Cancun beach

I spent last week at the Tianguis Turistico Mexican tourism fair in Cancun/Riviera Maya and I mingled with quite the upbeat crowd. The last time I attended this thing was two years ago, when most of the talk was about drug violence perceptions and the struggle to convince Americans to return in big numbers to their #1 international destination.

They’ve done some things right since then, the U.S. and European economies got better, and maybe travelers got better at reading a map. Because in 2013, Mexico welcomed 23.7 million visitors, up 3.5% from their peak in 2008, pre-crisis. I don’t think we can say a rising tide is lifting all boats, but Cancun and Los Cabos are booming—the latter up 25% in the past two years. But Mazatlan has seen a big increase and so have some interior destinations like San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca.

The big drug-slinging elephant in the room is seldom addressed however, with Michoacan spending lots of money on tourism campaigns that are falling on deaf ears and Chihuahua trying in vain to promote Ciudad Juarez as a tourist destination. Oh, if I had just 1% of Mexico’s ad budget to work with, the things I could do…

Cirque du Soleil construction

In the “new and exciting” part of the program though, lots of chatter was about Cirque du Soleil. This photo above is the current construction site, but come November there will be a fully realized, permanent show going on there, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. See a rendering of the “after” below. The Joya show is designed from the ground up as the first permanent theater outside Canada and the USA. For those willing to fork over $165 to $225, it will be a dinner show with food as showmanlike as the entertainment. You can go buy tickets now at their website.

Joya Riviera Maya

For luxury travelers, Los Cabos is getting most of the new development action. Two new golf courses are opening before the end of the year, one designed by Tiger Woods. Four new hotels are on the way in 2015, including a Ritz Carlton Reserve, a Thompson Hotel, and a JW Marriott.

A few eco-chic new developments that look promising are popping up here and there, from below Tulum to below Campeche to dots along the Pacific Coast. Since these resort projects take years to develop though, it feels like there’s a lull right now since everything came crashing down five years ago and things got delayed. I expect to see more toes dipping in the water next year for splashy hotel announcements.

One of the big announcements the president and tourism minister kept hyping though is more depressing than exciting. The successful Pueblos Magicos program, which started with 10 towns that were truly magical, was expanded over the past couple years to 52—way more than was justified by the pool of candidates. Now it’s being expanded to 100. The program is already way too diluted and at this point is starting to just look like a way to spread money out to local politicians instead of designations based on uniqueness. Probably only 20 of the pueblos get more than a trickle of foreign tourists now and once it becomes clear the designation is being handed out like parade candy, the non-domestic tourists will start taking it as seriously as “5-star hotel” labels.

Mexico tourism

Business up from sea to sea says President Nieto

But hey, I got to see President Nieto deliver a stirring speech without using notes or a teleprompter and I got to see Kevin Spacey talk about movies and filming in Mexico, so it was a good Mexico tourism show and I’m feeling optimistic about the future.