By Judy Waytiuk
Despite the fact that it’s a mere mild illness for most people, the H1N1 virus briefly knocked tourism to Mexico, especially Riviera Maya, into economic intensive care. North American airlines took a 10.9-per cent hit to traffic to Mexico in May 2009, and Mexican carriers’ traffic dwindled by almost 40 per cent. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. expects year-end earnings to fall by up $47 million.
At one point, some 25,000 Riviera Maya tourism workers were out of jobs. Yet just 57 cases of H1N1, with no deaths, were confirmed in Quintana Roo, where the Riviera Maya's located.
What’s Over Is Over
Still, Mexico is nothing if not resilient: Cancun promptly became the host city for the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization “Global Summit Over Lessons Learned From Influenza A (H1N1)” conference. By June, Cancun was back up to 50-per cent occupancy, said Riviera Maya general director, Javier Aranda Pedrero, “and usually by this date we are up around 70 per cent. We are hoping that for July, the best season for European visitors we will be receiving more flights from Europe.” European airlines that, like North American ones, had suspended flights to Mexico, began resuming regular schedules by late June. All alerts were lifted, Mexico began an aggressive, US $91 million campaign to bring back tourists, and hotel chains cooked up stunning deals to further entice travellers – and agents.
The Riviera Maya has launched a new website, www.holarivieramaya.com, Pedrero noted, “where we give information on what Riviera Maya is doing this season. It’s a great time for the different offers we have for the Canadian market.”
Riviera MayaThe Riviera Maya, a 120 kilometre-long coast running from Puerto Morelos down to Punta Allen on the Yucatan Peninsula, is Mexico’s showcase beach destination, with hundreds of hotels, hundreds of thousands of rooms, golf courses galore, spas sprinkled everywhere, water sports steps from the hotels, ancient Mayan ruin and underground river exploration day trips easily available, and all manner of theme parks. At the southernmost edge of the area, the UNESCO Biosphere and World Heritage Site Reserve of Sian Ka’an offers easy, genuine eco-touring options.
Pedrera was optimistic that when peak season for North American travel rolls around this year, the marketplace will be back to normal. “All the values that we have in the Riviera Maya always make us pass through these crises. You remember what happened a few years ago with the hurricane that was our worst economic moment? By the beginning of the year, we were having great numbers, even 10 per cent over the number of airline passengers we had the year before. So we’re very optimistic that for the peak season, the winter season, we're going to be working as usual."
Some hotel chains are even offering “flu-free” guarantees. Real Hotels will hand out one free vacation a year for three consecutive years, if guests catch the illness within 14 days of their departure, and produce blood tests to prove it. Real is also discounting rooms up to 40 per cent, and offering 50 per cent off spa treatments, and beach dinners and liquor.
Nearly 300 Mexican hotels are participating in the “Biggest Hotel Sale Ever” campaign being offered by online travel agency Expedia Inc., which says Cancun flight/hotel packages have dropped more than 25 per cent under last summer’s pricing. Some online booking sites predict sales of from 30 to 50 per cent off.
Some 60 resorts in the Riviera Maya are offering major promotional deals – packages with extra nights free, free entrances to parks, free meals, free kids’ stay, hotel discounts and free passes to attractions.
Le Méridien Cancun Resort & Spa, for example, is giving away a fifth night, up to $200 in credits on meals and drink, and room upgrades when available. With a seven-night stay, two nights are free and the food/drink credit becomes $300.
Special pricing extends to the “different agencies that offer tours, and packages into the different parts of the area,” noted Pedrera. And the region is pulling out all the stops to pull in top headliners for its regular events, like the late November jazz festival. Colin Hunter, CEO of Canada’s Sunwing, is a singer and will be there. “You should hear him. He’s really a great singer. I have three of his CDs,” Pedrera remarked.
Hot Deals For Agents, Too
Velas Resorts is offering registered agents hefty bonus commissions and launched a dedicated agent website, www.velasresorts.com/travelagent. The company opened its newest property, the luxury 490-room Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort Riviera Maya, in mid-June.
