Tourism has contributed significantly to Mexico's employment, foreign direct investment, and economic growth over the past three decades. However, challenges and obstacles could prevent the industry achieving its full potential. US economic recession is likely to highlight dependency on North American visitors, and the need to implement more ambitious policies to diversify tourist markets and countries of origin.
Mexico is the most important tourist destination in Latin America. According to the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), the country receives around 30% of income from international tourism in the region:
· In the past 20 years, tourism (domestic plus international visitors) has constituted an average of 8% of Mexico's GDP and 5.7% of employment.
· This is significant, particularly given that the Mexican economy is much more diversified than competitors like the Bahamas, Barbados or Jamaica.
Mexican tourism is heavily dependent on North American visitors, and vulnerable to US economic fluctuations: · Some 96% of international visitors come from North America; except the Bahamas (95%), no other Latin American or Caribbean country has such high dependence on one market.
· Thanks to timely federal government response, the tourist industry recovered quickly after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, Mexico's international tourism has been among the slowest to recover from US economic slowdowns (eg in 2002-03) or short-term shocks such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lagging growth. While international visitors to Mexico have risen steadily over the past 15 years, tourism growth is lagging behind other countries in the region for at least five reasons:
'Mature destination'. Mexico is a 'mature' destination compared to countries that have improved tourist services over the past decade, thanks partly to aid and technical assistance from international organisations such as the IDB:
· The number of international visitors to Mexico has declined, while countries like Belize, Costa Rica, and Honduras have enjoyed increasing rates of international visitor growth.
· Declines in Mexico's share of international visitors almost equal growth in Central America's.
Although Mexico continues to be Latin America's tourist 'giant', trends offer little optimism: Mexico's market share in 1990 was ten times that of the whole of Central America; today it is only three to four times larger.
Visitor diversity. Mexico generally has failed to attract visitors from regions beyond North America:
· European visitors represent under 3%.
· Visitors from other Latin American countries are less than 2%.
· The proportion of visitors from other regions is negligible.
Traditional market segments. Mexico has failed to diversify away from traditional market segments. Five destinations, all clusters of luxury resorts in coastal areas (Cancun, Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Huatulco and Loreto), account for over 50% of foreign currency from international visitors.
Volatile destinations. The number of international tourists globally has continued to grow steadily over the past 50 years -- reaching 900 million in 2008. However, they visit a growing range of destinations:
· New tourist centres keep emerging and growing rapidly, displacing more mature destinations, such as Mexico.
· According to a recent World Tourism Organisation (WTO) report, emerging tourism regions include not only include Central America but also the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
International image. A country's international image matters to its tourist industry's short- and long-term success:
· President Felipe Calderon's war against drug trafficking has hit badly Mexico's image.
· The teachers' strike in Oaxaca during 2006-07, which virtually halted visitor flows to the state's capital, also undermined Mexico's image.
· A further factor has been increasing activity from the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a rural guerrilla group that blew up oil pipelines in 2007.