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Special Report: High End Tourism

Staying Power, Diversity, and the Emerging Elite Niche

This is a balmy moment for Mexico’s tourism sector, the third industry in the country, representing 8.2% of GDP. The 1.7 million people it employs have worked hard to earn it a worldwide prestige and poise that have become especially evident in the last four years.

Armed with a new-found maturity – factor-30 on, yoga positions second-nature now – tourism in Mexico has a bright future well beyond sunburn and hangovers. This is something to write home about in an increasingly competitive world market where there is no time to put your feet up, much less to enjoy a margarita and be lulled by the waves.

“There have never been so many travel magazines and articles, as people devote a higher percentage of disposable income to travel,” said UK-based publisher Nigel Bolding, shortly after the Dec. 2004 launch here of the book Mexico Chic, originally conceived for the lucrative European travel market.

“People are more adventurous than they have ever been and there are so many niche operators out there.”

Standard expectations have changed, said Brian Seagrave, General Manager of the W hotel – catering mostly to business travelers – that opened in Polanco just over a year ago, Jan. 17.

“Five years ago, having high speed internet was a differentiator, but now it’s standard. Before, spas were special, and hotels just had a fitness center, while now the move is towards round the clock spa service.”

One of the observer / players in this future is Guillermo Osorno, editor of the Mexican travel publishing phenomenon Travesías. Despite the hurdle of launching just before 9/11, the magazine soon gained a reputation for being “the Condé Nast Traveler of Mexico.”

The magazine’s Mexican readers (it is also distributed in South America and the United States), between 25 and 40 and based in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Guanajuato, Veracruz and Cancun, are surprisingly affluent, Osorno said. He knows this because Travesías regularly commissions polls and surveys into Mexicans’ travel habits and the tastes of its readers.

“Every day there are more people seeking unique experiences,” Osorno said Jan. 18. “When we carry out qualitative analysis, we see a growth in ecological and sports tourism.”

The tourism market for Mexico has become more refined since 2001, Osorno affirms.

“Mexico is every day more suited for the luxury market, with a greater offer of corresponding hotels and destinations.”

Mexico’s obvious tourism strengths are its 6,000 miles of coastline and its fine climate. However, it is the country’s diversity that allows it to keep at the cutting edge, of responding to new world trends and developing new international, and national, markets.

Although over 80% of tourism in Mexico is national and, for its international visitors, beach resorts are still “the main reason” to visit the country (for the largest segment, 36%, followed by 20% to see family and friends – Sectur study on international tourist satisfaction, 2002) its cultural offer is what makes it unique and is its great reserve for the years and decades ahead.

Mexico’s diversity — marketed beyond dreariness with the phrase “los muchos Méxicos” – is evident in the country’s varied geography, flora and fauna. Its varied “tangible” cultural heritage is seen in pyramids, colonial churches, rambling haciendas, pretty contemporary Maya villages, and modern efficient cities such as Monterrey. Less tangible, but just as attractive, features range from cuisine – Mexico’s being some say the third most complex in the world after French and Chinese – to ethnicity, ranging from Zapotec communities in Oaxaca to the Purépecha in Michoacán and many more up and down the country, but especially in the southeast.

Most important for the tourism sector, the diversity is firmly established in the country’s wide range of tourism offerings, from budget and backpacking, charter groups and package tours, to exchange programs and cultural tours, business, conference and incentive tourism, eco-adventure tourism, and luxury or high end tourism.

You can snuggle down with five other people in a cozy cabin on the Malinche volcano for only 520 pesos per night (i.e. just over $8 per head), or you can pay 4,000 plus dollars per night for presidential suites in the Camino Real, the W, or the tried and tested Four Seasons.

Best of all, however, somewhere in between, you can pay from 70 dollars to 500 for a room in design or boutique hotels and converted haciendas throughout the country.

Boutique Authentique

This last segment is not new, but is newly consolidated as a niche category, and even has an official name: “Turismo Premium,” for the Mexican Tourism Board (CPTM here). Under this heading the government tourism promotion office groups boutique hotels and haciendas, golf, spas and nautical tourism.

“The premium visitor’s daily expenditure is approximately double (or more) the average of tourists to visit Mexico. It is not common for the elite tourist to make use of any tourism package service, but will rather visit the country with his own plan and chose his own hotel according to his preferences,” said the Board’s Marketing Division Director, Luis Manrique Jan. 17.

However, there is an important precursor to this niche recognition, a small hotel association started by an astute, Puerto Vallarta-based Canadian. Founded in 1999, Hoteles Boutique de Mexico, known as HBM in Spanish (or Mexico Boutique Hotels, MBH, in English), both helped identify and create this market and the appealing products that are being developed to serve it. This company is now referred to and quoted by the CPTM in its latest documents on the theme.

The association (www.MexicoBoutiqueHotels.com), currently with 31 member hotels in 20 destinations, is essentially a full-on reservation service with state of the art travel information and ability to coordinate extensive circuit trips. Its original aims were to help travelers find the kind of small, exquisite hotel, distinguished by personal service, that MBH founder John Youden liked himself – ones that were not part of a larger group or chain.

Within three years, copycat companies were proof of the pudding. This was the way to go. Major chains joined in the happy chaos, starting to misuse the term “boutique” in the heated scramble to be up there, blabbing out the word indiscriminately, sometimes applying it with unintentional comic effect to hotels with 100 plus rooms.

Others followed suit in a more cautious fashion, realizing that MBH was more than just in the right place at the right time. It was also offering quality service, analysis and follow-through. Some adopted elements of the group, such as Starwood Luxury Collection with El Careyes Beach Resort & Spa and El Tamarindo Golf Resort & Spa, both on the Pacific coast’s Costalegre.

“After qualifying the hotel for suitability to our concept, which includes individuality in style and character, intimacy of size and idyllic settings (or, in the case of city hotels, prime locations), personal inspections are made to ensure that the physical attributes are supported by our cornerstone requirement: outstanding personal service,” said Sylvie Laitre, MBH Director, on Jan.10.

“Inspections include everything from linen to food quality but genuine hospitality is necessary to make the mark.”

Villa Ganz (www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/villaganz) in Guadalajara would be a good example, a small palace where you are served an unsolicited glass of wine and little snack as you check your emails on the laptop computer by one of the antique fireplaces. The linen is the kind that makes you go to bed early, and take all your paperwork between the sheets to make the experience last as long as possible.

With regard to what executives are seeking, Laitre says, MBH requirements are twofold: “Since our parameters encourage diversity and uniqueness, we appeal to the elite travelers’ varied tastes, and our emphasis on service levels concurs with their greatest expectations – being catered to in an unpretentious and sincere manner. To put this into context, one hotel may be remote and rustic while another could be the ultimate in sumptuousness, but both will have the people factor that puts them at the top level of hospitality.”

Examples here would be the company’s dream getaway on Holbox Island, Hotel Xaloc, with its gritty and informed boat crew who accompany guests on the whale shark tour, and the Hotel del Angel in Puerto Vallarta, one of the most tasteful hotels I have ever seen, whose cocktail h