At www.karismahotels.com, the site for Karisma’s El Dorado Spa Resorts and Azul Hotels, including six in the Maya Riviera, consumers can search for a travel agent who’s part of Karisma’s GI Vacation Consultant program. Agents in the program pay US $250 a year to receive sales and marketing material for distribution to clients, a listing on the hotel chain’s new website, web training, and participation in a “call to action” in Karisma advertising. The hotels are also hosting several five-day wedding-oriented FAMS for agents through November.
Barcelo has cut rates for North American travel agents and families and friends in September and October, with all-inclusive rates from US $50 to $70 per person per night at Barcelo Tucancun Beach in Cancun, Barcelo La Jolla de Mismaloya in Puerto Vallarta and Barcelo Maya Palace in Riviera Maya. Occidental Hotels & Resorts’ Royal Hideaway Playacar is offering rates starting at $149 per person per night.
It’s the travel agents that drive business to this busy beach location, and the Mexican DMOs know it, and appreciate it, concluded Pedrera. “Thanks to all the travel agents in Canada. They are very important to the Riviera Maya – they are our sales force in Canada, and we thank them for their support and their confidence in our destination.”
Riviera MayaWhat’s New
If you thought the Riviera Maya might be ready to cool down development, since the Caribbean beach strip more 120 kilometres long has been named a Travel Weekly Top Destination in Mexico for five consecutive years, received Best Destination in Mexico designation with Crystal’s Apple Award in 2008 as well as being named one of the hottest beach destinations by Orbitz in 2008 – well, think again. Here's what's new at press time:
• Marriott International’s billion-dollar-plus, 450-room JW Marriott Milla de Oro Resort & Spa and 150-room Renaissance Milla de Oro Resort is slated to open in 2011.
• Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts’ 5-star, all-pool Banyan Tree Mayakoba opened in February 2009.
• The new 42-suite In Fashion Hotel Boutique features art deco, retro-pop and minimalist art.
• Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort Riviera Maya offers 497 suites and spa services.
• Azul Sensatori by Karisma is a 438-suite “Gourmet Inclusive property”. And in Playa del Carmen, Azul Fives Hotel by Karisma offers 360 one-, two- and three-bedroom suites.
• Dreams Puerto Aventuras 305-suite Resort & Spa opened in December 2008.
• Whale Sharks: Cancun's recently-designated Reserva de la Biosfera Tiburón Ballena (Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve) protects these gentle giants, the largest sharks. They can be seen by boat from May through September.
• Xcaret Eco Park: the new “Vino de Mexico” area sells only Mexican wines. An on-site sommelier explains food/wine pairing and other vintner secrets. A sea turtle exhibition is now open where visitors can see real animals. Swimming with dolphins has been a long-time attraction here, but now visitors can swim with mother dolphins and calves, and with (nurse) sharks and rays in the park’s lagoon.
• Alltournative, a unique adventure tour company, is offering a new half-day for small groups called Rio Secreto, or Secret River, exploring hidden caverns and rock formations of an underground river.
• Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park’s new attraction, SkyCycle, features the world’s only cable bicycle suspended at treetop level over rainforest, leading down into and through caverns and cenotes, winding up with snorkeling through an underground river system.
• Aktunchen’s new zipline, Canopy Adventure, boasts ten lines and two suspended bridges.
• The new Xplor, from Grupo Xcaret, mixes up underground rivers, zip lines, cavern rafting, and amphibious driving.
Grupo Grand Coral Riviera Maya“Fore”get H1N1!
There are dozens of top-drawer golf courses around the Riviera Maya already, but more are opening.
• Capella Golf Course and Resort with individual villas facing the Caribbean and the only private, championship 18-hole Rees Jones golf course in the Yucatan.
• Grupo Grand Coral Riviera Maya, a US $2.5 billion, 226-oceanfront hectare, 18-hole Nick Price golf course.
• Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Residencial Golf Resort 27-hole Robert Trent Jones II course, plus a 9-hole par 3 golf course, practice course and golf academy.
• Kanai’s eco-conscious, 390-hectare development with 847 rooms, two golf courses (36 holes) and a residential area.
• Grupo Grand Coral Riviera Maya’s 123 Nick Price Residences for full or fractional ownership.