Mexico’s Miguel Torruco: “We Need to Adapt to the New Times”
Miguel Torruco Marques, Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, has been at the center of each and every achievement his nation’s travel industry has racked up during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The accomplishments the Aztec nation has made in the field of tourism speak volumes of Mexico’s commitment to one of its economic powerhouses. Those were some of the topics broached by Mr. Torruco during an exclusive interview with Caribbean News Digital.
Mexico has managed to overcome the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourism at the international level with an open-door policy and the strict application of biosecurity measures, and is now positioned as a leading destination in the Americas and the world. How has the country grown in this sense in 2022, in global figures?
On March 11, 2020, we were ready for the 45th edition of our Tianguis Turístico to be held for the first time in the city of Mérida, in the beautiful state of Yucatán, where we were going to break attendance and business appointment records. Suddenly, we woke up to the cold water that the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The first thing that the President of the Republic, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, ordered was not to restrict international or national flights and he entrusted the Ministries of Tourism and Health to prepare the biosanitary protocols, in coordination with the leaders of the most representative organizations, which resulted in Mexico being the first country to obtain the protocols.
We were the only country that did not cancel our international fair called Tianguis, as they did everywhere else in the world, and we went ahead with the first edition of the Tianguis Digital. We had surprisingly more than 61 nations in attendance, with a large number of tour operators who were always attentive, and we maintained close relations and communication with the tour operators of the six main countries of origin for Mexico.
Thanks to the austerity policy of the President of the Republic, resources were available to set aside vaccines from the five pharmaceutical companies, which accelerated the vaccination process and gave priority to the most important tourist destinations. When Mexico had already applied a second dose of vaccination in adults, many developed countries in Europe did not even have the first dose.
According to data from the World Tourism Organization (WTO), as a consequence of the worldwide pandemic, there was a 73 percent contraction. The 20 countries that compete with Mexico in terms of foreign exchange, which is where a nation's tourism potential is measured, had a drop of 82 to 88 percent. Mexico had a drop of 46 percent; it is obvious that a -46 is a faster recovery than a -85. That, in a conjunctural way -and I repeat- catapulted us to all this great movement towards the third position at the end of 2020 at world level, only below France and Italy, while in 2021 we surpassed Italy.
Today we have very pleasant news because after having had a very successful first semester in terms of tourism and a very encouraging summer, in which expectations were met, I can assure you that, by the end of this year, we will attract 24 million 300 thousand tourists; six points below 2019, but the important thing is that in terms of foreign exchange we will close 2022 with 26 thousand 121 million dollars, 6.3 points above 2019.
And something surprising is that in terms of foreign investment we surpassed the historical record of 2017, we continue with the construction of 19,022 hotel rooms on average, and infrastructure continues to be developed throughout the country to expand the product.
Is the Mexican Ministry of Tourism concerned about the decline in the number of visitors?
A country's tourism potential is not measured on the basis of the number of people who enter, but by the foreign currency captured. This means that our product has been improved and has responded more to consumer expectations. They come less, but they spend more. The average expenditure has increased.
Between 2012 and 2018, the budget dedicated to tourism was 54 billion pesos, which was divided between the Tourism Promotion Council, the National Fund for Tourism Development and the Ministry of Tourism. With 41.2 million inbound tourists, we were ranked seventh according to the UNWTO, however, in terms of foreign exchange we were in section 17th place and in terms of per capita spending at the close of 2018, we ranked 40th.
It was a priority that, in the government's new development plan, we should transform our tourism policy to reposition ourselves in the international arena. In order to achieve this, we had to integrate new products. Before the pandemic and before we knew what the new tourist profile, both domestic and international, was going to be, the President of the Republic anticipated the facts.
The construction of the Mayan Train began, with 1,524 kilometers of railroad line, with 20 stations through which 190 high impact attractions can be admired and which will benefit Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Campeche and Tabasco. In the latter two there has been a drop in tourism related to the construction of the country's seventh refinery, and the passage of the train will strengthen business tourism and all the hotels of my colleagues in those states, which had a very bad season.
Also the transisthmian train, from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, will run from side to side and will save more than six days passing through the Panama Canal. This means a new economic corridor and we called the secretaries of tourism of Oaxaca and Veracruz to analyze their tourist attractions in order to set up stations there and turn this freight train into a tourist train.
Among the president's successes was the philosophy of consolidating what was already in place, because generally works were carried out, but when governments changed, everything was left half finished. For example, it took more than 13 years to build the highway from Oaxaca to the coast, which is a bit absurd, and in the next few months it will be finished. There will be prosperity, tourism will improve in Oaxaca and on the coast, while in Puerto Escondido the expansion of a new, modern airport is underway.
