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Mexico Goes On Sale

Featured on www.wsj.com, May 22, 2009
bookit.com

Mexico Goes On Sale


With a clean bill of health and a lifted travel ban, Mexico tries to draw tourists back with deals and perks.

Everything for the wedding was ready -- the on-site florists, photographers, and a 35-foot acrylic platform built over the blue ocean water at the Rosewood Mayakoba resort near Cancun. Then, two weeks before Megan and Stephen Stork's May 9 wedding in Mexico, the swine flu hit.

After a week of e-mails among nervous guests, the Houston couple held a conference call with their wedding planner, Anna Martel, to consider changing countries. But that didn't make sense, says Ms. Martel, who said she was carefully following flu news. "More people in the U.S. have it," than were infected in the Cancun area, she pointed out.

About 15 guests decided not to come. But the 80 who did enjoyed free upgrades to oceanview suites at the nearly empty resort, quiet beaches, a pool party with a DJ allowed to continue into the wee hours and discounted room rates.

"Who would have thought the swine flu was the best thing ever that would happen to the wedding?" says 31-year-old Ms. Stork. "It was so fabulous."

If you want to grab an unprecedented deal for Mexican travel, enjoy quiet beaches and make solitary climbs up Mayan ruins, now is the time.

Swine flu, or H1N1 influenza, has decimated Mexican tourism. When news of the flu hit in late April, hotels and airlines saw a massive wave of cancellations. In the week following the flu news, Mexican hotels reported a 50.7% drop in occupancy according to Smith Travel Research. Where The Deals Are

At The Tides Zihuatanejo, an upscale resort along Mexico's Pacific coast, about 124 guests canceled on the Monday after the flu news broke, says Carlos Blanco, general manager of the property. The resort lost 350 room nights for the month of May, a 25% drop in occupancy. "It was a disaster," says Mr. Blanco.

Airlines immediately cut service to Mexico in an effort to save money. Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of AMR Corp., which owns American Airlines, said Wednesday the airline cut flights to Mexico by one-third, and there are still many empty seats on current flights. [Mexico travel deals] Jessi Cleaver for the Wall Street Journal

An emptier-than-usual cabin on a JetBlue Airways, flight from New York City to Cancun.

But last Friday, the Center for Disease Control removed the swine flu-related travel warning issued for Mexico on April 27. The move opened the floodgates for travel agencies, hotels, and resort to feel comfortable promoting the destination again.

bookit.com Inc., an online travel agency, launched a Mexico deals page about an hour after the CDC lifted the warning, says Jesse Henson, bookit.com's vice president of marketing. Mexican resorts have been offering deals for months because of general economic woes and impact from several weeks of negative news about drug-related violence earlier this year, says Mr. Henson, "but we haven't really promoted during a time when we it felt was going to be dangerous for our guests."

Now bookit.com is pushing Mexico promotions, says Mr. Henson. Currently, the site is offering a $600 airline ticket credit for bookings of seven nights or more at The Royal in Cancun, for travel between June 28 and Dec 21 when booked by June 1.

Travel deals are widespread and significant. Through September, the Tides Zihuatanejo and the Tides Riviera Maya are both offering a second room free when guests book one room or villa. Through this fall, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts' Mayakoba and Las Ventanas properties are running promotions that include discounted rates, a $200 resort credit, a room upgrade when available, and full daily breakfast for two.

Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort & Spa in Riviera Maya is offering a three-night, all-inclusive package for $599.99 per person, without tax, available for most May and June departures. (July or August dates are $50 extra.) The package includes a $200 resort credit and round trip airfare on USA3000.

Orbitz.com, owned by Orbitz Worldwide Inc., is offering 30% discounts on nightly stays at The Westin Resort & Spa Cancun.

Many of the deals are available through the summer and into the fall and winter, traditionally the beginning of Mexico's tourist season.

The Ritz-Carlton in Cancun launched a "Love & Family" package on May 19 that includes accommodation in an oceanfront room, a half-price second room for children, dinner on the beach for parents, daily breakfast for two, kids meal plan for the entire stay for up to two children, along with other perks. Rates start at $489 for bookings until Dec. 20.

In Mexico City, the region with the most reported cases of the flu, hotels have been hit hard by the flu news, but operators there expect to bounce back more quickly than resort destinations, because the city attracts business travelers and is a transport hub. [Nohoch Mul pyramid] Jessi Cleaver for the Wall Street Journal

No crowds at the normally thronged Nohoch Mul pyramid, a Mayan ruin near Cancun.

At Casa Vieja M•xico, general manager Luis Fernando Sosa says occupancy has bounced back to about 30% this week compared to 5% during the first week of May. Still, the small, high-end property is touting deals. Until June 15, travelers can book three nights for the price of two or receive a free dinner with a two-night stay.

Plane tickets are also on sale. On Travelocity.com, a unit of Sabre Holdings Corp., earlier this month the average airfare purchased from New York to Cancun, Mexico cost $371 round-trip for summer travel. By May 19 a search for a ticket in mid-June could be had for $366 round trip. The average airfare purchase on the site from Los Angeles to Cancun on May 1 cost $432 round-trip for summer. By May 21, a ticket for June travel could be found for $317 round-trip. Act Fast

There is some evidence that bookings are already picking up, pushed along by the discounts and the CDC's change in travel warning status for Mexico. If travelers book flights and hotels quickly, the deals could disappear.

Jeff McGovern, a home remodeler in Warwick, R.I., says the discount on flights to Mexico encouraged him to plan two trips to Mexico in the next year instead of one. "Because the fares were so good, I booked one with Delta in November and one in March," with US Airways, says the 52-year-old, who normally makes an annual trip in March. He paid $280, including taxes, for airfare for his November trip and $301.50 for his March trip • a third of what he says has paid in the past.

Some travel agents and hotels also say bookings have risen since the CDC dropped its warning. Tim Mullen, senior vice president of Apple Vacations, a major Mexico travel vendor, said bookings this week [since May 17] jumped back to levels seen in past years during the same week. "People are coming because of the unbelievable deals," says Mr. Mullen.

Beyond price, another draw for tourists: Empty beaches and relatively uncrowded attractions. After climbing about 140 feet to the top of Nohoch Mul pyramid, a Mayan ruin near Cancun, Jessi Cleaver was thrilled to feel so alone. At the top, she and her guide didn't have anyone to take their picture. "He had to take mine. I had to take his," says the 36 year-old software specialist from New York.

Her May 10 JetBlue Airways flight from New York to Cancun was nearly empty, and she says she got a deal on Jeep rental, at $25 per day. She did postpone her trip by one week, but only because some of the ruins she wanted to see had closed, not because she was afraid of catching swine flu.
  
  

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