If Mexico's secretary of tourism, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, can move tourism's contribution to the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) up 1 percentage point, to 9.4%, by the end of President Enrique Pena Nieto's term in 2018, she will have elevated tourism to be the third-largest contributor to the country's economy, up from fifth place.
And since taking office seven months ago, Ruiz Massieu has been putting together a playbook to do exactly that.
She's a lawyer by training and a member of a prominent Mexican political family: Her uncle is former Mexico president Carlos Salinas, and her father is a former governor of the state of Guerrero and a high-ranking official of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, commonly known as PRI.
Ruiz Massieu, having spent most of her adult life in government, has developed a reputation for being a savvy politician who can make things happen. With arrivals to Mexico up for the first quarter and the security concerns that complicated tourism promotion beginning to recede, she's been able to focus on developing proactive initiatives that she believes will help her achieve her economic goals and realize her broader ambition to use tourism as a means to improve the lives of Mexicans.
While making her first state visit to the U.S. last month, she met with Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann to fill in the details of exactly how she intends to grow tourism revenues, including a train linking Cancun to Chichen Itza and Merida, a "tourism cabinet" chaired by Pena Nieto himself and a marketing push for the Pacific coast that includes the rebranding of established resort areas.
Sitting to her left during the interview was a familiar face to many who promote Mexico in the U.S.: Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, who had been COO of the Mexico Tourism Board in the previous administration. Lopez-Negrete was retained by Ruiz Massieu and promoted to CEO.
In the following Q&A, the original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred in intervals during the course of the conversation. Travel Weekly: You have spent your life in various aspects of public service, involved in human rights, in security and in Congress. Has your background prepared you to be secretary of tourism?
Tourism is a very complex activity, and my ministry is not responsible for all of the processes that impact tourism. So political skills and the ability to work across the federal government and with local governments are really needed. I guess that's what the president was thinking about when he invited me to do this.
And I'm very happy. My background really has helped me see tourism from a comprehensive perspective and to understand how we have to work within the government as an integrated system to make tourism become even more of an engine for development and the economy.
The cross-government component is really a key element of the new tourism policy. When I got to the ministry, I quickly found out that what makes sense from the tourism point of view doesn't necessarily make sense to people deciding visa policy or investment in communications or transportation infrastructure, or to those recommending guidelines for land development in the environmental ministry. TW: Where does tourism place among national priorities? Can it compete with the ministries that determine visa policy, communications, transportation and the environment?
The president has declared tourism to be strategic to his agenda and decided to create a tourism cabinet within the government that he's going to chair himself. That's unique, and it's really going to be a breakthrough for the industry. It's going to see 10 different [federal ministers] sitting at one table. I will coordinate, but nine other ministries will be there on a permanent basis, working toward consolidating the new national tourism policy and making tourism become even more dynamic, grow and, in the end, generate more jobs and more money for Mexican families. TW: Can you give me an example of how this might work?
Depending on the issues, it's composed of different working groups. We ministers will assign people from our ministries or other agencies within the government to participate in the working groups. For example, we have one working group on investment and credit facilitation, one group on new products, one that has to deal with travel facilitation, another one with infrastructure. So depending on what they're working on, other agencies within the government or other ministries are invited to participate. TW: Has the tourism cabinet met yet?
Officially, the president hasn't yet installed it, but we've been working together these past four months, after he decided that it was going to be a key piece of his policy. For example, during the spring week and Holy Week vacation period, we worked together, under the umbrella of the tourism cabinet, in a comprehensive safety-and-security-for-tourism working group. And for the first time, 10 ministries worked together to ensure that the vacation period was safe and tourists could find the information they needed and knew who to communicate with if something happened, and to make border crossings more efficient at airports and highways -- that kind of thing. So it's been working. We've seen results, and the president is really happy he decided to do this. And we're confident that it's going to prove instrumental in taking our sector to another level during this administration. TW: Will the cabinet work with the private sector and state and regional tourism agencies?
Well, the cabinet is going to work from the federal government perspective. And then my job as secretary of tourism is to work with the states and even the municipal governments that have a strong impact on tourism and related issues.
And we work all of the time with the private sector. I have established working groups with the private sector that mirror those in the tourism cabinet so I can address the same specific issues. And some of the things discussed there I can take back to the tourism cabinet. Communication and approaching challenges together with the private sector are essential. TW: Have you met with companies in the U.S. that send visitors to Mexico?
This trip is my first state visit to the U.S. and is part of that effort and that strategy. And we've met with different actors and different partners that are instrumental in sending American tourists to Mexico. We've told them what we're working on in this administration, what we want to achieve. TW: Specifically, have you met with tour operators, wholesalers, travel agents?
We met with major ones at Tianguis [Mexico's annual tourism trade show] in February. And what we found is that they're really seeing there's an appetite for Mexico.