Chetumal, what I call the capital of the most powerful tourism state in Latin America, was abandoned for 48 years, with an airport with only one exit, five waiting seats and a little sandwich shop. Porfirio Diaz said that Chetumal had to be connected to the Caribbean Sea; after 100 years, the Zaragoza Canal will finally be ready.
It also took more than nine years to build the Barrancas del Cobre airport in Creel, and this year the airport that will catapult this destination, four times larger than the Colorado Canyon in Arizona, United States, will be inaugurated.
Likewise, the tourism axis we are developing in Nayarit, one of the six states with the highest rate of foreign investment, very close to Puerto Vallarta, stands out. There in Tepic, the capital city, the great airport is being expanded and modernized, but also and finally after many years, the highway from Compostela, a magical town, to Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta will be finished, which will save a great deal of distance and will favor a great tourist movement.
On the island of Mexcaltitán a tremendous remodeling was done thanks to the support of all the ministries, since the new tourism policy is to coordinate having tourism as a crossroads activity to be able to comply with this type of development and works. This island, which in 2016 lost its magical town status, today looks remodeled and ready to be open to the public.
It is also important to mention that San Blas, with its improved road, looking renovated, is going to come out as a magical town, where the oldest customs house of the Manila Galleon is located and from there, from a new pier, the new ferry will go to Islas Marias, the Mexican Alcatraz, totally remodeled and ready to receive tourists to see the site's museum, where there are eight tourist attractions.
In Mazatlan, the largest aquarium in Latin America, where we laid the first stone in 2019, will be completed next March. From there, another ferry will leave for the islands, and thus, little by little, throughout the country, new products will be created that will also respond to the new profile of a post-pandemic tourist: more informed, more demanding, who wants more open places, more contact with the population, gastronomy and handicrafts. That is why we are working on this new model.
Throughout the years a lot was done, there were many successes, also mistakes, but the reality is that we were at the end of 2018, before this administration, in 17th place in foreign exchange earnings and in 40th place in per capita expenditure, with all the 54 billion pesos of budget.
How much has domestic tourism, which seems to be rediscovering its own country, played a role in this development?
In 2019, 258 million travelers moved throughout Mexico, of which 110 million stayed in hotels. Eighty-two percent was domestic tourism. On the other hand, such a large movement of domestic tourism represented an impressive $142 billion dollars, when domestic tourism yielded $26.121 billion this year, and that shows the magnitude of what domestic tourism means. That is why we have been paying a lot of attention to this segment.
How has the process of technological renovation of the Ángeles Verdes tourist assistance service been carried out and how will this contribute to greater security and efficiency for the client?
The Green Angels, unique in the world, are units with officers who provide tourist information and make up the cars that request support. We have just started up the geo-satellite intelligence center, through which our units are located in real time throughout the country and we know which roads are the busiest, there are red lights where there are landslides or accidents, and the services that have been affected.
We were very interested in reviving this program, the second oldest of the administration, with a technological backlog of more than 22 years. Next year we will have to renew one hundred percent of the units to leave a unique service at world level, first class, modernized and with state-of-the-art technology.
Its members receive training courses, they are very professional people. The Green Angels are now not only ready to help any tourist who comes by road, but they are also able to provide information and tourism promotion, and we are increasingly completing the service in 078 and we already have applications for mobile devices that use Android and soon they will also be available in the IOS operating system. We have made a leap to have today a unique corporation in this type of services worldwide.
The distance from Tijuana, the two lower Californias to Cabo San Lucas, the Sonora Desert, is only 42 kilometers longer than Italy, that is why when an American family saw for the first time a green unit that had just been put into operation in 1960, when Adolfo Lopez Mateos was president, arrive in the middle of that tremendous sun and heat, they themselves described them as green angels; they themselves baptized this great corporation, which I am proud to lead from the Ministry of Tourism.
Mexican gastronomy has received different mentions both nationally and regionally, as is the case of the cuisine of Michoacán, declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the city of Guanajuato, capital of Ibero-American gastronomy by the Ibero-American Academy of Gastronomy, a condition that will soon be awarded to Puebla as well. What do these awards mean for Mexico?
In order for Mexican gastronomy to have the rank of Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it was first necessary to go through a regional cuisine and for that our good friends from Michoacán made an enormous effort to reach the first step and thus reach the goal of the declaration that we have today in general. The fact that the Ibero-American Academy of Gastronomy recognized the city of Guanajuato at the time and now they are thinking of recognizing the city of Puebla is an added value that will serve to be included in our marketing strategy as a fundamental attraction because part of the requirements that a tourist wants is gastronomy.
