Mexico's first-quarter score

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannI first met Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Mexico's secretary of tourism, 11 months ago, when she had been on the job for about seven months. We discussed a surprisingly detailed list of initiatives she was proposing:

Extending tourism from Cancun and the Riviera Maya to the Mayan and colonial sites in Yucatan, Chiapas, Campeche and Tabasco, beginning with new rail service from the Riviera Maya to Merida, including a stop near the ruins of Chichen Itza.

Rebranding two Pacific coast destinations in need of a boost -- Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit -- as "Vallarta Nayarit."

Facilitating a "tourism cabinet," comprising herself and nine other federal secretaries, chaired by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. The group would convene regularly to identify opportunities to grow tourism in areas of overlapping ministerial responsibility. Tourism would be viewed as a strategic platform to generate jobs and spur economic vitality, not only in established resort centers but in interior towns that are rich in culture but far from beaches.

Her plans were linked philosophically with the policy platform of her political party, PRI. Each initiative emphasized helping raise the standard of living for citizens and strengthening communities, as opposed to underscoring business-friendly aspects.

I felt Ruiz Massieu's plans reflected creativity, ambition and no small degree of boldness. Articles I had read prior to our first meeting had left me with the impression that she did not have much direct experience in tourism or private enterprise but was politically savvy and moved carefully. I was impressed by her understanding of what drives tourism; it seemed she was, in the very best sense, a policy wonk, seeking practical solutions compatible with a political position.

Still, I wondered if the boldness of the plans would create problems. Her reputation for being politically savvy notwithstanding, could this be a case where tactics that look good on paper become difficult to implement in practical terms?

Could the government of a country as diverse and politically charged as Mexico, even with its president's direct involvement, agree on details involving infrastructure that might move the needle for tourism vs. competing cabinet-level priorities? Would touristic ambition withstand government turf wars and bureaucracy?

And would elements within the business community view the benefits of the initiatives as coming at the expense of existing enterprises?

Indeed, challenges surfaced almost immediately. As a group, hoteliers in Cancun and the Riviera Maya opposed the rail line, worried that its proposed port city origin might turn the region into a cruise homeport, filling airplanes with visitors who would simply leave on a cruise, or would spend their port time taking rail-enabled day trips to Chichen Itza. Some wholesalers and hoteliers who did business on the Pacific coast seemed open to the concept of Vallarta Nayarit, but others complained it was "too much to explain."

Mexican presidents are limited to a single six-year term. Whatever plans and dreams they and their cabinets have must be accomplished within that window. Today marks, exactly, the end of the first quarter of the Pena Nieto administration.

Ten days ago, I met with Ruiz Massieu again for an update. This time, she seemed more comfortable, confident and relaxed in her role, and as she reviewed her ministry's recent activity, I began to understand why. She has some significant victories under her belt.

First and foremost, a bottom-line victory: Year-over-year tourism revenue increased 15% in the first trimester of 2014, a period she can justifiably claim as her own. During the 18 months she has been in office, tourism has moved from fifth to fourth place as a contributor to Mexico's economy.

There has also been significant movement toward her policy goals. The president's recently announced five-year, $590 billion infrastructure plan earmarks about $18 billion directly for tourism, and Ruiz Massieu said that, through the tourism cabinet, she had found areas of additional common ground with other secretaries.

For example, colonial cities will be among the first in which utility lines will be moved underground, which will both modernize and beautify historical sites. Linkage was also established between the need for medical care for citizens and the importance of medical facilities for tourists.

The tourism cabinet also reviewed and swiftly changed aspects of passenger flow through airports with an eye to minimizing the time passengers spend in arrivals hall. In the past, all incoming luggage was X-rayed. Then passengers were asked to press a button that, if randomly showing red rather than green, would lead to further screening.

Today, instead of X-raying all incoming luggage and then having passengers press the button, only those whose button-pushing triggers a red light will need to have their bags X-rayed.

She said she is also working with other ministers to eliminate the roadblocks that prevent customs pre-clearance for American citizens leaving Mexico.

The origin of the rail line was moved to Cancun, and all the details of the project have now been finalized and approved, she said.

And the Vallarta Nayarit campaign proved doubters wrong, resulting in the addition of more than 100,000 air seats into the region since the ads began. The jump in visitors there in the first quarter of 2014 increased tourism spend by $40 million.

In short order, Ruiz Massieu appears to be living up to her advance billing as a politically savvy minister.

Careful too, perhaps, but apparently keenly aware that the clock is ticking.

Stay tuned as the second quarter of her term begins.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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