Focus on Responsible Tourism

Three cruise lines, new air connections, 12,000 rooms in 180 hotels… We greet hundreds of thousands of national and international visitors each year in Mazatlán. Any chance I’ve gotten over the past eight years I’ve tried to encourage travelers to get beyond the stereotypical but wonderful beer and beaches to experience a bit of the “real Mexico,” be it a visit to a small town, witnessing the shrimp or mango harvest, or admiring the Mayo-Yoreme traditions.

Recently, however, I’ve been working with a colleague in Milan, Maura di Mauro, on a project, and she cautioned me about how the culture of Mursi villagers in Ethiopia was changing due to tourism. Thanks to an influx of camera-toting tourists willing to pay for photos, the villagers increasingly exaggerate their traditional practices and even falsely embellish them, to make them more attractive to visitors. Lord knows I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happening in and around Mazatlán. She also told me about Chinese tourists descending en masse on a small village in The Netherlands. Many of the Dutch residents welcome the added economic boost such international tourism provides, but they have also experienced downsides to such tourism and, again, changes to their culture. We in Mazatlán sure experience the ups and the downs of tourism, and know how important it is to our economy.

Maura said there were documentaries about both of these topics, made by the same Dutch cinematographer. She got me excited and I can not WAIT to view the two films!

The first documentary Maura told me about is called Framing the Other” by Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers  (25 min, English and Mursi with English subtitles).

The Mursi tribe lives in the basin of the Omo River in the south of the east African state of Ethiopia. The women are known for placing large plates in their lower lips and wearing enormous, richly decorated earrings. Every year hundreds of Western tourists come to see the unusually adorned natives; posing for camera-toting visitors has become the main source of income for the Mursi. To make more money, they embellish their “costumes” and finery in such a manner that less of their original authentic culture remains. The film contrasts the views of Mursi women and those of Dutch tourists preparing for a meeting. This humorous and at the same time chilling film shows the destructive impact tourism has on traditional communities. A preview is below:

 

The second film is called Ni Hao Holland: The Chinese are coming” by Willem Timmers (25 min, Mandarin and Dutch with English subtitles).

698504_75d9e491d73b4eceb06792f5af9a02ed~mv2

It is a documentary about Chinese tourists and their quest for the authentic Dutch experience. Cherry, the main character, has long dreamt of swapping her home city Beijing for the Dutch village Giethoorn. She has heard and read a lot about this mythical place. The day arrives that she and her friend hop on the plane in search of adventure. In the meantime, entrepreneurs from Giethoorn work hard behind the scenes to cater to this “Holland experience.” They want to make the most of the fast-growing flow of Chinese tourists to their village. How is this authenticity created by some and experienced by others? A preview follows:

 

While I’ve yet to watch either of these movies, it sure sounds like there’s a lot to think about for tourism in Mazatlán and Sinaloa. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Tourism Mazatlán’s Julio Birrueta

julio2

Quick!

  • What’s the percentage of national to international tourists in Mazatlán these days?
  • On average, who pays more for their holiday?
  • Why are airfares to Mazatlán more expensive than those to other Mexican destinations? (Answers are at the end of this article.)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Julio Birrueta, the friendly, no-nonsense Director of both the 25-year-old Mazatlán Tourism Board and the Mazatlán Hotel Association. It’s his office that runs the wonderful GoMazatlan.com site.

Mazatlán a Leader in Mexico
Julio told me that Mazatlán has been a leader in tourism on the national stage for decades. When the Mazatlán Tourism Trust was founded 25 years ago, it was the first public-private partnership for tourism promotion in the country. Today, Mazatlán and Cancún are the only two destinations in Mexico with private-public partnerships to promote tourism. Other destinations express their envy of Mazatlán, because purely government-run tourism promotion often equates to an inconsistent message— the government changes every few years and new people bring new ideas.  Other destinations also envy our 3% tax on accommodations; the amount is fully earmarked for tourism promotion. Thanks to this tax, as well as help from the Federal Tourism Board and SECTUR, Mazatlán is able to employ PR agencies in Canada, the USA, and Mexico.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever publicly thanked Mazatlán’s foreign community in an English language outlet for their incredible support. I’d like to do that now. Thank you. Your love of our city made a huge difference to its future.”
—Julio Birrueta

