Mexico emerged triumphant from the ups and downs of 2017, named as passengers’ most popular destination in CruiseCompete’s ‘CruiseTrends 2017 Annual Report’. Eleanor Wilson discusses the secret of its success with Michele Paige, president of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, and Neil Rippon, Princess Cruises’ vice-president of product management.

How Mexico would fare after 2017 was anyone’s guess. The peso dropped against the US dollar, which made it more attractive to US holidaymakers, but in spring and summer, reports of a violent crime wave spooked governments and cruise lines. The US Department of State issued a ‘do not travel’ warning in August for five Mexican states, and Holland America Line scratched the port of Acapulco from its itineraries because of crime concerns. Then there were the acts of God: September brought one of the most violent hurricane seasons for hundreds of years.

But Mexico has weathered these kinds of storms before. In May, insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance announced the port of Cancún was its most popular travel destination in a review of three million summer vacations planned by its customers. Another Mexican port, Los Cabos, came third. At the end of the year, when cruise quote aggregator CruiseCompete released its annual CruiseTrends report, not only was Mexico the most popular country to visit in the contemporary and premium category, but its island destination of Cozumel was the most requested port.

“Cozumel, within our western Caribbean itinerary, has seen ongoing strength, especially with culture-seeking guests,” says Neil Rippon, vice-president of product management at Princess Cruises. The operator announced plans in January 2018 to assign a ship to Mexican itineraries year-round, in addition to the six vessels allocated there during the high season from November to April. Joining them for the current peak period is Carnival Splendor, while Norwegian Bliss is scheduled for some Mexico-first itineraries in October.

The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) says the six million cruise visitors to Mexico last year were in line with expectations, and it forecasts growth of more than 5% for the country in 2018. This steady climb has been chugging along for the past seven years, recovering from the global economic downturn when tourism and cruising to Mexico took a steep dive; combined with a bout of swine flu and reports of organised crime ‘drug wars’, the country was exposed to tourism ‘kryptonite’. Operators fled; the first half of 2010 saw 187 cruises docking in Mexico, compared with 290 just two years prior.

When something happens, [tourists will] know that, yes, that might be in that region and I’m not going to go there, but the rest of Mexico is completely safe. – Michele Paige

Making a comeback

“People’s perceptions were tainted, so [passenger numbers] fell back from the six million cruise passengers that we had to three million,” says Michele Paige, the FCCA’s president. “Now, it’s back up and it’s surpassed what it was in the prime [of] six or seven years ago.” She adds that Mexico’s diverse offering is the secret to its resilience.

“One of the things that we have really centred on with the Secretariat of Tourism is being able to showcase to the tourists what is different about their particular region,” she explains. “This way, when something happens, [tourists will] know that, yes, that might be in that region and I’m not going to go there, but the rest of Mexico is completely safe.”

Rippon agrees. “Americans have proven more resilient lately, with a better awareness of where the real trouble spots are,” he says. “Cruising provides a safe way to see these places from the secure accommodations of a modern, amenityfilled ship.” However, Mexico has perhaps loomed larger in the minds of US citizens for an additional reason during the past two years. Its border with the US, in particular, has become a hot topic as part of an ongoing national debate about immigration.

There’s an argument that all publicity is good publicity, but it raises the question of whether ongoing controversy has been another hurdle for passenger numbers. “I don’t think so,” says Paige after a thoughtful pause. “Politics is politics – most Americans know that. Mexico continues to be a destination that people want to go to.”

Rippon chimes in, stating that the US is still the strongest market. “Southern California is a big source [for] travellers to Mexico, because it’s so easy to sail from LAX [where passengers can get a transfer to the port of Los Angeles]. We also see strong demand from northern California, where we offer Mexico as part of our year-round homeport options from San Francisco,” he says.

