CANCUN, Mexico -- The Mexican Congress is expected to
increase its tourism tax on airline tickets to $32 from $25 to help build an
on-again, off-again, sometimes controversial, $6 billion-plus tourist train
that would connect hot destinations across the Yucatan Peninsula.
President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he is
strongly committed to not only completing but also significantly expanding the
tourist train route. The $7 increase was proposed after Lopez Obrador initially
set off alarms among tourism suppliers by saying he planned to tap funds raised
by the current $25 fee, all of which are earmarked for tourism promotion.
Reports about those plans prompted Apple Leisure Group (ALG)
to launch a letter-writing campaign of protest to the new administration. They
also prompted a series of meetings between business and tourism officials.
The latest word, according to Dario Flota Ocampo, director
general of Mexico's tourism office in the Yucatan state of Quintana Roo, is
that there is an agreement between Congress and the incoming administration to
include the $7 fee hike in the federal budget being finalized in November.
The extra $7, he said, would be dedicated to beginning
studies and planning for the train while preserving promotional funds.
Colette Baruth, senior vice president for global sales,
marketing and distribution for AMResorts, which is part of ALG, said the
proposed air ticket fee hike is "definitely a better resolution. ... But
with any additional increase in tax there really should be a very good
logistical and analytical view of what the consumer is going to be attracted
by. What's going to bring [tourists] back?"
Baruth added, "In light of everything that's happening
with tourism in Mexico currently, ... all of the mechanics of the travel
industry need to be looked at. That's really where we are right now. We want to
be able to maintain the amount of tourism that we had in 2016, which was the best
year in a really long time, and grow from there. Right now, we are in a
position where we are just trying to make it up."
Flota agreed that promotion is key right now. U.S. visits to
Cancun and the Yucatan have slowed significantly since the State Department
issued double warnings about the area in 2017, one related to cartel violence,
the other referencing allegations that illicit, tainted alcohol was being
served at some all-inclusives in the Yucatan.
In addition, the area's normally pristine beaches have seen
recent infestations of sargassum, a smelly seaweed.
The alcohol warning followed a report by the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel that a 20-year-old woman drowned in a pool after drinking with
her brother. He ended up with a concussion and could not remember what
The report also detailed other cases of tourists who said
they had blacked out at resort properties in Mexico after only a few drinks,
furthering suspicions that the alcohol was tainted.
In 2017, Flota said, U.S. tourism growth to the Yucatan
slowed from 8% to 1%. And while visits from other places are growing, he said
that rates are higher for Americans than for visitors from other countries. And
with 101,000 hotel rooms in the state of Quintana Roo, he said, just a 1%
difference can be significant.
To help bring back U.S. visitors, Flota said, his office is
working with travel agents to develop a website with helpful facts to help them
address client concerns about safety.
He asserted that no tourists have been impacted by drug
violence and that it was never proven that the woman who drowned had been
served tainted alcohol. She did have high amounts of alcohol in her system, he
said, and the board is working with hotels to promote better education about
overconsumption for both guests and bartenders.
The train, he said, will also help grow tourism in the area,
making it easier for visitors to see more of the peninsula, while creating jobs
and giving locals an easier way to travel to and from their villages to
employment in the tourism sector.
Such a train was originally proposed in 2012 by Mexico's
current president, Enrique Pena Nieto.
Opposition to that plan had also flared at one point, with
hoteliers at a 2013 summit expressing concerns that it was linked to
since-abandoned plans by Carnival Corp. to build a homeport in Calica, near
Playa del Carmen.
Hoteliers feared that cruise passengers would take all the
air seats and that a train would then make it easy for cruise lines to ferry
passengers to the peninsula's Mayan ruins and other sites, reducing demand for
The plan was eventually scrapped when oil revenues softened,
but it was revived this year as part of the incoming president's ambitious
Flota said the only opposition he has heard this time around
revolves around the airline ticket fee, but he thinks that a $7 hike is small
enough that it would have little impact.
The original plan called for a tourist train from Cancun down
through Tulum and to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, which lie 520 miles to the
southwest in the state of Chiapas, at a cost of about $1.5 billion.
The new plan would add a western leg that would reach
Campeche, Merida and Valladolid before completing a 900-mile circuit in Cancun.
The proposed track would take four years to construct, officials said, and
would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion in what is envisioned as a
Flota said it is his understanding that the money raised by
the ticket fee hike would be dedicated to beginning economic, environmental
impact and other studies necessary to prepare the project to be put out for bid
to the private sector.
The incoming administration recently met with the governors
of all the Yucatan states involved, he said.
"The idea is that on the first of December [when the
new president takes office] they can start with the process of sending
invitations to investors to be part of it," Flota said. "So they want
to start soon."
The first stage, he said, would run from Cancun to Tulum.
That would be the easiest to build, Flota said, as it would run alongside the
highway where the government already owns rights of way and access to
Planning, he said, will get more complicated in more remote
and environmentally sensitive areas, including the Sian Kaan biosphere near