Maya world: Mexico beyond its beaches

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The historical center of Campeche City has cobblestone streets flanked by colorful buildings.
The historical center of Campeche City has cobblestone streets flanked by colorful buildings. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

When it comes to beach destinations, Mexico needs no help. Americans would be hard-pressed to find more appealing playas than those south of the border. Unfortunately, this is the only Mexico most Americans know. Or care to know.

When searching for more adventurous destinations, whether teeming with wildlife, lush with jungles or rich with waves for surfing, American travelers tend to opt for more far-flung destinations such as Southeast Asia and South America without realizing that what they seek is right under their noses for a fraction of the cost.

That lack of knowledge, combined with limited accessibility to Mexico's interior destinations, has kept those locations largely under wraps. However, the promise of a new flight agreement between other airlines with the domestic carrier Aeromar likely means that's about to change. 

Mexico has always talked about promoting its interior destinations, but translating talk into execution has proven to be a challenge.

However, at the most recent Tianguis Turistico, held in March in Acapulco, Lourdes Berho, at the time the CEO of the Mexico Tourism Board, announced that Oaxaca and Mundo Maya (Maya World), which consists of the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatan, struck a partnership with Aeromar to open these destinations to tourists.

"The Maya World and [the state of] Oaxaca both have a wealth of tourism offerings -- archaeology, culture, nature, beach, gastronomy -- all representing an infinite number of possibilities and experiences," said Berho. "It was critical to reduce travel times between the key sites in the Maya World and offer [travelers] more time to explore and experience."

According to the tourism board, "This program provides increased access and connectivity to an area of Mexico that is among the richest and most diverse in the globe, the Maya World. This is the first time we are connecting the destinations with Maya sites and making it very easy for travelers to explore this ancient culture in this way."

Maya world: Mexico beyond its beaches

The increased access and visibility will position the country to appeal to a larger and broader audience in many different markets globally, but it is expected to have its greatest impact in attracting U.S. travelers.

Mexico's global air connectivity has continued to grow at a record pace, with carriers around the world adding routes and additional flights to existing routes, while upgrading to the latest aircraft with higher capacities.

An example of the country's Maya World program is Aeromar's partnerships with key international carriers that have direct routes to Cancun and Mexico City, thereby increasing connectivity to the southeast region.

Aeromar's partners include United, Virgin Atlantic, AirBerlin, Thomas Cook, AirEuropa, Tailwind Airlines and Air France, all of which have direct routes.

Two routes from Cancun will launch in the next couple of months, as well. Aeromar will start a Cancun-Merida route June 27, and a Cancun-Campeche flight will begin July 6. The airline will launch promotional activities in each of the Maya World states and Oaxaca, which include a Maya World Aeromar brand presence at international trade fairs and educational seminars.

In addition, Aeromar is partnering with Conexstur, a tour operator association, to launch MayanPass, a travel program offering itineraries of five, 10 and 15 segments, which range in price from $425 to $1,125. The MayanPass enables visitors to book their destination up to 24 hours in advance of traveling. The minimum and maximum stay for the passes is seven and 45 days, respectively.

Since 2013, Mexico's international tourism has grown at an annual average of 10%, and the tourism board considers the partnership with Aeromar crucial to reaching its goal of attracting 50 million international visitors to Mexico by 2021.

The Catedral de San Cristobal in San Cristobal de la Casas, a town located 7,200 feet above sea level.
The Catedral de San Cristobal in San Cristobal de la Casas, a town located 7,200 feet above sea level. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

Mundo Maya and Oaxaca

In its pitch, the tourism board said, "While sun and beach destinations continue to be popular among visitors, Mexico has a lot more to offer, and we want the world to know about this. The country's offerings extend far beyond the [nearly] 9,000 miles of coastline and 450 internationally recognized beaches."

Mexico and the tourism board have been striving to bring to the forefront the country's other draws, such as biodiversity, nature adventure, gastronomy and culture, all of which can be further explored in its interior destinations. Mexico is also home to more than 47,000 archaeological sites as well as 111 Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns), a designation applied to locations with unique cultural or historical significance or natural beauty.

Within the Maya World are hundreds of sites worthy of vacations on their own.

Merida, the capital of the Yucatan state, is a colorful and historical colonial city built on the site of the ancient Mayan city T'ho. It is home to major historical sites, from the Plaza de la Independencia, with St. Ildephonsus Cathedral and the Government Palace, to the smaller Parque de Santa Lucia, which hosts traditional music performances Thursday nights.

Beyond the cultural sites, Merida is a perfect home base for exploring the nearby archaeological ruins at Uxmal, one of the few archaeological sites with pyramids that travelers can climb. Another worthy daytrip is a visit to Celestun, a sleepy fishing town on the north coast of the Yucatan.

Campeche City, the capital of Campeche state, is what you see when you close your eyes and think of colonial Mexico. Brightly colored buildings flank cobblestone streets within the walled city center, which leads directly out to a long malecon (waterfront esplanade) overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. A white cathedral overlooks a small zocalo (public square), and the evening sunset bathes the cathedral in a pink glow. About 40% of Campeche is jungle, and it is home to Calakmul, Mexico's largest biosphere reserve. Upward of 1,000 buildings in Campeche retain historical status, and walking around the city is like being in an outdoor museum.

The Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, a city that was a religious center in the Mayan world.
The Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, a city that was a religious center in the Mayan world. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

Moving farther south into Mexico takes travelers into the forested and misty state of Chiapas. A must here is a visit to Palenque, one of the state's (and the country's) most important tourist attractions. The Palenque archaeological site is shrouded by jungle-clad mountains and overlooks the Usumacinta River. Here visitors will find the impressive Temple of the Inscriptions, which is festooned with Mayan hieroglyphics. At its height, Palenque was a religious center that spanned 25 miles, only a fraction of which has been excavated.

