Puerto VallartaTwo tour operators with strong ties to Mexico, Apple Vacations and Pleasant Holidays, are forecasting a banner winter season, based on forward bookings for 2013 and significant gains and growth in the Mexican market thus far in 2012.

Apple announced an expansion of its U.S. gateways and new vacation flights to eight destinations in Mexico, including the new service to Puerto Vallarta service from Lansing, Mich. (It is also launching new programs from Rockford, Ill., to Montego Bay and from Hartford, Conn., to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic).

The expanded offerings represent a 15% increase on air seats this coming winter season compared with last year, and include the three new U.S. markets of Austin, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Kansas City, Mo.

Apple is working with Sun Country Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue and AirTran, according to John Tarkowski, vice president of planning and sales development.

When Apple decided to shut down its airline affiliate USA3000 last year, the company negotiated a deal with Frontier to take over some of Apple's U.S.-Mexico contracts.

"We had to protect our gateways, so we signed a long-term lease with Frontier and expanded our other carrier relationships," Tarkowski said.

How Apple decides what new nonstop flights to offer to which destination from what gateway is based upon a combination of factors that includes feedback from and strategy sessions both with agents and consumers, according to Tarkowski.

"We meet frequently with our agent advisory board to discern trends and patterns in travel, bookings and sales," he said.

"Apple also does consumer surveys on all our flights; we meet frequently with our airline partners and discuss new properties and booking patterns with key hotel suppliers," Tarkowski said.

Tim MullenTim Mullen, president, agreed, adding that "we try to make our customers' vacation experiences the best they can be. Many times it starts with where they want to go and how easily they can get there. This is where that experience begins."

Pleasant Holidays CEO and President Jack Richards also predicts a strong 2013 for Mexico.

"We've seen significant gains and growth all year," Richards said. "Going forward, bookings are tracking ahead and we are very optimistic. Mexico may have its best year ever in terms of visitors."

Mexico welcomed 23.4 million visitors in 2011, a record-breaking year, and is on track to top those numbers this year. It reported a 5% increase in arrivals from January through May compared with the same period in 2011.

Where Pleasant is seeing a particularly large surge in bookings is in the group market and the destination wedding segment.

"Both markets have come back strong," Richards said. "We're getting corporation business again, and the bridal bookings are robust."

Pleasant is putting a lot of emphasis on the luxury and high-end resorts, especially in the suite categories of accommodations.

Jack Richards"We are laser-focused and upselling in select properties," Richards said, adding, "We're not adding new destinations but are picking up new hotel inventory," including additions to Pleasant's AMResorts roster.

"The company is an important partner for us, and we see a lot of growth in those hotel programs," he said.

In fact, Pleasant is holding its annual sales meeting in Los Cabos later this year so that staff can personally visit the three Zoetry, Dreams and Secrets properties there (a second Secrets will open in November 2013).

Pleasant's current $250 airfare credit offer, valid on new bookings at 21 participating beachfront properties through Sept. 2 for travel through Dec. 22, "is selling well and is a good lead-in to the winter season," Richards said.

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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