The first half of 2009 was not kind to Mexico. For years, the country has been one of the top destinations for cruise passengers, but three events – the global recession, drug-related wars and the H1N1 virus – saw fewer passengers embark at its ports during these months.

Firstly, the recession made its mark on the country’s economy, with the government announcing that gross domestic output for the first quarter of the year had fallen by 8.2%, compared with the same period in 2008.

From January to April 2009, Mexico received 29.8 million international visitors, a 5.9% decrease compared with the same period in 2008 (31.7 million visitors).

"The figures for tourism fell by 8% [according to UN World Travel Organisation figures] in the first quarter of the year," says Othon Perez, director of the Federal Ports Administration, Mexico. "However, the sector has been working hard to improve this and so for the full year, we expect a total fall of 4-6%."

Meanwhile, the country’s burgeoning drug problems, which are usually contained far from tourist-heavy areas, have become increasingly violent and spread to coastal resorts. In June, there were gang shootings in Acapulco and the high-profile arrest of a major gang leader in Cancun. Although the Mexican government deployed a strong military presence in affected areas, army units patrolling beach resorts were hardly attractive sights for tourists with sun, sea and having a good time in mind.

Flu response

The deadly H1N1 virus placed Mexico right at the heart of the outbreak and resulted in bookings throughout the tourist industry to falling by as much as 95% during April and May. Although the government acted quickly to try to contain the problem, with health officials closing most public gathering sites, the damage was severe.

"From 27 April to 15 June, after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a warning for US visitors against travelling to and from Mexico, our ports experienced a drop of 539,000 passengers," says Perez. "It was bad for business: we lost $48m in revenues at ports and in passenger expenditure."

“While Mexico is quickly rebuilding its reputation as one of the top international cruise destinations, plans are underway to develop a local cruise market.”

For cruise lines, one of the biggest problems was the confusion at the beginning of the outbreak caused by different governments announcing various courses of action to be taken regarding travel to and from Mexico, according to Michael Bayley, senior vice-president, International for Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Azamara Cruises.

"Everyone was making different announcements, which made it difficult to advise passengers," he explains. "We have customers coming from the Asia Pacific to our ships sailing the US West Coast and it was hard to work out which country was taking what action. Some countries were not allowing people to travel to Mexico, while others were letting people fly there and then quarantining them when they returned."

Following the US CDC’s announcement, cruise lines had no choice but to pull ships out of Mexican itineraries, adding extra days at sea and trying to find last-minute berthings at alternative destinations in the Caribbean, San Diego, San Francisco and even as far away as Alaska. This resulted in some cancellations, with lines offering full or part refunds in the form of credits towards future sailings and various onboard activities.

Recovery steps

Mexico’s cruise industry has suffered serious blows in the past and has quickly recovered. Before the problems of 2009, its prospects for growth were promising. During 2008, the country’s ports welcomed approximately 3,000 cruises and over six million passengers.

"Mexico has everything going for it," says Andrew Poulton, director of corporate communications, Regent Seven Seas Cruises. "It is naturally beautiful with great weather, wonderful food, hospitable people, lots of beach and shopping activities and great historic sites. Millions of people go there and, despite recent problems, I can’t see that changing."

When the US CDC lifted its travel restrictions, the Mexican Government was quick to start rebuilding its tourism business, with a Mex$2.2bn ($165m) package of stimulus measures, which included a 50% reduction of immigration and harbourmaster fees at all ports. The Mexican Tourism Board also embarked on national and international marketing campaigns to encourage tourists back to the country.

Ports are continuing with major renovation projects. In the Sea of Cortes, Cabo San Lucas has concluded a $204,582,000 project with the remodelling and expansion of docks for cruise passengers, which means that the port can now receive the 138,000t Mariner of the Seas. Puerto de Guaymas has completed a new state-of-the-art terminal. In Mazatlan, operations to add a new pier began at the end of May, and new terminals are planned for Manzanillo and Huatulco.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Costa Maya"s new berthing station means it can now accommodate larger cruise ships, such as F3 and Oasis of the Seas. In the Yucatan peninsula, construction is underway at Progreso to provide facilities that include an area dedicated to ship crews, and a dredging project so it can receive larger cruise vessels.

Home prospects

While Mexico is quickly rebuilding its reputation as one of the top international cruise destinations, plans are underway to develop a local cruise market.

“From January to April 2009, Mexico received 29.8 million international visitors.”

"Mexico has the second-largest population in Latin America and is a strong source market, which I believe will become stronger," says Bayley. Postponed because of the flu outbreak, Pacific Dream, a vessel dedicated to the Mexican market, will be deployed through Spanish line Pullmantur Cruises, with Cozumel as its homeport.

From February 2010, the island will be the starting point for a new Mayan-Caribbean cruise including two Mexican ports. All onboard entertainment and services will be in Spanish, which, combined with Cozumel’s strategic position, will put Pullmantur in a good position to capture the Latin American cruise market.

"Mexican national tourists are not used to cruising as a vacation and this will enhance the appeal of cruises for them," says Perez.

With cruise ships now back at ports and the country set to build up its home market, Mexico"s inclusion in cruise itineraries should continue with gusto.