Another in a series of setbacks for Mexico tourism

The decision by Princess Cruises to cut back its U.S.-Mexico capacity comes at a time when Mexico's tourism industry is facing unusual challenges stemming from the recession, the aftermath of the H1N1 flu outbreak and sporadic but continuing outbursts of drug-related violence.

In an Aug. 10 report, the World Travel and Tourism Council predicted that Mexico tourism, after outperforming the rest of Mexico's economy in 2008, would contract 9% this year, falling even harder than the 6.5% decline predicted for Mexico's economy as a whole. Overall tourist arrivals are expected to decline by a third.

Contributing to that decline last spring was an abrupt drop in U.S. citizen arrivals by air, a metric used by the U.S. Commerce Department to track tourism flows.

According to the latest data, U.S. citizen arrivals by air fell 13.6% during the first five months of this year. In May, during the height of the swine flu scare, the total dropped 46%, to a mere 274,000 arrivals, the lowest total for any month in years.

Evidently sensing the market, airlines are continuing to reduce U.S.-Mexico capacity. According to data provided to Travel Weekly by OAG, the carriers have filed schedules to put 2.4 million seats in the market during the second quarter, down 16% from a year ago. Fourth-quarter capacity is slated to amount to 2.7 million seats, a decline of nearly 9%.

That combines for a 12% decline for the second half of the year, according to OAG, much steeper than the projected declines for other markets. OAG forecasted a reduction in seats of about 2.8% globally and a 4.3% drop within North America.

Still, the WTTC has found grounds for optimism, noting that during the first four months of the year, Mexico's total international tourist arrivals continued to grow, despite "the global recession and continued drug-related violence."

And it remains optimistic for the long term. WTTC President and CEO Jean-Claude Baumgarten said in the August report that "we still expect the growth in Mexican travel and tourism economy GDP over the next 10 years to average close to 5% per annum." -- Bill Poling

Citing shifting market demand on the West Coast, Princess Cruises will eliminate 15 Mexican Riviera cruises in 2010-2011, replacing them with additional Hawaii cruises and two Pacific crossings between California and Sydney.

"It's a matter of demand," said Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson. "We deploy our ships where we believe they will be most successful, and right now we see more demand for a longer, more exotic deployment over seven-day Mexican Riviera."

The change comes after a significant ramp-up of West Coast cruise capacity that began several years ago.

It also comes at a time when Mexico's tourism industry is facing a litany of unusual challenges (see report at right).

This year, two mass-market ships joined the West Coast parade to the Mexican Riviera. Carnival Cruise Lines' 3,006-passenger Carnival Splendor and Royal Caribbean International's Mariner of the Seas, joined ships like Princess' 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess in offering weekly Mexico cruises.

West Coast cruising has always created a difficult choice for cruise lines. It is the easiest place to put ships relocating from summers in Alaska, but available destinations in Mexico are extremely limited compared with options in the Caribbean. Even one more cruise ship makes a difference in such a market.

Princess did not go so far as to say there was any destination fatigue associated with that route but said its passengers were simply asking for the longer, destination-focused Pacific itineraries.

"Mexico is one of our deployment mainstays," Benson said. "It's one of our legacy destinations and will continue to be part of our itinerary mix. Because our fleet size limits the number of destinations we can cruise to at any one time, sometimes changes are warranted based on the demand we're seeing.

"We've offered longer Hawaii cruises for some time, with good success," she said, adding that passengers see "a great value proposition" in longer cruises, such as Hawaii.

Princess will still offer 17 Mexican Riviera sailings in 2010-2011 but will no longer operate the weekly itinerary that Princess started out with in the 1960s -- the same route taken by Captain Stubing in the "Love Boat" TV series.

Beginning in September 2010, the Sapphire will offer two monthlong trips -- San Francisco to Sydney, followed by Sydney to Los Angeles -- before operating three 14-day roundtrip Hawaii cruises from Los Angeles beginning in January 2011. The ship will also sail one 10-day Mexican Riviera itinerary.

Princess did its first Pacific crossing last year and is operating two on the Star Princess this fall; they weren't originally on the 2010 schedule.

"Due to the enthusiastic response to our 2009 transpacific sailing, we wanted to offer additional opportunities to experience this unique itinerary," said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises' executive vice president.

Carnival, which now operates the most capacity on the West Coast, has significantly expanded its West Coast operations. Since the opening of the Long Beach Cruise Terminal in Los Angeles in 2003, it has increased its passenger count in that market by 80%.

In 2003, Carnival carried 338,580 passengers from Los Angeles. This year, that number jumped to 611,740 passengers out of Los Angeles and San Diego.

Besides replacing the 2,124-passenger Carnival Pride with the Splendor on Los Angeles itineraries (the Carnival Paradise is also homeported in Los Angeles), the line began its first year-round deployment from San Diego last year, with the Carnival Elation. The Carnival Spirit also does seasonal cruising out of San Diego.

Royal Caribbean International also added a great deal of capacity to Southern California in the last two years, including the 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas, which became the largest cruise ship based on the West Coast when it arrived in Los Angeles this year. The Mariner previously operated Caribbean cruises from Port Canaveral, Fla.

Royal Caribbean also extended the Radiance of the Seas' season out of San Diego this year instead of doing the South America itinerary originally scheduled.

From this month through May 2010, the Radiance is offering 24 Mexican Riviera sailings, ranging from four to 12 days, and two West Coast cruises, a nine- and a 10-day itinerary.

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales, trade support and services, said there was no issue of West Coast overcapacity; if anything, there is not enough awareness.

"The Radiance is a great ship for the incentive market, due to the nice mix of balconies," Freed said. "And it's offering a unique itinerary, making a stop in Cabo San Lucas, unusual for a four-day cruise. Not enough travel agents know about it yet."

Holland America Line offered 16 Mexico cruises from San Diego in 2007 on the Ryndam and the Zaandam. Last year, it operated 38 cruises on two ships to Mexico.

This year, the line has three ships operating Mexico itineraries, with the Oosterdam coming from Europe to join the Ryndam and the Veendam. This year HAL is offering slightly fewer cruises, 28, but the itineraries are longer and spread over more ships.

HAL's cruises to Hawaii have remained steady over the last three years, with the Zaandam offering 12 Hawaii cruises in 2007, followed by 14 this year and last.

This year, the swine flu outbreak tested the Mexico cruise market like never before. Royal Caribbean's parent company said in its Q2 earnings call in July that the swine flu continued to have a big impact on Mexico demand, even after the travel warnings to Mexico were dropped.

More capacity is coming next year. Disney Cruise Lines will reposition the Disney Wonder in Los Angeles in 2011 for at least two years, making room at its current Port Canaveral homeport for its upcoming newbuilds.


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