Mexico Tourism Board Needs to Fight News Headlines

Mexico Tourism Board Needs to Fight News Headlines

Vacation News » Vacation & Leisure Real Estate Edition | By Kevin Brass | August 16, 2010 3:58 PM ET

It's easy to feel sympathy for the Mexico Tourism Board these days.

Against a backdrop of news reports about beheadings and mass murders, the board's job is to convince tourists to choose Mexico as the perfect spot for a relaxing vacation.

There's no point in trying to tackle the issue head-on; no way to spin a fun marketing campaign around the turmoil. ("Mexico: Not Nearly as Violent as You Think!" Or maybe, "What, Are You Too Chicken for Cancun?")

Instead, faced with crisis, the Tourism Board is completely ignoring the situation. Last week the government-backed group launched a $55 million campaign targeting North America travelers, built around the artfully unexciting phrase, "The Place You Thought You Knew."

TV and print advertising will promote Mexico's off-the-beaten-path cultural and natural attractions, from the butterfly fields of Michoacan to a hilltop church in Cholula, in addition to the surf and sand.

"The U.S. and Canadian consumer, when thinking of Mexico, first thinks of sun and beach," said Stephen Austin, marketing director for the ministry's Tourism Promotion Council, at a recent press conference. "Second is sun and beach, and I think third is, as well."

That is, of course, no longer true. As any developer or resort manager knows, these days a good chunk of the market, rightly or wrongly, associates Mexico with shootouts and the assorted drug-related mayhem making headlines. While officials can argue the incidents are isolated to border cities and the warring cartels, no one can deny the horrific stories are impacting the perceptions of potential tourists and second home buyers.

But the Mexico Tourism Board decided not to address the emergency, preferring to stick to the type of safe, generic, don't-rock-the-boat marketing campaign churned out by tourism boards around the world.

"Our function is not to speak of security, our function is to speak of the assets we have as a country," Rodolfo Lopez, director of the Tourism Promotion Council, said at a press conference announcing the campaign.

The Tourism Board is spending 30 percent more on the North America effort this year than it spent on a similar campaign in 2008. And focus groups in seven cities North American cities reacted "favorably" to the ads, the Board proudly noted in a press release.

But is this really the time for pretty pictures of butterflies? Where is the excitement? Where is the promotion that will generate real traffic for the industry, which desperately needs a boost?

Mexico has a story to tell. People are still traveling to the country, despite the problems. International arrivals were up 5.8 percent in the first quarter of 2010, compared to the dark days of 2009.

Instead, the campaign has already attracted criticism. A widely-syndicated story from McClatchy News notes that four of the 10 "routes of Mexico" promoted by the board spotlight areas considered questionably safe by the U.S. State Department.

The story drew denials from the board. "If the route is set up, it's okay to be there," Austin told the reporter.

And maybe he's right. However, it might be time for the Tourism Board to take off the blinders. Whether they like it or not, the resort industry is facing an emergency situation. More than ever, MTB needs to rethink its approach and spend money on campaigns that will aggressively drive traffic and support an industry that is dealing with a real crisis on a daily basis.

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