Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
First, Mexico. The report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week recounting incidents in which American visitors believe they may have been drugged, incapacitated and possibly abused is deeply disturbing


An earlier Journal Sentinel report on allegations of tainted alcohol left some room for skepticism, because anyone who has been to Mexican beach resorts has likely witnessed tourists who drink too much, sit too long in the sun and get sick.

But the credibility of the accusers was bolstered after Mexican authorities seized 10,000 gallons of illegal alcohol, finding problems in several well-known tourist and resort bars in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

In the most recent report, visitors recount nightmarish incidents that resulted after possibly being drugged.

One could point out that the sum of the incidents (the paper heard from about 60 travelers) represents the experience of dozens out of the millions of visitors who recently made Mexico the eighth most popular travel destination in the world.

But the common threads to these stories -- indifference to the victim's plight from resort personnel and police, reports of an avaricious medical system eager to exploit foreign patients and the seeming impossibility of justice -- could have a chilling effect even on repeat visitors who love the country.

Those visitors might be willing to accept that there's only a small risk of becoming a victim, but they would want to believe that, should a problem arise, they could get help.

Change is clearly needed, and there is a precedent for what to do when a destination or travel product has been damaged by unsettling incidents.

The cruise industry, which has impressive statistics regarding customer satisfaction, found itself rocked by just one narrative after honeymooner George Smith went missing from a cruise in 2005. The story attracted sensational media attention and put cruise lines' handling of crime in the spotlight for years.

The cruise industry's ultimate responses provide a public relations blueprint of sorts that officials and those involved in tourism in Mexico might want to consider. Ships now have closed-circuit video cameras covering all activity in public spaces. Staff understands there are consequences if they are caught victimizing a guest. Guests who report crimes are treated with compassion.

Further, CLIA hired an academic to illustrate how, statistically speaking, people are less likely to encounter serious crime on a cruise ship than in their own hometown.

In addition to cameras, staff training, compassion and context, Mexican tourist interests should attempt to have the tourist police retrained, and they should put pressure on local medical facilities to stop exploiting tourists.

Or there will be no tourists.

•   •   •

I always pick up interesting news, insight and trivia at Virtuoso Travel Week, and this year was no exception:

• Brett Tollman, CEO of the Travel Corp., shared some insight -- and frustration -- about what he sees as a challenge to the tour sector. Escorted tours, taken as a whole, have not grown in the past 17 years, and he'd like to see the big players in that sector come together with an effort similar to what CLIA has done to support cruising.

He said he approached other companies about funding efforts to "grow the pie" but has not found a partner. "Maybe they don't want to expand the footprint," preferring to focus instead on market share, he said. But without co-opitition, he warned, "it keeps going down."

• The last time I spoke with Josh Leibowitz, he was Carnival Corp.'s chief strategy officer, polling agents and guests and making recommendations to the company's marketers. Earlier this year, he added the title senior vice president of Cunard, and he is now additionally responsible for that line's sales, marketing, pricing, customer service and PR in North America.

And he reports to CEO Arnold Donald, where he had previously reported to COO Alan Bucklew.

His past recommendations had been for Carnival brands to focus on experiences that could best be had cruising, and he said he's similarly focused on "Cunard Moments," unique to that brand. He is, for example, focusing on transatlantic crossings and incorporating the line's history (such as bringing two World War II vets in their 90s to describe their experiences). But he also connects the line's style with topical events, transporting London fashion designers to New York's Fashion Week aboard the QM2.

• Hotelier Samuel Leizorek, whose boutique Las Alcobas commands the highest average daily rates in Mexico City, was telling me about his new property with the same name in Napa Valley.

"I have started something new," he said. "Porching."

The century-old property has a wrap-around porch and comfortable chairs that "are very well used, breakfast, lunch and dinner" as well as when people want a mellow place to just sit and contemplate after visiting vineyards.

Leizorek also handed me an unusual business card. His information was written out in his own hand, and the card was numbered. "It's not very practical, but a great reflection of what we're doing in the hotel. It's about quality, not quantity, right?"

• After looking at several renderings of new hotels at Travel Week, I felt a bit dismayed that apparently earth tones are back. Nothing against earth tones, but this is the third time in my life they've appeared.

And it's making me feel old.

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