Mazatlán has also been a national leader for the way we recovered from recent setbacks. In 2008, the world economic crisis hit. In 2009, it was the Bird Flu. In 2010, Mexico’s national economy fell, and in 2011 the cruise ships pulled out. Julio explained that it was thanks to Mazatlán’s very active and engaged expatriate community that things turned around. Many visitors as well as foreign residents recorded videos talking about their experiences here, addressing safety issues in particular. Julio and others played those videos at every industry event for nearly two years. Audiences believed the message because it was people like them saying it, rather than something a tourism official claimed. “I don’t know that we’ve ever publicly thanked Mazatlán’s foreign community in an English language outlet for their incredible support. I’d like to do that now. Thank you. Your love of our city made a huge difference to its future.” Julio told me that when Puerto Vallarta recently had its own crisis, the Federal Tourism Board called SECTUR to get advice and hear the inside scoop on how Mazatlán engineered its recovery. After their success, Acapulco came asking for help, as well.

The Tourism Board
The Mazatlán Tourism Board is comprised of our two local hotel associations, the municipality, and the state. The Technical Committee meets three times a year to agree on plans and budget. The Marketing Committee, composed of the Sales Directors of every hotel as well as the three GMCs, meets at least every two months, and of course there are ongoing phone calls, meetings and texts.

While Julio’s office only has three employees, staff at hotels around the city volunteer their time, expertise and connections to perform the various roles needed. For example, a local hotel sales director is responsible for encouraging airlines to bring more seats our way, and a hotel vice president negotiates how much money we get from Federal Tourism.

The Mazatlán Hotel Association includes 80% of the municipality’s hotels, including those in Centro Histórico north to the Fishermen’s Monument, and from Valentino’s north. Mazatlán’s original Tres Islas Hotel Association includes the hotels on the malecón from south of Valentino’s to the Fisherman’s Monument—the other 20% of the hotels in Mazatlán. Tres Islas, for example, created the Festival de la Luz, the fireworks show held annually in conjunction with the Maratón del Pacífico, and everyone promotes the event.

We are fortunate that every hotel in town promotes Mazatlán as a destination; the port has a very united message. The destination is first, and hotels pay their own expenses and contribute rooms, meals or staff to help make events happen.

The video below includes excerpts of my hour-long interview with Julio, including his appreciation to our local international community, Mazatlán’s recovery from the triple crises 2010-2013, his opinions on AirBnB and Uber, and the Tourism Board’s future plans:

 

Distinct Types of Tourists
Mazatlán is blessed with two distinct seasons for different kinds of tourists. Nationals love to visit Mazatlán’s beaches in the hot summer months; winter is too cold for most of them, at least for the beach. In contrast, Canadian and US American snowbirds love it here in the winter months. The new highway to Durango has brought us record occupancies in the warm months.

Before 2010 Mazatlán had an equal balance of international and national tourists. By 2013 that had changed to 80% nationals and 20% internationals. That drastic change was very tied to the changing image of Mexico in North America and on the world stage. Now the trend is reversing and more international tourists are coming.

As most of us observe, Julio reports that national tourists tend to travel with extended family: three to four kids and the mother-in-law—“with the dog and the parrot,”  as they say in Spanish, or “familia burrón.” Nationals generally make their travel decisions close to the date of travel, and because of that they pay 30-40% more for their accommodations. They stay and average of two to three nights—over a weekend. They want banda music on the beach, and the younger crowd wants to go out clubbing. Fortunately, their transportation expenses to get to Mazatlán are less, whether they come by highway (bus transportation is popular) or air.

International tourist, on the other hand, tend to stay no less than five nights, often seven or fourteen. They spend more money in Mazatlán because they’re here longer, they take more tours, and they go out and dine at different types of restaurants. They play golf, go fishing, and purchase more time shares than nationals do, though that’s changing.

2017 Tourism Plans
I asked Julio what plans they have that our readers would be interested in knowing about—perhaps he had a secret or a scoop to share with us?

He tells me they plan to double the advertising budget in 2017, and increase the public relations budget by 20%, thanks to higher occupancy rates, more money from the state, and hopefully more federal funds as well. Plans are to bring in foreign journalists and bloggers, focusing on special events and unique experiences. They’ll add in a section on their website for conventions and events at the International Center (MICA: Meetings, Incentives, Congresses and Events comprises 28% of our national occupancy and growing), and another section for destination weddings.

Readers of this page know that for nearly a decade I’ve been promoting cultural and religious tourism to the municipality of Mazatlán. Fortunately Tourism has started to value and promote our cultural heritage more. The good news that Julio shared with me is that from 2017 the Tourism Board will add religious tourism to their promotions.

