Copland: Time is right to court U.S. market

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ACAPULCO, Mexico -- The time has never been better for Mexico to attract U.S. travel agents and travelers, according to ASTA president Richard Copland.

Delivering a keynote address here during Tianguis Turistico, Mexico's largest tourism conference, Copland said, "The market is ideal for Mexico. The opportunity is there in the immediate future."

Copland said that given the challenges presented by fear of terrorism, the war in Iraq and the slumping U.S. economy, tourism officials and agents should emphasize Mexico's advantages over other destinations -- namely its proximity to the U.S. and the value of the dollar-peso exchange rate.

"Greater cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. to encourage travel will benefit all of us," he said. "We can only anticipate increased traffic between the two countries, especially as travelers choose to stay closer to home."

The cruise segment is one of the strongest niches for Mexico travel, Copland said.

"The Cruise Lines International Association estimates that 7.4 million people cruised [worldwide] in 2002," he said. "They expect 8 million people to cruise in 2003."

This growth has been noted in Mexico, which has been helped by the fact that many travelers prefer to drive to their vacations, according to Copland.

"The new trend in travelers who want to drive to ports for cruise vacations has been advantageous for Mexico," he said. "In the [Gulf of Mexico], for example, over a five-year period, there has been a 140% increase in passengers embarking from the port of Tampa, Fla., to Mexican destinations.

"Cruise lines -- including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Celebrity -- are taking advantage of this trend," he added.

"Mexican cities such as Cozumel, Progreso and Merida, plus Costa Maya, are vital destinations in itinerary planning and will continue to grow as cruise-tourist attractions."

But Mexico faces challenges, Copland said, if it wants to build on the increased port calls. The number of cruise passengers traveling to Mexican ports of call has more than doubled in the past five years, from 2.6 million to 4.8 million, he said.

"It is critical for those destinations -- from Ensenada to Punta Venado to Mazatlan -- to make the experience memorable enough so cruise passengers become repeat visitors," he said.

Copland also suggested that Mexico -- and U.S. travel agents -- should prepare for an "explosion" of travel once the war in Iraq ends, as pent-up interest in taking vacations is released.

"Your challenge," he told attendees, "is to convince U.S. tourists that Mexico is more than the sun and sand of Acapulco and Cancun.

"There is no better time for you to be marketing to the U.S."

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