Mexican officials are turning to the tourism sector in a drive to create a more inclusive and sustainable economy based on technological advancement, as well as value-added products and services. The National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, PND) 2019-24, released by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – commonly known as AMLO – aims to promote the responsible use of resources and reach 6% economic growth by 2024. It is expected to have a wide impact on the overall Mexican economy, and the tourism sector is no different. Tehe plan seeks to position Mexico as a popular, sustainable and inclusive destination and will use tourism’s contribution as a percentage of GDP to track progress. The government is also investing heavily in infrastructure to accommodate the growing number of tourists, from the Maya Train – a tourist connection running between the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche and Chiapas – to a new airport in Mexico City to complement Mexico City International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México, AICM), which is over capacity. New hotels and resorts are opening as a result of the infrastructure development, highlighting the central role tourism plays in supporting economic growth.

Tourism Strategy

Mexico’s plans for tourism go beyond the PND 2019-24. In February 2019 AMLO announced the National Tourism Strategy (Estrategia Nacional de Turismo, ENT) 2019-24 to complement the overarching economic development plan. The ENT 2019-24 focuses on five pillars: the integration and development of the south-east regions with high-impact infrastructure projects; the regionalisation of destinations into macro-regions to encourage wider development; efforts to increase tourist spending; the utilisation of tourism to generate economic wealth for Mexicans in underdeveloped locations; and the diversification of source markets.

Under this umbrella, there will be five major projects to help achieve the goals of the ENT 2019-24. The first will be the Maya Train, to which the government has allocated MXN65bn ($3.4bn). The second will be to group tourist sites into eight regions to encourage those visiting Mexico City, for instance, to explore other destinations nearby. The third project will target domestic tourists and will seek to reduce seasonality in the segment. To this end, the state is introducing the Disfruta México (Enjoy Mexico) marketing strategy that will encourage tour operators and strategic partners to offer low-cost tourist packages. For the fourth, two programmes were proposed to diversify source markets. Operación Toca Puertas (Operation Open Doors) will focus on attracting tourists from countries with high purchasing power such as those from the US, the UK, the EU, the UAE, India, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The Reencuentro con mis Raíces (Reunion with my Roots) strategy will target Mexican-Americans.

Lastly, the fifth project will see the implementation of multi-sector endeavours to ensure the areas around tourist locations meet basic infrastructure needs such as housing, drinking water, drainages and electricity. “We want to support tourism and, at the same time, support the regions that have lagged in terms of growth and in terms of development,” AMLO told local media.

Flying High

In a referendum held in October 2018 voters rejected the completion of the partially built multibillion-dollar new airport 25 km north-east of Mexico City, which caused work on the facility to come to a halt. However, 69% of voters rejected the New Mexico International Airport and only 1m people – or around 1% of the total electorate – participated. Before taking office the president had criticised the airport as an improper use of resources with significant environmental impact. He then proposed building an airport in Santa Lucía, around 50 km north of the existing AICM, which is over capacity. At a cost of MXN78.6bn ($444.7m), the proposed Santa Lucía airport was expected to have a maximum annual passenger capacity of 20m to offset AICM’s passenger load.

Because of the distance between Santa Lucía and AICM, however, authorities estimate there would need to be an additional MXN11.9bn ($615.3m) invested to boost connectivity between the two facilities. Central to this would be a new 45.7-km road connecting the two airports with exclusive lanes for bus transfers. However, there remain concerns that the distance will make the airports inconvenient and uncompetitive. “If you were flying to Mexico City internationally and have to go to Santa Lucía to fly domestically to Aguascalientes, it would be faster to drive or take a bus to Aguascalientes, which is not very comfortable for someone who has already travelled quite a distance,” Beat Wille, general country manager for Mexico at BCD Travel, told OBG.

Santa Lucía is one of three airports that the authorities have proposed developing to boost capacity and serve the capital city. It may operate alongside AICM and an international terminal in the state capital of Toluca. However, in August 2019 a judge issued a ruling that suspended construction. Later that same month a judge overruled the environmental approval given to the Santa Lucía airport by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. The path forward is unclear after a series of legal challenges and setbacks, but in September 2019 AMLO told local media that he expects soon there will be “no legal obstacle” to its construction.

Tourist Train

The Maya Train project, already under way, will construct seven train lines running a total of 1470 km at a cost of MXN150bn ($7.8bn). An estimated MXN65bn ($3.4bn) will come directly from the state and the remaining funds from private and social enterprises. The railway will transport tourists, as well as freight, across the region. Importantly, it will allow the tourist economy in Cancún and other resorts to spill into less prosperous areas. The train was originally conceived to have 15 stations, but in August 2019 officials from the National Fund for the Development of Tourism announced it would add three more stations: Cancún Centro and Chetumal in Quintana Roo, and El Triunfo in Tabasco. In September 2019 the government announced it was preparing to invite bids on the project. While the project is an opportunity for tourists to explore more of Mexico, it also makes acute the need for increased investment in basic infrastructure and services. “At the very least there needs to be services like running water and bathrooms, and many of our archaeological sites are in jungle areas,” Nicolás Cano Ibarra, director of strategic planning at the Ministry of Tourism, told OBG. “They offer only basic amenities and are poorly connected to nearby towns and villages. Establishing better connections to these cultural heritage sites is essential.” The challenge, he said, is to construct the facilities needed to make the sites tourist-friendly without causing harm to the environment and communities living there.

Resort Living

Hotel and resort facilities are expanding to meet the increased demand from the improved tourist infrastructure. There will be 352 new hotels opening between 2019 and 2022, according to consulting firm CBRE. Luxury all-inclusive resorts continue to dominate the new openings. In Los Cabos, Zadún, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve development, opened in the spring of 2019, with 115 rooms, suites and villas, all with butler services and terraces overlooking the sea. In April of that year the Hotel Nobu Los Cabos opened, with 200 rooms. In November 2019 the resort city will see the opening of the Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos in Costa Palmas, which will have 145 rooms, three bars and restaurants, four swimming pools and a spa. However, the expansions are not only targeting couples and others looking for a relaxing beach holiday. In 2020 a Nickelodeon resort is expected to open, with 276 ocean-front suites, four themed penthouses, and a 500,000-sq-feet area with a water park and playground.

Investment in tourism and supporting infrastructure such as utilities, transport and accommodation is expected to fuel continued growth in the sector, which despite some turbulence, has expanded every year from 2011 to 2018. The successful implementation of the government’s programmes under the PND is likely to determine whether officials can transform tourism growth into equitable long-term economic expansion.