When I last visited Merida a decade ago, the charming colonial-era capital of Mexico's Yucatan state was just starting to find its hospitality and hostelry footing as a high-end culture-, nature- and culinary-focused alternative to nearby Cancun.
What a difference 10 years can make. Merida and its home state have seen a boom in those high-end leisure arrivals — and a wide range of products and providers catering to them.
Santiago B. Gonzalez Abreu, Yucatan's director of tourism promotion, said the state "is in its best moment."
"More hotels and tourist services are being offered, and connectivity has increased in the past two years, allowing us to achieve a 9% increase in the arrivals of international visitors," he said. "We have also increased the length of stay of our visitors from 2.8 to 3.4 nights."
New public and private efforts have been undertaken to parlay all that growth to date into a sustainable upward trend.
Yucatan's tourism ministry has teamed with sales and marketing firm PHG Consulting to promote the state "as a top tourism destination to consumers and travel trade professionals in North America," according to PHG spokeswoman Caroline Michaud. PHG is a division of Chicago-based Preferred Hospitality Group, which also operates Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide.
At a premium
At the private end of the equation, 12 such high-end hotels and haciendas across Yucatan have joined with a restaurant, a golf club, two museums and two tour operators in Merida to form the Premium Yucatan group. Members pool their marketing resources and have agreed on common standards of promotion and customer service, according to Cristina Baker, director general of founding member property Hacienda Xcanatun.
"Technically, all the [accommodations] properties that belong are competitors, [but] we all got together and said, 'Look, we're not a chain, we're all individually owned and operated, but as a group we're going to have a lot more collective punch,'" she said.
Premium Yucatan teams with the Yucatan Country Club, pictured, and other businesses in the state for marketing. Photo Credit: Kenneth Kiesnoski
Premium Yucatan's mission is twofold. First, if agents familiar with, say, Hacienda Xcanatun are looking for similar luxury properties elsewhere in the state, Premium Yucatan membership is a good indicator of quality. (Hotels must charge at least $200 per night to qualify for membership.)
"You don't have to look here and there," said Baker. "You have a guarantee that, even if you haven't been to all the properties, you're going to get at least this standard or more, without having to do familiarization trip and site inspections."
Second, Premium Yucatan is "trying to move into the niche of offering ourselves as the ground operator for Yucatan state," Baker said.
"The idea is to put a package together for people now looking for experiences, [since] many affluent travelers are looking for something different," she added.
It works like this: Overnight stays at member properties, such as historical Hacienda Xcanatun, urban design hotel Rosas & Xocolate or beach resort Hotel Xixim, are paired with activities, such as gourmet and authentic Yucatecan meals at member eatery Kuuk and hotel and hacienda restaurants; rounds at the Yucatan Country Club; guided visits to the Casa Montejo and Quinta Montes Molina museums; and archaeological, nature-based and historical forays arranged by tour operator members Amigo Yucatan and Merida Tours.
Premium Yucatan clients enjoy perks and discounts across the group, according to Jorge Escalante, director of Amigo Yucatan. "For example, maybe at Hotel Mansion Merida, you'll get 10% off your dinner bill; at Rosas & Xocolate, you'll get a 300-peso discount on a spa treatment; or free services at the golf course," he said, all accessible via a credit card-type credential.
Clients also can book chauffeured day trips of up to 10 hours with drivers/guides or combine their Yucatan stay with a few days on the powder-white beaches of Cancun, the Riviera Maya or Holbox Island. But the focus at Premium Yucatan is firmly on the state's nonbeach attractions — in particular, its pre-Columbian Mayan heritage.
"We sell … authentic experiences, [and] our tours take our guests inside the customs and lives of the Mayan people," said Escalante. "The Mayan culture is a living one, [so] you can meet Mayans now, talk with them, see their houses — still built according to ancient custom — taste their dishes and see their dances."
Its biggest draws being culture, cuisine and history, Yucatan is marketing to what director of tourism promotion Gonzalez calls a "special kind of visitor."
"This visitor is one who looks for upscale services and one-of-a-kind vacations, one who values the history and culture of our destination, and one who is willing to spend more to get the most out of their experience here," Gonzalez said.
The pool at the seven-room Hotel Casa Lecanda, a Premium Yucatan member. Photo Credit: Kenneth Kiesnoski
From my base at the Casa Azul boutique hotel in central Merida, I explored several Premium Yucatan hotel and restaurant members along with visits to the museums and golf club. A sampling follows:
• Casa Azul: Set in a listed and restored 19th century villa, this intimate, city-center property offers eight spacious and well-appointed suites surrounding an open-air, and surprisingly quiet, inner courtyard. I stayed in two different yet equally comfortable suites: the massive San Ildefonso master suite and the smaller, yet still spacious San Sebastian junior suite.
Both units featured a king-size bed, plasma TV, free WiFi, minibar, safe, air conditioning and patio umbrella. Last year, Casa Azul opened an annex that houses one junior and two master suites. Facilities include a courtyard restaurant and small swimming pools. Rates start at $250 per night. See www.casaazulhotel.com/en.
• Kuuk: This small, art-filled eatery, whose name means "sprout" in Mayan, puts a modern gourmet spin on delicious Yucatecan fare for up to 40 diners. Try one of the three experimental tasting menus. See http://kuukrestaurant.com.
• Hotel Casa Lecanda: I shared a delicious breakfast with owner Stefano Marcelletti at this snug, seven-unit boutique hotel occupying a traditional Yucatecan home restored in 2009. Each patio, balcony or garden room features its own signature scent, available for purchase as a souvenir. Rates start at $220 per night. See www.casalecanda.com.
• Hacienda Xcanatun: This 18-unit property, set on the grounds of a restored, 9-acre hacienda first established in the 17th century, is home to renowned restaurant Casa de Piedra and a five-room spa presided over by a Mayan shaman. Rates start at $280 per night. See www.xcanatun.com.
• Rosas & Xocolate: Holding court on Merida's elegant Paseo de Motejo thoroughfare, this hypermodern hotel boasts 17 rooms housed in two restored mansions, painted hot pink. It features a spa and excellent restaurant, where guests should sample rose- and chocolate-flavored drinks and desserts. Rates start at $245 per night. See www.rosasandxocolate.com.
• Hacienda San Antonio Millet: A rural 17th century hacienda still in use by its owners as a residence. Twelve guestrooms are set in the historical main house, schoolhouse, pavilion and housekeeper's quarters. Attractions include a chapel and gardens with deer and pheasants. See http://sanantoniomillet.com.
Other Premium Yucatan members include Hacienda Misne, Mansion Merida, Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows, Hotel Lodge Uxmal, Hacienda Baspul and Hotel Club de Patos. Visit www.premiumyucatan.com.mx and http://yucatan.travel.