As Mexico works to diversify the country’s tourism offering beyond its world-famous resorts, towns such as Real de Catorce highlight the opportunities and challenges facing such a strategy. Real de Catorce is one of Mexico’s 111 Pueblos Mágicos (magical towns), a group of villages identified by the Ministry of Tourism (Secretaría de Turismo, SECTUR) as having outstanding cultural riches, natural beauty or historical relevance.
Surrounded by mountains, with a beautiful cathedral and attractive colonial buildings, Real de Catorce fulfils all the criteria of a pueblo mágico. In 2000 the nearby Cerro Quemado mountain was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its importance to the Huíchol native people. For most of the 20th century the town lay practically abandoned following the closure of its main mine. Tourism has breathed new life into the town.
Towards Inclusive Growth
To date the benefits from tourism have been unevenly distributed across the country. Around 9m Mexicans are employed by the tourism industry, but these jobs focus around the main resort towns. Half of all hotel beds are found in just eight cities, Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, said during the presentation of the organisation’s “Tourism Policy Review of Mexico” in January 2017. The OECD warned that the resort model had matured and was at risk of falling foul of changing consumer demand. SECTUR’s goals of inclusive and sustainable growth were unlikely to be achieved, the report argued, unless a market-led policy facilitating destination diversification and offering support for small and medium-sized tourism enterprises was adopted. “Mexico has to bridge the gap when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability,” José Luis Castro, director-general of travel agency CTS, told OBG. “The country is growing fast with promising new opportunities in various sectors, but we must take the lead to grow in a smart and sustainable way.”
In December 2016 the Mexican Tourism Promotion Council (Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México, CPTM) held a summit in Campeche with the theme of “Co-creating the new era of Mexico tourism”. The CPTM said it “plans to continue to go beyond sun and beach and also leverage Mexico’s rich historical, cultural, gastronomic and mega-biodiversity products to diversify the tourism offering for today’s savvy traveller seeking multiple experiences during a visit”.
The only road into Real de Catorce passes through a 2.5-km one-way mining tunnel. Visitors must transfer to a minibus to go through the mountain. But while Real de Catorce’s isolation adds to its charm, for many towns a lack of connectivity to major roads and a tourist-friendly public transport network is a major bottleneck to growth potential. The OECD noted that while the transport system worked well in the coastal resorts, the country faced a major challenge to develop a transport system that is safe, easy to navigate and with improved inter-modal connectivity to reach new destinations in the interior of the country. Facilities also need to be upgraded. Only 82 of the 111 pueblos mágicos have hotels and restaurants, according to the Special Commission for the Promotion of Magical Towns. In the sixteen years since the introduction of the initiative, the fortunes of the chosen towns have differed widely. For example, a forum to assess the impact of the five pueblos mágicos in the state of Zacatecas, found that they had generated just MXN110m ($6.6m) in 2016. However, the minister of tourism, Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, is bullish about the programme’s prospects. “Mexican tourism finds itself in the perfect moment to diversify its offering and attract more visitors to the interior of the republic and to the country’s 111 pueblos mágicos,” he told press at a conference in late February 2017 to promote the “Conéctate al Turismo” (Connect to Tourism) initiative, which aims to link small businesses to up-to-date information on tourism trends via a web portal.
Real de Catorce boasts a handful of up-market restaurants catering to tourists, but the local enchiladas and gordita tacos also provide a delicious and cheap option. In 2010 traditional Mexican cuisine was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and in recent years numerous tour operators have sought to leverage this recognition to run food tours across the country. In Mexico City the neighbourhoods of Condesa, Roma and Juarez have also seen a rapid increase in fine-dining options in the last five years, and in Polanco district, Quintonil was named 12th-best restaurant in the world by UK’s Restaurant magazine. In April 2017 Danish restaurant Noma will open a branch for a seven weeks in Tulum.
SECTUR has recognised 18 gastronomic routes with 155 destinations, 14 sites of natural and cultural value and, most importantly, 1500 traditional Mexican dishes and beverages. More than 500 chefs from around the country participate in the programme.
Despite playing host to one of the world’s original eco-parks, Xcaret Park in Quintana Roo, ecotourism has been overshadowed by the development of all-inclusive resorts. However, as the risk of overdevelopment and associated environmental concerns increase, SECTUR and the CPTM have begun to focus on leveraging Mexico’s biodiversity. In December 2016 Cancún hosted the 13th annual Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. “As global travel trends suggest, travellers are seeking destinations that are rich in biodiversity and sustainability,” Lourdes Berho, CEO of the CPTM, told local media during the conference. “As the fourth most mega biodiverse country in the world, Mexico is the perfect place for those looking to immerse themselves in authentic cultural, culinary and nature-filled experiences. We believe that what travellers are looking for lives in Mexico, and this is the basis of our campaign.”
With 564 species of mammals, over 1000 birds and 23,000 species of plants, there is much to protect in Mexico. In recent years President Enrique Peña Nieto has created several new national parks, including the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve, which covers the Mesoamerican reef system.
The south of the country is home to its most biodiverse regions. “Ecotourism is already strong in the south-west of the country,” Castro told OBG. “There are numerous diverse well-planned and well-promoted resorts with good security. Adventure tourism is also popular with young people and has grown quickly. For example, 10 years ago there were five places to practise white water rafting in Mexico, now there are 45.”
The diversification of the Mexican tourism industry is a crucial goal for the coming five years. The spread of tourism activity to inland towns and the south-western regions is important not only to boost foreign currency revenues but to increase employment options as well as facilitate development in some of the country’s poorest regions. If the government can tackle the twin challenges of connectivity and promotion, the potential benefits for Mexico’s forgotten corners could be huge.
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