 

Answers to Opening Questions
So, do you want the answers to my lead-in questions?

  • Julio says that nationals currently comprise about 70% of our tourists (and 70% of them arrive by car). If you count cruise ship passengers, that total goes to 60% national and 40% internationals.
  • Surprising to me, on a per-night basis nationals tend to pay 30-40% more for their stay in Mazatlán than do internationals—foreigners tend to plan farther ahead, stay longer, and purchase package deals. Of course, because international tourists tend to stay longer, they invest more total money in Mazatlán on a per capita basis.
  • Airfare prices are a definite concern for Julio. He says the solution is to bring in more airlines so that competition and more seats lower prices. Their strategy is to focus on specific markets with marketing plans, as Mazatlán has done with Calgary and Minneapolis. Foci will include Chicago, Denver and Seattle, which will in turn give Mazatlán more connectors from a broad number of cities. As to the frequent rumor that other cities subsidize the airlines, Julio bets they don’t.

 

If You’re Ever in Cartagena…

P1010120©

Last night Greg and I were very excited about dinner. He’s traveling with me in Colombia, where I am on business. We’ve made a side trip to Cartagena, and he took the time to research the best restaurants and pick  out one that he was confident we would love—Carmen’s, in the gorgeous Hotel Ananda. Click on any photo to see it larger and view the full description, or to view a slideshow.

The meal so did not disappoint! We paid for a 7-course tasting menu with wine (about US$80 per person now with the low valuation of the Colombian peso), and received TEN courses and SEVEN wines.

The restaurant is based in Medellín and owned by Diego Angel, a former video game entrepreneur. Executive Chefs and proprietors Carmen Angel and Rob Pevitts are graduates of the Cordon Bleu San Francisco. The chef here in Cartagena, Jaime Galindo, is an incredible talent! He does not have a culinary arts degree but, rather, has learned on-the-job and through sheer raw talent or the don de cocinar. Having worked with chefs with degrees from the top cooking schools in the world, Greg was very impressed by the passion and talent that Jaime demonstrated.

P1010160©

Chef Jaime Galindo – Job well done!

His brother Yonatan is the sous-chef. Not one course was less than spectacular, and we only felt one wine pairing was less than ideal: the rosé with the crab. The wine was just so acidic and overwhelmed the flavor of the food.

Kudos, Jaime and staff!!! The kitchen is small, and open to the diners. Everyone working there was nose down and focused on making every plate perfect. The restaurant serves not only the tasting menu that we had but a full a la carte menu and creative cocktails as well. In addition, front-of-the-house service was impeccable thanks to our terrific waiter, Juan Carlos, who took special care to ensure his Spanish-language explanations of the food and wine made sense to Greg and me.

Talented Kids Doing Great Things: UTE Conference

Image

In June it will be six years since we started this blog, and this past week we were afforded an excellent opportunity to reflect on our experience with it. You see, Greg and I were invited to present at a tourism conference at the Universidad Tecnológica de Escuinapa. It was a wonderful experience—the students were amazing, we met some incredible people, and I also really enjoyed how it motivated me to reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve learned.

We started VidaMaz.com in order to stay in touch with family and friends after our move. We wanted to be able to share a bit of our new lives with them. What we quickly learned, however, was that the most avid readers of our blog were people who loved Mazatlán, who fantasized about living here, or who already enjoyed living here. We started without any sort of a plan; we were just going to publish posts about our experiences, our daily lives.

And we did.

Then came the swine flu. It had such a huge impact on our daily lives. Movie theaters closed. Concerts were cancelled. Everyone wore masks over their mouths, and used antibacterial gel everywhere. In researching it, the flu seemed to originate on a pig farm in Wisconsin, of all places. But the way Mexico reacted to it caused all sorts of fallout, huge decreases in tourism, and a horrible economic ding on our adopted home.

Next the narco violence rose to the forefront of international media reporting. Wherever I travelled for work, from Istanbul to Bogotá, people looked at me horrified when I told them where I lived. “Why in the world would you choose to live somewhere so unsafe?” So our little blog took on a new passion for us. It was our small way to let people know that we were living peaceful, enjoyable, healthy lives, despite what the media might portray. That Mazatlán was beautiful, was populated by a whole lot of cool and caring people, and that life here was sweet. It was our way to combat the anger we felt that international media insisted on selling only one very negative story of my beloved and wonder-filled adopted country.

