Mexico aims to lure more Canadians after record year

The Mexico Tourism Board says about 1.6 million Canadians flocked to Mexico in 2011.

A recent slew of violent attacks on tourists in Mexico has done little to derail interest in the country as a favoured travel destination for winter-weary Canadians, a top Mexican tourism official says.

Last year marked a record-breaking year for tourism in Mexico, with 22.67 million international travellers visiting the country, the Mexican tourism board said.

Canada is an important source of visitors, second only to the United States, said Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board.

In 2005, the number of Canadians who travelled to Mexico reached 794,000, and the figure has risen every year since, according to Statistics Canada. Lopez Negrete said the number of Canadian visitors to Mexico is expected to be "scratching the 1.6 million mark" for 2011, more than double the number in 2005 and a record.

"It's a huge percentage of growth, and we believe that will continue to get better," he said.

Lopez Negrete and Gloria Guevara, the Mexican tourism secretary, recently travelled to Calgary and Vancouver to address reports of violence against tourists, including the recent murders of two B.C. residents and the beating of a Calgary woman who was staying at a five-star resort in Mazatlan.

Lopez Negrete said tourism officials wanted to reach out to their partners and talk to Canadians, knowing an incident like the attack in Mazatlan "can tarnish the entire country."

But he doesn't expect Canadians will be deterred by the reports of violence against tourists.

"I don't think Canadians will pull back," Lopez Negrete said.

Canadians represent 15 per cent of the total number of international visitors coming to Mexico, Lopez Negrete said. In the next five years, the tourism board believes it can boost that to 25 per cent of the total.

To do so, marketing campaigns will look beyond Mexico's plentiful "sun and sand" to also highlight the country's lesser explored cultural offerings, such as Mayan ruins, in the hopes of distinguishing it from such sun-destination competitors as Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Lopez Negrete said frequent, direct flights from major markets such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and even smaller ones such as Calgary, Edmonton and Hamilton should help drive tourism traffic to Mexico.

However, beautiful beaches and impressive cultural attractions may not be enough to entice some travellers to Mexico.

John Paterson of Saanich, B.C., has enjoyed several visits to the Latin American country but said he and his wife aren't sure whether they'll return.

"One of the pictures that starts to emerge is you kind of start to wonder about resorts, and the preparedness of resorts to deal with emergencies," he said. "We do enjoy Mexico, but there are other destinations to consider."

Though Brenda Summers-Gabel, a seasoned world traveller who has visited several parts of Mexico, would vacation in the country with her husband, she feels differently about her three teenage and young adult daughters.

"I'm so sorry for the shop owners. They were so polite, gave such good service and were just so caring," said the Kapuskasing, Ont., mother. "But great service and polite people are one thing, my daughters and their safety and jeopardy are quite another."

Lopez Negrete acknowledged that some violence has occurred in tourist destinations, but he said major resort areas know they must act "promptly, decisively and responsibly" when an incident involves an international tourist or even a Mexican.

Mexican officials, he said, "feel horrible" about the case of Sheila Nabb, a Calgary woman brutally assaulted in January in the elevator of her resort in Mazatlan.

"These are the kind of incidents you wish never happened."

Lopez Negrete said the Mexican justice system acted promptly and tried to help Nabb and her family "because we do care." Within a week, a Mexican man was arrested in the case and publicly confessed. But the accused later told a judge he was tortured to obtain the statement.

The tourism board official also pointed out that Mexico is a large country and most of the violence — particularly that connected to President Felipe Calderon's war against drug cartels — is localized.

"What occurs in the border towns with the U.S. is one thing that is totally different to what occurs in destinations like Cancun, Cozumel, Merida, Vallarta," Lopez Negrete said.

While news of violence such as Nabb's assault may cause some to choose a different resort or town, tourism expert Geoffrey Bird said he still expects Canadians to flock to the country.

Affordable pricing, proximity and a long history as a preferred travel destination for Canadians works in Mexico’s favour, said Bird, an associate professor of tourism at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

Denise Schleppe of Kelowna, B.C., and her husband spent a month at a condo in Mazatlan, the same city where Nabb was attacked. Her adult children visited and they toured the city on foot, in taxis and on public transit.

"We would absolutely come back."

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