We've been exploring how to work better together to increase arrivals. The U.S. is our No. 1 international market. We know we can grow our market share, and we're looking to do so. One of the shifts in focus is that we're looking to diversify what we're offering. We have traditionally leaned heavily on sun-and-beach destinations, which of course are very competitive. But we want to make the most of other competitive advantages, such as cultural heritage, natural heritage, touristic know-how and human resources. TW: In the past, others who have tried to draw tourists to areas of Mexico outside developed resort areas have not succeeded on a large scale, in part because of the chicken-and-egg dilemma of which comes first: tourist interest or infrastructure? Hoteliers are reluctant to build, and airlines are reluctant to provide service to an area unless its popularity is proven, yet many tourists won't come to a destination unless there's good transportation and tourist-quality accommodations. Is this being addressed in discussions about bringing tourists beyond sun-and-beach?
Part of the rationale behind the tourism cabinet is precisely these types of issues. We were talking about this with the finance minister, president and other ministers one day when looking at some of the challenges facing tourism. And another minister said, "Well, it's like the chicken and the egg." And the finance minister said, "Well, when there's a chicken and the egg, then it's time for the government to step in and tip it in some direction."
So, yes. For example, one of the things the president has decided is to make all of the federal monies that ministries traditionally administer to different areas be made more transparent, so things are better coordinated and understood.
For example, the agency for the development of indigenous people in Mexico traditionally has received lots of money to generate an ecotourism infrastructure within the communities that have an indigenous original population. But those decisions about how much, where and what type of spending didn't necessarily involve the ministry of tourism. So the result was that a lot of this infrastructure and a lot of this federal money that was allocated to different programs within different states didn't have the impact on tourism that it should have had.
By making it visible and tying it to the national tourism policy, we are going to be able to direct all of those resources to the places and type of programs that we, with our expertise, know makes the most sense.
So, coming back to the infrastructure question. We need infrastructure, and we do have lots of resources from the federal government that are there precisely to generate the kind of infrastructure that sometimes the private sector can't get going by themselves.
It's key that the government is participating. We're also, for example, working with the development banking system to develop specific credit vehicles. And the president created the National Entrepreneurship Institute, which we're working with to channel and target the kinds of projects that are commercially viable and make sense from a touristic point of view.
And that's where [Mexico Tourist Board CEO] Rodolfo [Lopez-Negrete] comes in, with all of the tourism board's knowledge about markets, about the type of product that we need to be developing and about the specific markets where we need to promote these new and different products. TW: You had mentioned earlier that the ministers and president met on the question of security during spring break.
Comprehensive security, yes. TW: Security concerns seem to be less of an issue than they were even a year ago. But are they still showing up as a reason why people are hesitant to book Mexico?
We have some concerns in some parts of the country, but they are very geographically specific. And we have to communicate that in a more effective way. We've been working with the [U.S.]State Department in that regard, and we've been making progress. But generally speaking, we have also seen our [arrival] numbers going up this first quarter. The market is not reflecting concern about Mexico. Our numbers have gone up both in terms of international arrivals and spending, so we're doing well. But we want to do better. TW: You mentioned discussions with the State Department. Have you had discussions with the U.S. Commerce Department, as well?
Yes. I've met with officials from the Department of Commerce, and I think what makes this a wonderful opportunity is that both President Obama and President Pena Nieto have declared tourism to be important for their agendas and their economies. That really influences the mindset of the people working in the government. So we've been talking about how to increase both Mexican tourism to the States and American tourism to Mexico, because it's a win-win situation. When people go from the States to Mexico, they'll spend money here, preparing for their trip. They're going to buy airplane tickets. And they're going to create jobs here just as they are in Mexico when they travel internationally. So we're all aware that there's an opportunity. It's a sector of the economy that can grow more easily than other sectors in the economy.
For us in Mexico, that impact is very important, especially for young people and women, for whom tourism is an important source of jobs. It's important that we in the government foster it. TW: We have been talking a lot about process. Do you have specific projects planned to increase tourism?
Secretary Ruiz Massieu asked [the tourist board] to identify priorities from a regional perspective. The southernmost five states -- Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Chiapas and Tabasco -- comprise the greatest archaeological wealth that we have. Without neglecting the rest of the country, this particular part of the country is one of the ones we believe has the greatest potential. Cancun is not only a wonderful destination, but can be a hub of distribution to spread tourists through the region -- tourists who fly in from international markets. It's an area that has cultural attributes comparable to China, Egypt and Greece.
But, of course, infrastructure has to go hand in hand with that. Ruiz Massieu:
It's where Mayan culture was settled in Mexico, and it's possible to integrate different experiences to complement the sun-and-beach experience that you get in Cancun or Riviera Maya. In fact, the president announced in January that the government is going to build a railway that's going to link Cancun to Merida so you can go to Cancun, go to the beach, and then hop on a train and see archaeological and colonial sites on the way to Merida.
