*logoMexico's colonial towns, lesser-known archaeological sites and gastronomy are the focus of tourism promotion efforts in the coming year.

Minister of Tourism Gloria Guevara, who was appointed earlier this year and now heads both the ministry and the Mexico Tourism Board, outlined MTB initiatives that promote the country's rich history and culture during the annual Tianguis tourism fair late last month.

The MTB is planning a Cultural Tourism Conference in Morelia later this year for tour operators, travel agents and anyone else interested in learning about putting together tours and packages with cultural and historical focus.

"Mexico is a country of incredible and unequaled beauty" with more Unesco World Heritage Sites than any other country in Latin America, and the country has not taken advantage of its history and culture to draw more tourism, Guevara said.

Another initiative will kick off this month, when the MTB unveils 10 Mexico Circuits, itineraries encompassing all the states of Mexico and emphasizing culture and history. As an example, Guevara said there might be a culinary tour focusing on mole, the Mexican specialty of the state of Oaxaca.

While tour operators and Americans familiar with Mexico agree that the country's rich history and treasure of archaeological sites are often overlooked by visitors focused on Mexico's beach resorts, they also wonder about the potential of attracting large numbers of Americans to the interior cities and areas that Americans know little about and that may lack the necessary tourism infrastructure.

Ken Pomerantz, president of MLT Vacations, said the tour operator views Guadalajara, Oaxaca and other historical cities as "niche products." MLT offers them as packages, but few are sold.

"Clearly for the North American market, beach destinations are primarily the focus," he said.

Pomerantz said there is opportunity to integrate historical and cultural sites in day tours from beach destinations, such as is done with Chichen Itza and Tulum, two popular day trips from the Riviera Maya and Cancun.

Stephanie Schneiderman, who operates Tia Stephanie Tours, a specialty operator that focuses solely on Mexico's history, art and culture, said she was happy to hear that Guevara is emphasizing cultural tourism.

Although she said that beaches and warm weather are naturally Mexico's appeal as a mass-tourism destination, the country should take advantage of its culture and history to attract the kind of tourism that Europe and other destinations draw.

"It's time to stop talking only about the beaches," Schneiderman said. "When you're talking about the third-largest industry in Mexico, sure, you're talking about mass tourism and the beaches. But the move to cultural tourism is long overdue.

"What Mexico has to offer is a kaleidoscope of countries in one, with indigenous people, a variety of culture and history, all within a short airplane flight from the U.S."

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