Popular destinations

Two thirds of Mexico’s six million cruise visitors last year went to Cozumel, the tourism-fuelled island just off the east coast. Once a place of pilgrimage for the Mayan people, it now welcomes those in search of water sports, wide-ranging dining options and duty-free shopping, but large regions of the island remain undeveloped; hidden beaches and jungle hikes form the other part of its charm. Despite Cozumel’s current dominance, Paige says it’s vital for every port to highlight its individuality to stay competitive.

“Don’t rely on your sun and sand,” she stresses. “People that travel today have a choice. It used to be that [for] the Caribbean and Mexico, you didn’t need a passport. Today, if you have that passport, you can go anywhere.”

Costa Maya, south of Cancún on Mexico’s east coast, has seen a jump in cruise visitors and recently announced plans to upgrade its port to receive Oasis-class ships. It will add monster trucks and speed boats over the next two years to appeal to the growing masses, but there will also be river boat tours through the nearby jungle.

Beaches and blue skies will always be a selling point, but today’s travellers – the younger generations especially – are increasingly looking for ‘authenticity’. They want to feel as if they’re in touch with the reality of a destination; and they, somewhat paradoxically, want experiences that feel like they can’t be sold. That can mean localised food and beverage offerings, tours with an off-the-beaten-track flavour or itineraries showcasing less well-known destinations; however, creating a sense of deep understanding can be a difficult ask when cruise passengers only spend eight hours in port.

With the burgeoning wine region around Ensenada, there is interest from those interested in food and drink. – Neil Rippon

For Princess, the solution is identifying trends in passenger preferences and creating itineraries to fit. “With the burgeoning wine region around Ensenada, there is interest from those interested in food and drink,” Rippon says. “A sevenday Mexican Riviera [trip] from Los Angeles offers a sea vacation alternative to the classic west coast resorts like Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.”

“Mexico’s a very large country: it’s made up of 30 states, [with] the west coast, the east coast, [and] every state has unique, wonderful aspects of the product, their culinary experience and customs,” explains Paige.

Ready for its moment

US visitors may have some context to draw upon, but Europe is only starting to embrace authentic Mexican food and its various interpretations, never mind understanding the finer points of culture. To the uninitiated, Mexico can feel small and homogeneous, dwarfed as it is by its neighbour to the north. It’s also the largest country passengers might encounter on a Caribbean cruise, which puts a further burden on Mexican ports to promise visitors a varied experience, similar to what they might get from visiting a string of small island nations. But an archaeological history stretching back 13,000 years and a colonial period dating from the 16th century have created pockets of micro-cultures along the coasts, ready to be discovered.

With 8,000km of coastline, Mexico is bigger than it seems, but a single short to mid-length cruise can cover a decent chunk of either the east or west coast. That can incorporate beach days, sightseeing at ancient ruins, an education in music, history and food, and attractions like ziplining and theme parks. The wide variety appeals to multigenerational cruisers, including ‘skip-generation’ groups, in which grandparents and grandchildren travel together – a trend that the Cruise Lines International Association predicts will keep gathering steam in 2018.

From the FCCA’s perspective, a cruise can function as a tasting plate, with the potential for repeat business as passengers come home with stand-out memories of a particular stop. Paige encourages cruise lines to work closely with local tour operators to expose passengers to the distinctive character of every destination and leave them dreaming of a longer stay.

After the string of natural disasters that hit the Caribbean this year, several of its most popular destinations were left devastated. The FCCA’s ‘The Caribbean Is Open’ campaign had to persuade and reassure tourists that their holidays were not in jeopardy, and it seems to have succeeded. Three months after Hurricane Maria hit, half of Puerto Rico is still without power, but San Juan, its capital, still made it onto the top-ten lists that Mexico dominated at the end of the year. This year’s campaign puts the past firmly in the past: the slogan ‘Caribbean for Everyone’ emphasises its wide appeal, greater differentiation and cross-segment strategy. It’s a solid foundation on which Mexico can build its cruise industry over the next few years.