In the course of seven days recently, I found myself in Mexico, Miami and Hawaii, and I unexpectedly discovered some linkages beyond sunny skies.
I was in Miami for only a day, volunteering at the Tourism Cares restoration project at Virginia Key Beach Park and the Miami Marine Stadium (300 volunteers = 775 trees and 11,000 plants in the ground and three containers of trash hauled off).
Miami continues to impress me, not only because of its vibrant growth (I get a press release about a major hotel opening or expanding there once a week) but because of the underlying engine of that growth: Miami has become the multicultural hub of the Western Hemisphere.
More than any other city, it has fused diverse cultures to create a new, dominant one. Its South American, Caribbean, Central American and U.S. and Canadian influences are evident everywhere one goes, and while each culture is represented with varying degrees of purity within neighborhoods, a blended culture has emerged.
Two decades ago, South Beach was an unappealing mix of old-folks homes and drug addicts, and Miami Beach was irrelevant. I do miss Wolfie's, and today's Ocean Drive is a bit too touristy (and alcohol-infused) for my taste, but from Miami Beach to South Beach to downtown, the city's resurrection as a center of commerce and tourism is nothing short of miraculous.
I arrived in Miami directly from Mexico City, where I had spoken at two conferences. The topic of the first was the potential impact on tourism of the Pacific Alliance (similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement, this alliance facilitates trade among Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile). The second topic was "innovation in travel products and experiences," at a Global Knowledge Network event organized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization at Anahuac University.
While there, I became engaged in discussions about reviving some of the old-school Mexican destinations, Acapulco in particular. When I was last in Acapulco, I thought it was ripe for a Miami-style revival because, like Miami, it retains the aesthetic superstructure of a once-glamorous past along a beautiful coastal setting.
At the session focusing on the Pacific Alliance, tourism officials cited statistics demonstrating progress in diversifying Mexico's tourism base, with strong gains in arrivals from source markets ranging from Brazil to Russia. I could see Acapulco repositioning itself as a more cosmopolitan, culturally fused resort, in contrast to some of the more clinically planned coastal areas.
A few days later, I went to Hawaii for the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum, an annual conference that brings together the local tourism community to discuss crucial issues. I've long thought that Hawaii is perfectly situated to become the cultural hub of the Pacific in ways that parallel Miami's place in the contiguous Western Hemisphere. Waikiki already attracts large numbers of mainlanders, Japanese, Australians and Koreans, and when I was in China a few months ago, Hawaii came up as an aspirational destination for many of the Chinese I met.
The state already calls itself the "melting pot of the Pacific" because of its strong indigenous culture and the diverse backgrounds of its landed immigrants.
But on this trip, I changed my mind about Hawaii's potential to become a fusion culture -- and, in fact, about whether that would even be desirable.
The forum opened with a short presentation on the aloha spirit, by University of Hawaii music professor Aaron Sala. Aloha is crucially important to Hawaiian identity, and Sala explained why, in ways that were both personal and moving.
The essence of aloha is reciprocal giving. That is certainly a universally desirable spirit, but Sala made aloha's essential connection to Hawaii and Hawaiians quite clear. Aloha is dominant in the lives of Hawaiians, and while it can be interactive with other cultures, it could not necessarily fuse with them without the risk of being diluted.
Thinking about these three destinations reminded me of something important when considering destination marketing.
In the midst of these travels, I had coffee in New York with Phil Goldfarb, president and COO of Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which at 1,600 rooms is the largest hotel in Miami by a factor of more than two. It is also, in many regards, emblematic of a crucial factor that made Miami's revival as a fusion city possible -- and a factor as well in why Acapulco and Honolulu might not follow suit.
The Fontainebleau, like South Beach's Art Deco district, reflects a cultural aesthetic. That aesthetic, though dormant and neglected for decades, was the catalyst in a city that had a tradition of welcoming and fully incorporating nonindigenous influences, from Cuban refugees to Jewish retirees. Its Native American culture exists, but the influence of that culture has been too weakened to assert dominance.
The adjacency and compression of these trips impressed upon me the fundamental truth that it's extraordinarily difficult to replicate success in destination marketing where diverse people are at the heart of the revival. While the complex nature of individual cultures and the chemistry of what occurs when they interact is fascinating, it is, ultimately, unpredictable.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.