As I say in one of my books, the tourist is a very peculiar being: he sees, hears, observes, ingests, dialogues, notes, compares, reflects and when he arrives at his place of origin he will transmit his experiences for better or for worse, where the gastronomic theme is one of the great topics that he includes in his comments at the end of the trip. So these nominations are welcome and, furthermore, we will disseminate and celebrate them because an award won by any city in our country is an additional medal for the benefit of Mexican gastronomy. I will be very pleased to share with you at the next edition of Fitur and remember that in March we will be holding the tourism tianguis for the first time in Mexico City. So we are going to have some great events next year.
The most recent figures for flight arrivals to Mexico are impressive, how does this fit in with the achievements in terms of the recovery of tourism activity?
From January to July of this year, we have already captured 14 million 502 thousand passengers on international flights, and we have 32,457,845 seats booked on flights to Mexico, which is 28 percent more than in 2021.
The North American region, for example, contributed 24,785,700 seats, 76 percent of the total. In terms of airlines, American Airlines accounted for 15.3 percent, Aeroméxico 12.4 percent and United Airlines 11.2 percent, which together account for 12 million 598 thousand seats.
The busiest airports were Cancun, Mexico City and Guadalajara, which together handled 23 million 852 thousand seats, or 73.5 percent of the total. The most successful international routes to Mexico are Dallas-Cancun, Houston-Mexico City, Los Angeles-Guadalajara.
The routes have been one of the great privileges of Mexican tourism, is there any particular route that the Ministry of Tourism should mark as exceptional to be visited and promoted in Mexico?
For 36 years we have been talking about the Mayan world, with organizations and meetings, but there was no air connectivity and without that there is no tourism. For the first time we broke this perverse circle and started several flights that will integrate the Mayan world. We now fly from Cancun to Tical in Guatemala, and we also have flights to Belize and Honduras. When I participated in the most recent meeting of the Mayan world, I invited those countries to join us, to be with us in the 47th edition of the Tianguis Turístico in Mexico City. There, for the first time, our colleagues from Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador will meet, selling the Maya world as a whole.
It will be an act of exchange and, above all, of communication so that the person who has the privilege of being in the impressive area of Tical in Guatemala or in Copan, Honduras, and sometimes wants to see Chichen Itza, can now have access to regional packages, which is also part of the response to the new tourist profile. In addition, it is a return to the beginnings, as when the Spanish, as masters of tourism worldwide, were the first to integrate tourism regionally. This is the way we are going back to the beginnings in this post-pandemic stage.
Today's tourist wants to have more, with the same effort, and the minimum travel time. We have to adapt to the new times, to the new tourist profile, both domestic and international, and, above all, maintain biosanitary protocols because this is not the first and will not be the last pandemic. On this occasion, the world is better prepared to face other contingencies and it will no longer be a complementary, but an obligatory part of the offer of tourist destinations.
What role has connectivity played in Mexico's plan to upgrade and renew tourism?
Today the two suburban highway overpasses are being completed, thanks to which we will save a lot of time, 25 kilometers of suburban train line are also being built so that it can leave the Buenavista station in Mexico City and in 46 minutes be at the subway station at the new airport and also at the Mexico City airport, the overpass has already been built, Now we only need to overcome four traffic lights that are missing to be able to make it direct from the interior circuit to this new overpass, which strengthens connectivity and now Mexico will have the opportunity to offer the metropolitan airport system with Mexico City, Toluca and the new airport, where by the way, we have three large museums and a convention center.
We have the Great Railroad Museum The Presidential Olive Tree, which shows how presidents traveled at that time. During the excavation works, more than 300 complete remains of mammoths, ancient camels and other species were found in the Great Mammoth Museum and the Mexican Aviation Museum was also completed, where you can see from the first airplane made in Mexico, the Cantoya balloons to supersonic airplanes, large helicopters from different countries and above all rooms where you can see the history of aviation.
That's why we launched a new product on the Turibus: Get to know the Mexico City airport, through which the visitor can see the great work that was done in record time, go to the museums and end up in Teotihuacan to eat at the restaurant La Gruta, a great circuit that I recommend.
When I was Mexico City's Secretary of Tourism there were seven Turibus routes; we left 32, created two Turisky helicopters and the tourist streetcar also to handle different socioeconomic levels. This means that the key to seeing Mexico City -the second most visited by tourists staying in hotels in Latin America- was the creation, integration and commercialization of new products with specific promotional programs, reaching out to knock on the door in the issuing cities. We are now implementing this model in the international arena under the guidance and new ideas that enrich us from the President of the Republic.