Mexico's tourism sector shifting focus to niche segments and secondary cities

New flight routes added to Mexico’s secondary cities are attracting more visitors and investment to these destinations, creating a positive cycle of growth. Tourists are increasingly venturing out of Mexico’s four traditional tourist centres – Mexico City, the Mayan Riviera with Cancún as the star attraction, the Riviera Nayarit with Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos – to visit the rising destinations of Campeche, Yucatán and Oaxaca. Furthermore, the number of direct international flights to the country rose substantially in 2017. Some 2.6m seats were added over the course of the year to bring the total to 28m, representing growth of 10.2%. “These new routes and expanded capacity will enable us to continue to grow our share of travellers from established markets in North America and Europe, as well as expand in high-potential markets such as China, Japan and Korea,” Héctor Flores, CEO of the Tourism Board of Mexico, told local media in December 2017.

Asian Markets

The number of Asian airlines looking to enter the Mexican market has risen steeply in recent years. All Nippon Airlines (ANA) began making direct flights between Mexico City and Tokyo in February 2017, which was followed by China Southern Airlines launching flights from Shanghai to Mexico City via Tijuana in April of that year. Hainan Airlines, China’s largest private airline, became the first Chinese carrier to operate non-stop flights to Mexico in March 2018. Mexico’s carriers have similarly been adding services to various destinations in Asia, for instance in May 2017 national flag carrier Aeroméxico launched flights between Mexico City and Seoul via Monterrey.

The rising demand for flights from Asia could partly be due to ad campaigns run by the Ministry of Tourism (Secretaría de Turismo, Sectur) which promote the sights of Mexico to Asian source markets. A particular focus has been on working with tourist agencies based in Asia for the provision of customised language tours and services in Japanese and Mandarin, which are currently in limited supply. The sector’s local workforce overall is lacking Asian language skills. “Tourists from Asia are often seeking culture and archaeology,” Carlos Trujillo Balmaseda, executive president of the Mexican Association of Tourism Developers, told OBG. “On limited occasions there are guides at these sites that can speak Mandarin, but there also needs to be guides that can speak Korean, Japanese and Cantonese.”


The UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) declared 2017 the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development”. To this end, Mexico’s government departments related to tourism at both the federal and state levels signed an agreement expressing their dedication to work towards more sustainable practices at the annual industry summit Tianguis Turístic in 2017. As such, ecotourism is being highlighted as a focal point of sector development in 2018, though there has already been significant progress made over the past few years.

In 2012 Sectur launched its Programme for Sustainable Tourism in Mexico in an effort to consolidate sustainability growth throughout the sector. A certification called “Distintivo S” was formed to award companies in all subsectors of the tourism economy – including accommodations, restaurants and various service providers – that implemented effective waste management systems and practised environmental sustainability. More than 300 tourism companies had received the distinction as of early 2018, and since the broader initiative was launched in 2012, the number of natural protected areas has increased by 257%, with the total standing at 182 as of March 2018.

The private sector is leading eco-friendly initiatives as well, such as the Sustainable and Social Tourism Summit Cancún, the second edition of which was held in March 2018. This event brings together local and international industry experts to discuss development strategies that balance inclusive economic growth with environmental solutions. “Sustainability is a necessity and is demanded by tourists; it is no longer just a trend. These types of sustainable and ecological practices have become almost a requirement during tourism development,” Trujillo told OBG.

Smart Destinations

An even more ambitious initiative that aims to develop wholly sustainable tourist destinations, cities and communities – called Smart Destinations – is starting to take off in Mexico. Originally launched in Spain by UNTWO and Spain’s Ministry of Energy, Tourism and Digital Agenda half a decade ago, Smart Destinations focuses on four pillars of development: technology, innovation, accessibility and sustainability. The concept involves using innovations in technology to propel sustainability in the communities and areas surrounding tourist attractions. The programme seeks to develop sustainability in an economic sense, alongside the development of environmentally friendly practices. The end goal of the scheme is to support the local economy, and to this end it mostly engages with tourism providers from the area.

Destinations that sign up for Smart Destinations undergo a four-year trial period, during which they are called “Smart Destinations in Progress”. After this period they are audited to assess how they have advanced in the four pillars of development. If they pass the audit, they are awarded the title of “Smart City”. At the moment, Tequila in the state of Jalisco is in its third year as a Smart Destination in Progress and has taken major steps towards achieving its objectives. Cozumel, a famous tourist beach off the coast of Playa Del Carmen in the Mayan Riviera, is also classified as a “Smart Destination in Progress” and is in its initial stages towards certification. San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa, and the Valle de Guadalupe Wine Route in Baja California are all looking at taking part in the programme as well.


To build on progress such as this, stakeholders have pointed to a need to address the substantial infrastructure developments at many Mexican tourist destinations. Higher levels of government investment are needed to not only improve the sustainability of the sector in these places, but also to provide for the surrounding communities who live there, according to Pablo Azcárraga, president of the National Tourist Business Council. “Destinations like Los Cabos or the Mayan Riviera, which have had enormous economic growth and population due to the tourism industry, have not received the public funding necessary to implement new infrastructure such as roads,” he told OBG.

More funds also need to be funnelled into infrastructure for tourism centres to be environmentally and economically sustainable. Implementing local and state tourist taxes could help achieve this, with the resulting funds then channelled into keeping destinations up to international standards. “We have alerted the authorities that if these changes are not made cities may lose their natural attraction for tourists. An example of this is Acapulco, which, due to lack of development, has become less appealing to tourists,” Azcárraga told OBG.

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The Report: Mexico 2018

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