rate is down 15% and Cancun homicides dropped 25%, Cole said.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality of the world at large. There’s no place immune to danger,” she said. “However, the numbers speak for themselves. When you see the continued increase in tourist arrivals, it is clear that our destinations are absolutely safe.”
By late summer, Mexico had spent $17 million to remove over half a million tons of sargassum from its Caribbean beaches. Government officials mobilized by creating a temporary workforce to attack the complicated problem. Seawood piled up so high on some beaches that turtles were unable to climb it to lay their eggs during the summer nesting season. That also meant the seaweed couldn’t be picked up by trucks because of potential damage to nests.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.