From the jungle, visitors ascend from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial city that sits at 7,200 feet above sea level, surrounded by forested mountains and humming with Mayan heritage. Like most colonial cities in Mexico, San Cristobal is characterized by its low, colorful buildings and cobblestone streets. The main central plaza opens to views of the surrounding valley, with the imposing yellow and red Catedral de San Cristobal sitting above it all. The Iglesia de Guadalupe offers a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding mountains. The city is a prime destination for backpackers and spiritual seekers, with yoga, vegan eateries, small wine bars and Mayan shamans offering cleansing rituals.

Oaxaca has beaches known for epic surf as well as Oaxaca City, with its quintessentially Mexican gastronomy, ranging from highbrow cuisine to succulent street food. The most famous stretch of beach in Oaxaca is in Puerto Escondido at Playa Zicatela, home to the famous surf break known as the Zicatela Pipeline. The ambience here is entirely defined by surf culture, with small beach bars and restaurants and a seemingly unnecessary number of surf shops along the main drag. Another popular beach destination in Oaxaca is Huatulco, about two hours south of Puerto Escondido, which includes Playa San Agustin.

Playa San Agustin in Oaxaca, known for its sweeping stretch of pristine beaches.
Playa San Agustin in Oaxaca, known for its sweeping stretch of pristine beaches. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

Another of Oaxaca's gems is the archaeological site of Monte Alban, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was a Zapotec community high in the hills outside Oaxaca City, known for being governed by empresses.

"Travelers today seek adventure, biodiversity, culture, gastronomy and history, and this is exactly who we are going after," said a spokesperson for the Mexico Tourism Board, when asked who will be targeted with this campaign. "The Maya World tourism offering, which has started to roll out, consists of increased flights to destinations across various states that have many different and diverse offerings for both first-timers and Mexico-seasoned travelers to experience."

Tour operators weigh in

Still, while Mexico has lofty plans for these destinations, questions remain; most notably, who will sell these destinations, and how will they accommodate the anticipated influx of tourists? According to the tourism board, there are no plans for an increase in the number of hotels in these areas; instead, they are going to rely on the stock of current room inventory. That has made tour operators skeptical about whether this initiative will have a major impact on Mexico tourism overall.

"While it is a positive step, this is not a new concept," said Alex Zozaya, CEO of the Apple Leisure Group. "Many similar initiatives have been implemented in the past to promote destinations and alternate types of experiences in Mexico. Pueblos Magicos, Ruta Maya, Colonial Cities, Viajemos Todos por Mexico are just some examples. Some of these initiatives have worked better than others. What is a consistent trend is the growing number of travelers from the U.S. and from the rest of the world that are looking for sun-and-beach destinations."

Zozaya said the Apple Leisure Group will remain focused on its core business, the traditional beach destinations in Mexico. "If Mundo Maya, Oaxaca or any other city destinations are ready with products, including connectivity, marketing and price, we will add them to our product line and sell them without losing focus on our core products and markets," he said.

Still, Zozaya said, he believes that Mexico has much to recommend it beyond the Apple Leisure Group's core offerings and that these destinations are certainly worth the discovery.

"Mexico has great cities and very attractive places to visit across the country, from colonial cities to wonderful towns, spectacular lakes, jungles and some of the most important archaeological sites around the world," he said. "However, [Apple Leisure Group] cannot be everything to everyone, but we can be the best in the industry at delivering beach vacations to our vast markets."

The archaeological site of Monte Alban, 6 miles east of Oaxaca City in the central part of the Valley of Oaxaca, has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The archaeological site of Monte Alban, 6 miles east of Oaxaca City in the central part of the Valley of Oaxaca, has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, said, "It's great that [Mexico] is going to recommit [to promoting interior destinations]. Journey Mexico is a luxury destination management company that caters to all corners of the country, especially off-the-beaten-path destinations that require more personalized, detailed planning and service. A pillar of Journey Mexico's mission is to promote the interior destinations of the country.

"But Fonatur [Mexico's national trust for the promotion of tourism] is looking at this like a business," Rabinor said. "They see declining returns on the coast because those markets are so mature. There are bigger opportunities for tourism number increases in less-visited places."

On the other hand, he said, "I don't think that this is a game changer for Mexico. What [would be needed] for interior Mexico to see dynamic growth is more promotion. For every dollar spent on sun and sand, you're getting one cent on the interior. People don't want to promote these destinations if there's no access, and there's no access because there's no volume. Mexico has a huge capacity to absorb more visitation in the interior."

Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal de las Casas.
Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal de las Casas. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

For now, niche appeal

The new partnerships and promotions that are adding to the interior's airlift are certainly a step in the right direction to showcase everything Mexico has to offer beyond its picture-perfect coastlines. But it's more likely that this will be a slow burn, rather than a whirlwind success.

The fact is Mexico does have beach life perfected, along with a tourism infrastructure and hotel capacity to match. And with cheap airfare and hotel packages, beach vacations in Mexico will remain the easiest and most convenient options for U.S. visitors. Still, marketing the rest of Mexico will appeal to its own niche of travelers, and in time it should bring in thousands of repeat visitors.

"There is renewed interest in [gastronomic] travel, urban exploration and getting under the skin of a destination," Rabinor said. "People want travel professionals and guidance, but they want to also do it on their own. They want guides who aren't just spewing canned information but who are engaging and can figure out an audience more."

In the end, he predicted, Mexico's interior destinations will attract "culture seekers, wildlife seekers, people who want off-the-beaten-path experiences and people who want to get away from the crowds."

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