Mexico has long espoused plans to put cruise tourism at the forefront of its tourism plan, and that is continuing under the new presidential administration that took over in December 2006. Under former President Vicente Fox, tourism officials vowed to spur cruise tourism in Mexico; get passengers to visit more Mexican destinations, both coastal and inland; increase and improve port security: and promote sustainable development in cruise ports and elsewhere in the country. The administration of President Felipe Calderon will stick with the policy released in 2004, according to tourism officials.
As of press time the Mexican government was still compiling its 2006 statistics. But preliminary figures show cruise traffic to be flat or down in almost all the country's ports between 2005 and 2006.
The number of passengers was 6.11 million in 2006, 6.5 percent below the 6.54 million who cruised to Mexico in 2005.
Mexico tourism officials attribute this drop in traffic to an easing of security concerns elsewhere in the world, as traffic to destinations that saw a drop after 9/11, is starting to increase again.
After September 11, said Leonardo Lazo, general director of the ports section of the Ministry of Communication and Transport, cruise traffic to Mexico grew, as people opted to vacation closer to home than, say, a Mediterranean cruise. Now the trend is ebbing, and cruise lines, which plan routes a year or two in advance, are again opening routes in places where traffic dropped just after the attacks.
"Pacific arrivals increased exponentially after 9/11," Lazo says, adding that Mexico's goal is to make that change permanent. To help that along, Mexico's government is working hard to promote the country as a cruise destination, Lazo said. Efforts range from highlighting Mexico's cultural richness, to speeding up the processing of debarking passengers and working with the U.S. Coast Guard to tighten security.
Overall, Puerto Vallarta is the big story in the expansion department. Late last year, two new docks were completed, each able to receive cruise ships up to 984 feet. This gives Puerto Vallarta three cruise piers, said Marketing Director Astrid Castaneda, noting that they can all accept a ship at the same time. In addition, dredging was done to allow tendering from two more ships, which will let five ships call at once, three at the piers and two anchored.
Cruise traffic, however, has also been flat in Puerto Vallarta, with 240 arrivals scheduled for 2007, just five more than the 235 that came in 2006.
Coming up at the rear in terms of development is Cozumel, still Mexico's biggest cruise draw, but lagging after its installations were nearly destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. All but the fourth pier are repaired.
"Basically all are repaired and functioning - 30 cruise ships per week," said Ana Ledezma, a spokeswoman for the Quintana Roo state port authority, whose jurisdiction includes Cozumel. As for the lagging pier, "I don't know why it's not repaired yet, its simply taking longer than the others. Everyone is working on it."
Cozumel received only 990 ships in 2006, a 12 percent drop from the 1,124 that docked there in 2005.
Around the country, ports are working to attract more ships. They have built infrastructure, dredged to increase capacity of existing infrastructure, and worked with local groups to make smaller ports more cruise and tourism-friendly. Now they are just waiting for the cruise lines to notice.
Mazatlan has been struggling to maintain existing cruise business and attract more of it, said Marketing Director Alex Casarrubias. In 2004, the port spent $700,000 renovating the seaside promenade, and it is also dredging near the piers to make way for larger ships at existing facilities, giving it the capacity for a fourth ship.
Puerto Chiapas has high hopes and new docks, but so far few arrivals. In 2006, it saw just 250 passengers on one small ship, said port spokeswoman Alejandra Ibarra. But nine arrivals are expected in 2007 by ships from Regent Seven Seas, among others, she said.
Likewise, tiny Guaymas, on the Sea of Cortes, would like to attract more than just ferry traffic. Marketing Director Guillermo Von Borstel said the port has six docks and piers with a 46-foot-deep docking capacity.
Besides cruise traffic, other things appear to be at a standstill too, most notably the proposed head tax that at one point was as high as $30. That has been shelved for the time being, as it never made it out of Congress, said a spokesperson for the federal port authority.
Lazo said it is bound to be debated in Congress at some point and that a decision will be made "sooner or later." Mexico is aware that countries all over the world impose this tax, with proceeds going toward port improvements and maintenance. But, Lazo said, it would never be done suddenly.
As Mexico gets used to a new presidential administration, the government's cruise policy seems to be churning ahead, with no major changes. For the president's State of the Union address, Mexican tourism officials reported that the International Cruise Ship Working Group that was formed in September 2005 is continuing to support efforts to augment cruise tourism, and that the local cruise commissions set up in La Paz and Los Cabos in Baja California Sur state are also involved.