What do Hawaii, Mexico, Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, Thailand, Kenya, Spain, Anguilla, Uruguay, Israel, the Seychelles, Florida, Tahiti, Mozambique, Turkey, the Bahamas and, oh, about a jillion other destinations have in common?

Each can, and does, promote itself as a sun, sand and surf destination. If you were reviewing the countries of the world in search of a beach holiday and you crossed off Chad, Bolivia, Mongolia and all other landlocked countries, you still wouldn't have shortened the list that much.

This occurred to me last week during the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum in Mexico City, where a standing room-only crowd of tour operators, government officials, hoteliers and others interested in Mexican tourism gathered for a day of discussion and brainstorming.

Frank Haas, former director of marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority and currently the director for strategic development at the University of Hawaii's School of Travel Industry Management, gave the kickoff speech about how Hawaii had managed to differentiate itself from other sand, surf and sun destinations. The process, while successful, was not without difficulty, he said.

The Mexico Tourism Board, though happy with the country's success as a beach destination, would like to see Mexico promote its more diverse offerings, specifically emphasizing culture. But large-scale wholesalers on two separate panels indicated that Mexican culture was difficult to sell to the mass market.

Later that morning, one of the panelists, Bryan Estep, Travelocity's vice president for Mexico and Latin America, told me that whenever he flew into Mexico from over the Gulf or along the Pacific, he was always amazed by the miles and miles of undeveloped beachfront that Mexico still has. Hawaii, on the other hand, was pretty much tapped out; every beautiful beach appeared to have been discovered by a developer.

I speculated that in addition to its beaches, it was possible that there were few places of beauty on public land in Hawaii that had not been "discovered," but larger (and largely rural) Mexico must have hundreds of beautiful places that still remained unexploited by the national tourist industry.

In the spirit of spreading the word about Mexico's less-known attractions, I asked several panelists and attendees who know Mexico intimately to share their "best-kept secret" -- a place they love that remains relatively unknown.

Estep responded that his choice would be Sayulita, a little surf town north of Puerto Vallarta. And there were plenty of other secrets shared.

Gordon Viberg, CEO of Grupo Presidente and president of Consejo Nacional Empresarial Turistico: "Valle de Bravo, a great colonial town with a beautiful lake for boating and sailing, surrounded by pine forests. It's only 20 minutes from a monarch butterfly preserve, has good shopping, great restaurants. Currently, it's a weekend retreat for those of us in Mexico City, but it could turn into a second San Miguel if properly promoted."

Ana Gon-Ryan, a vice president with RCI Global Vacation Network: "Mexico City during Holy Week. Everyone's gone to Acapulco, the weather's great and there's no smog."

Elizabeth Moriarty, MLT Vacations' vice president, product development: "Puerto Aventuras, south of Playa del Carmen. It's quiet and secluded, a great place to chill out."

Antonio Pitta, Orbitz's regional director for Mexico and Latin America: "The Hacienda Taboada in San Miguel de Allende, in off-season."

Brad Walker, Alaska Airline's director of leisure marketing: "Loreto. I like its focus on trying to keep its growth reasonable. It's a small city with so much to offer."

Finally, Federico Moreno-Nickerson, Classic Vacations' director of product development for the Caribbean and Mexico, said he thought Mexico's surplus of best-kept secrets actually reflected a flaw in its ability to market itself.

"We're good at keeping best-kept secrets secret," he said. "That, I'm afraid, is the problem."


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