Mexico tourism record

It looks like Mexico is back in the groove. At the Tianguis Turistico conference I attended last week, government officials and the private sector were celebrating impressive growth numbers and a new record for the number of foreign visitors.

It’s one thing when a tiny country with less than a million annual visitors posts double-digit growth, but when a nation that’s already one of the most popular in the world says visitors were up 20% and revenue was up 16%, that’s downright impressive. Despite years of negative publicity on U.S. cable news, visitor numbers from Mexico’s northern neighbor were up 11.8%

Another stat released was that visitors who arrive by air spend an average of $950 per person. Given that many people come for less than a week, that’s a healthy figure. This isn’t hurt by the fact that the country has some of the best luxury beach resorts in the world, as well as some fine hacienda hotels and converted colonial mansion city hotels.

luxury hacienda hotel

If 2015 continues the way it has started out, Mexico may break another record and continue to move up in the world rankings. Visitors from the USA were up 11% over last year in January, after a particularly brutal winter in parts of the Midwest and Northeast. It was the best January overall since 2007 and hotels in hurricane-hit Los Cabos were operating at close to full capacity. (That area is at about an 80% recovery level, but some of the top luxury hotels are still not open yet as of the end of March.)

All this is despite some clear hurdles. It was no accident that the Tianguis event was held in Acapulco. This is a city that got 13% of all foreign visitors to the country in 2003. Two decades later, after episodes of violence and other problems, it’s mostly a domestic destination, attracting only 3.6% of the foreigners. There’s been little intersection between the drug cartels and tourism, but the perception still dogs Michoacan, Guerrero, and all the border states.

huasteca waterfall

On the plus side, the breadth of offerings seems to be catching on. Away from the coasts, adventure travel has mostly been a domestic affair, but there’s been a slow and steady rise of foreign thrill seekers to Chiapas, Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, and other outdoor adventure spots. Plus more people are branching out from the gateway airport thanks to effective promotions by Baja Sur, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan states.

Mexico is third in the world for the number of UNESCO World Heritage Cities—the other two being in Europe. I’m personally not real thrilled with the expansion of the Pueblos Magicos: the list is becoming less and less magical as it is diluted with also-ran places, but at least it’s drawing attention to destinations that really deserve it, like Tequila, Valladolid, Patzcuaro, and Cuetzalan. I’ll be heading to the historic hidden mining town of Real de Catorce next week, so more on that soon!