Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Plan to move visitors beyond resorts spurs hot -- and tepid -- reactions

CANCUN -- The proposed rail link between the Riviera Maya and Merida to bring tourists beyond Cancun and the Riviera Maya provoked a passionate -- and negative -- response from area hoteliers, and the suggested elevation of Cancun Airport to become a regional hub and expand tourism into four neighboring states stirred little enthusiasm from wholesalers and resort executives attending last week's Mexico Travel Industry Summit here. 
The resort executives predicted the train would increase the presence of cruise lines in the region, which they oppose. 

Carnival Cruise Lines calls at Calica, south of Playa del Carman in the Riviera Maya, and last year Carnival Corp. expressed interest in making further investments at the port. 

Hoteliers painted a scenario in near-apocalyptic tones. 

"There should be a law against cruise ships having a homeport here," said Gibran Chapur, executive vice president of Palace Resorts, which has 4,000 rooms in seven hotels in Cancun and the Riviera Maya and whose Le Blanc Resort was the summit's venue. "If [a homeport] comes here, passengers take all the air seats, stay for a weekend and then never return for a vacation. Everyone's going to lose: tour operators, airlines, hotels, the government." 

Chapur later said he opposed not only homeports but any expansion of cruise line activity at Calica and that having the train begin in the Riviera Maya was worrisome because cruise lines would be able to offer convenient day excursions to Chichen Itza. 

Cancun Hotel Association President Roberto Cintron expressed fear that the train would be "a pretext" to build a homeport. "We're really concerned because it could destroy the hotel industry," he said, adding that the island of Cozumel, about 46 miles off the coast of the Riviera Maya, provided a cautionary tale of engaging with cruise lines. Cozumel has an active cruise port, and he said that the island, with roughly the same number of visitors as Cancun, earned about $150 million in tourism revenue, compared with approximately $3.75 billion for Cancun. 

The comments were made during a panel of hoteliers, and Mexico Tourism Board CEO Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete was in the front row as the hoteliers spoke. He said that the board had not taken an official position on homeporting in Calica. "At the end of the day, it would be a business decision made in conjunction with municipal, state and federal authorities, and those authorities would not go against what is best for private sector," he said. "Any decision would need strong, solid consensus and generate jobs, taxes and increase the welfare of Mexicans." 

The panel, comprising Cintron, Chapur and representatives of all-inclusive chains, was asked whether members would consider building hotels in adjoining states in support of the MTB push to make Cancun a regional transport hub for tourism. 

"I can tell you we would not," said Gonzalo del Peon, president of AMResorts. "We manage big resort hotels. It's a great initiative to have a train to go to Chichen Itza, but we'd see it as an extension from our beach resorts." 

John Long, vice president of sales and marketing for Iberostar, said his company wouldn't rule out building in one of the adjoining states. "We'd probably look for a hacienda" to convert, if Iberostar were to get involved, he said. 

Chapur said Palace, which has a property in Merida, saw value in the train to add incremental nights but only "if there is a link to [Cancun's] airport, the ticket costs below $60 and the train does not take more than an hour and a half." The main benefit of the link, he said, would be for Merida citizens to go back and forth more easily to Cancun, but if even 200,000 more tourists per year visited Merida by train, benefits would be "explosive" for the city. 

Still, he worried aloud that his business would be damaged if Merida cannibalized room nights away from Cancun/Riviera Maya: "If we have a six-night average stay here, we don't want to have four." 

Oliver Kluth, senior vice president of sales and business development for Riu, noted that "we already have [a non-beach resort property] that would be comparable," in Marrakech. "But before we invest, we'd need to see whether tour operators would support it." 

That support did not seem forthcoming, at least not from the tour wholesalers in the audience. 

Marg Mulholland, president of Gogo Worldwide Vacations, said she felt that consumers who come to enjoy the sun and sand in Cancun/Riviera Maya and those interested in touring ruins and colonial cities "are two different customers. Americans have limited vacation time. There may be an opportunity, but it's away from my core business." 

The beach and the cultural aspects of Mexico "are not easily packaged together," said Funjet President Mike Going, and if put together, "you can't scale that up. You can have those components for sale, plus scheduled air as an FIT -- it's doable -- but not as a [mass-market] package." 

And Pleasant Holidays CEO Jack Richards added that such packages would require extensive training for travel agents. "For 20 years, we've been talking about beach destinations. It's what they know," he said. 

However, MTB Marketing Director Gerardo Llanes noted that Canadian tour operators were already thinking about putting together Cancun, Merida, "plus." 

In concluding the discussion, Lopez-Negrete explained the genesis of the push. If Mexican tourism is going to grow through a focus on existing destinations rather than building new projects, he said, "let's begin with the southernmost five states. Why? Because the five states in Mundo Maya [where Mayan ruins are found] are free from any travel warnings. That's very important. We have stable situations in all of these states, along with a wealth of experiences, including some of the best archaeological sites in the world -- not just Mexico -- and gastronomy, beauty and culture. Let's get the product ready and train the trade."

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