It's going to be great. And we are going to also reinforce regional connectivity by air and highway. We're investing heavily in infrastructure. The president just announced that the federal government is going to invest $25.8 billion this year in communications infrastructure, highways, rural highways, ports and airports, both enhancing capacity and evaluating projects for new airports and trains. So it's going to be a really comprehensive policy that's going to be linked to the infrastructure. We're developing and upgrading what we need to make these destinations more accessible. The Yucatan Peninsula is an example of what we want to do with what we already have. TW: What stops will the train make?
It will stop in Chichen Itza and Valladolid for certain. I don't know if you know Valladolid. It's colonial mainly, but with a strong Mayan presence. And it's really very beautiful. So along the way you can have the gastronomical experience, the sun-and-beach experience, the colonial experience, the living cultures experience, artisanal shopping. So it's much more of a comprehensive experience that we want to sell in that particular destination. We're looking at it as a regional destination. TW: Would it be a high-speed train?
I really don't know the specifics, but I can tell you that during the day, it's going to be a passenger train, and at night, it's going to be a cargo train. Lopez-Negrete:
Along the same lines, Secretary Ruiz Massieu asked us to look at revitalizing the Pacific west coast of Mexico. And Secretary Ruiz Massieu, in conjunction with the governors of the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, announced the launching of a comprehensive marketing program and a rebranding project for Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit, combining them into "Vallarta Nayarit." This is a big, big thing. For the first time, you'll see an investment of federal funds from the Mexico Tourism Board, the state of Jalisco, the state of Nayarit and the different convention and visitors bureaus in those areas. Vallarta Nayarit could become comparable to what Cancun/Riviera Maya is in the Caribbean, a mirror project on the Pacific coast.
We have set investment at $10 million, year on year. It's going to launch this year. TW: Is the $10 million for marketing and infrastructure?
Marketing, just marketing. Lopez-Negrete:
And just for the U.S. and Canada. Ruiz Massieu:
Some of the infrastructure that we will need in that region [will be funded] as part of the national infrastructure program that the president is announcing in the next couple of weeks. TW: Are you planning to develop any new planned resort areas, along the lines of Cancun?
No. We want to focus on revitalizing what we have, make what we have more competitive. And to that end we are, even now, reviewing each and every one of our main tourist destinations to determine what to do to make them more competitive.
Over the past 40 years, Fonatur has developed six planned touristic developments. And they're in different stages of competitiveness. Cancun is, of course, still the crown jewel, but it needs to constantly be adding new attractions and new value, and that's why we are integrating a regional product with it.
But we have other destinations that need different, specific strategies tailored to making them competitive again. Some are better for families, for example, and some are better for sports. And we really want to differentiate between them, even differentiate among our sun-and-beach destinations. TW: What about urban areas? Is Mexico City on your radar?
Yes. We want to embrace Mexico City as a major tourist destination. It's usually been viewed as a business destination, but we know it has lots to offer to families and other leisure tourists. We have wonderful restaurants: traditional Mexican cuisine, international cuisine and contemporary Mexican cuisine. Two restaurants in Mexico City, Pujol and Biko, have been recognized as being among the top 50 in the world [by Restaurant Magazine].
Mexico City also has many museums showcasing Mexican culture from pre-Hispanic periods as well as contemporary museums. We have wonderful orchestras and concerts all year long. And within Mexico City, we have all of these contrasting neighborhoods. We have the colonial neighborhoods around the Zocalo, and it's really impressive. But also, within walking distance from the National Palace where the president has his office, you can find the Templo Mayor, which is an archaeological site that really takes your breath away.
And we have more contemporary neighborhoods that are really a treat for tourists. So we really want to showcase Mexico City as a place you have to know as a tourist, not just as a stopover for business or en route to some other of our wonderful destinations. TW: Have you traveled much in Mexico as a tourist?
Yes, I have. TW: Where do you go when you're on vacation?
Well, my family is from the Pacific coast, so I like the Pacific, but I also really like the colonial towns. And Chiapas, I once did a spectacular trip to Chiapas with my children, and they loved it. It was more an ecotourism kind of thing. TW: You've been in office for a little more than half a year now. What is different about the job that you didn't expect?
I've come to appreciate the real impact that tourism has on the people who work in the sector. I used to think about tourism in terms of its role in the economy. I thought about these big hotels, the big chains and the great developments. These are important, but what impressed me is the impact tourism has on even the smallest communities and on families that work around the tourism sector. When I give presentations, I'll say that tourism is 8.4% of the GDP, and it generated $12 billion last year. That sounds great, but what we're really talking about is 7 million jobs, 7 million Mexicans who depend on tourism.
And I'm convinced that we can make it grow. We can make it represent more of our GDP and generate a lot more money. But what we'll be generating is prosperity and jobs for people, and that's what really makes it really interesting for me. Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.