A few of the hotels started using our posts, as did some of the realtors and condo associations. They seemed to take our stories about “normal life” as proof to the outside world that living here was, indeed, great. That was fine with us; we just asked for credit. Then we were asked to be interviewed for a few videos, about how it was to live here in Mazatlán as a family, to raise a son here. It wasn’t too long before we were honored to receive an award from the Hotel Association and the State Secretary of Tourism, commending us for our work in tourism. We sure had never planned to be a tourist blog, but such, it seemed, was how we were perceived.

So, six years later, when Dr. Arturo Santamaría Gómez asked us to present at a university conference on using blogs in tourism, we were eager to share our experience and learning. I didn’t realize it would cause me to reflect back, but indeed it did. What had we learned? Where had we journeyed? What stood out most for me was how many incredible people we have had the true pleasure of meeting over the past six years. Even without the blog, we would have met many of them—we are curious, outgoing, we love to learn. But, because of the blog, we’ve met so many more, and have interviewed people in more depth, than we would have normally. This was the true gift of starting a blog—the community it created. The people who are now friends who began as readers, who perhaps wrote us with a question, and now teach us.

So, that very long introduction is to tell you that this past Thursday and Friday we had the distinct honor of presenting at the Congreso Internacional de Creadores de Imagen Turistica, alongside a very interesting Brazilian engineer (Dr. Thiago Duarte Pimental), a Los Angeles Times columnist I’ve long admired (Sam Quiñones), the very talented head chef of Pueblo Bonito (Marino Maganda Pacheco), a charming gentleman from the Nayarit Secretary of Tourism (Raúl Rodrigo Pérez Hernández), and a very talented woman who has changed the face of our fair city in several major ways (Janet Blaser).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Students attended the conference from several universities in Mazatlán, from throughout southern Sinaloa and northern Nayarit. And were they enthusiastic! I told them their clapping and hollering made me feel like I was an Olympic star! In addition to the main talk, Greg and I gave a 2 1/2 hour workshop on blogs and videos. We were blown away by the students’ commitment to encouraging tourism in a sustainable way—environmentally, socially, and in a way that builds an equitable, respectful relationship between the visitor and host. It was such a joy to be able to work with them!

In addition to the students, we of course met some awesome faculty, tour providers, city tourism professionals, and regional business people. We honestly do live in a place where people rock! We met one young lady who wrote her master’s thesis on a mango tour in Escuinapa. Rather than keep it to herself and make money off it, she has given it to the people, where it belongs, and they are launching it as a public project. Stay tuned and don’t miss out on this cool glimpse into a local farming tradition!

We are truly blessed to have found such a beautiful home and community here. We are very grateful to have been welcomed to a place within it. It is not often we get to teach young people, so this experience was truly splendid.

Please, take a moment to let us know the kind of stories that you most enjoy here on VidaMaz.com. We’d love to hear from you.

 

European Week for Mazatlán

I don’t think anyone has officially declared this “European Week,” but I hereby make the nomination. Mazatlán is quite famous in western Europe these days… I’m sure you’ve heard that our State Secretary of Tourism, as well as the mayors of Cosalá, El Fuerte and El Rosario, are in Madrid, Spain this week for FITUR, the International Tourism Fair, as part of the Mexican national delegation. The fair opened yesterday and goes through Sunday the 26th. FITUR is a huge event with enormous upside potential, with over 120,000 tourism professionals from 165 countries  attending.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just now I’ve learned that a crew from BBC (yes, British Broadcasting Corporation) has been here in town. So, the European connection continues! A director, producer, cameramen and two Irish actors, Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne, are here for two days to film a documentary series on Sullivan C. Richardson’s Pan American Highway Expedition of 1940-1941 — the first successful attempt to drive an automobile from the United States to the tip of South America. Their route would eventually become the Pan American Highway. In 1942 Richardson wrote a memoir of his journey, titled Adventure South: Three Men and a Lone Car Blaze the Pan American Highway Route Down Two Continents to Cape Horn! Apparently the original expedition made its way through Mazatlán, and the book records that they had a very pleasant stay here. Richardson wrote of the warmth of the Mazatleca people, and the fact that his group spent the night down by the divers in Olas Altas, as they didn’t have money for lodging. They are filming at the diving platforms and the Hotel Belmar, as well as the Mazatlán-Durango Highway and the Baluarte Bridge. The series is planned to air on BBC this coming December.

Have you not seen them around? Here’s a short video clip that SECTUR assembled:

What next, everyone? May Mazatlán’s fame and fortune on the European stage continue 😉