Earlier this year I was in the Yucatan doing a little travel and sightseeing. For most of the time, I had a group of 10 people with me. One of our days was spent in Uxmal, site of some of the most spectacular remnants of the ancient Mayans.
But it was not the temples, or the pyramids that hit me that day, as grand as they were. What struck me was how I was treated.
When we arrived, my small group got their tickets and decided before entering the site to get some coffee and a few waters for the day. What happened next caught me completely off guard. The place where we got our drinks gave me mine for free, and thanked me for bringing a group to Uxmal.
It was nothing huge, but it meant a lot and left a lasting impression.
Later that day when we went for lunch, just like the coffee and water earlier, my meal was comped. Because I was the group leader. The same thing happened when we visited one of the local cenotes just outside of Uxmal. My group paid, but I was given complimentary admission, and drinks.
Each employee I saw that morning in Uxmal, and we got there very early, was in a nice neat uniform and ready for work the moment the clock struck 8:00am. It didn’t matter whether they worked for a local eatery, or one of the many government tourism agencies of the area. They looked sharp, and professional in their uniforms.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in the Yucatan the last few days because I’ve been showing off Oaxaca to a few luxury travel agents from the United States. Seeing this beautiful region through the eyes of others can sometimes be intimidating, but it is also a great learning experience, opening your eyes to some issues you might never have noticed.
In this case, it lead me to this question… “Is Oaxaca taking tourism for granted?” Even if we exclude the generally negative impact the ongoing issues with the teachers union and the almost daily blockades have on the atmosphere in the city, anyone objective would have to answer yes.
Take a few moments and contrast my Uxmal experience with what happened when I took a group to the Oaxacan archeological site, Monte Alban just last week.
We arrived about 8:15, a few minutes after the site opened. The ticket window was still closed, even though the employees were sitting on the nearby bricks. When they realized we wanted to buy tickets, the looks we received were ones that said “Why are you bothering us?” Once they finally opened the window, I asked for tickets for my group. Almost unbelievably, I was asked to go tour the museum for a while so they could get ready.
Everyone working there was in everyday street clothes. No nicely pressed uniforms like we saw in Uxmal. As for guide services, in Uxmal, the prices are listed right at the entrance, based on the language you request. There is nothing like that at Monte Alban. As a visitor, you are left to bargain for your guide having no idea what is an appropriate price.
And there is absolutely no consideration given to leaders of smaller groups who visit the site.
In todays hyper-competitive market for both money and experiences, it is the little things that matter. You want a group leader to continue to visit your site? Make him, or her, feel special and welcome. Open your site on time so excuses do not have to be made to visitors. Make sure your employees are dressed professionally, and above all, make sure they understand that the customer is king, not a distraction.
Let me share another example.
At the end of the week I took my group to see the Guelaguetza at the Quinta Real Hotel in the Centro Historico de Oaxaca. This is a smaller version of the larger Guelaguetza presented on the hill every July. My group enjoyed the presentation and for the most part, the food. But my travel agents had another observation that really cuts to the heart of the matter.
Speaking of Italy, where they facilitate luxury tours, they said any presentation like the Guelaguetza we saw at the Quinta Real, were it to take place in Italy, would make sure the emcee was able to explain the event in not only Italian, but English and French as well.
Imagine how the simple act of explaining the various movements of the Guelaguetza in different languages would open up a great event to a larger audience. And I am not just speaking of the event at the Quinta Real that Friday night. What if the larger event in July had a multilingual host for the thousands of people who attended? That would say to tourists that Oaxaca really cares about them and wants them here in the city.
In addition to the Yucatan, you can see a better appreciation of the value of tourism in other areas of the country as well. I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta many times and I always appreciate the Tourism Police in their crisp white uniforms stopping traffic for pedestrians and giving directions to lost travelers. Even in Puerto Escondido you can count on a dedicated group of police to be manning the tourism information booths. But in Oaxaca City? Nothing.
Young people these days are forgoing buying homes, at least in the US. Why sink all that money into a stagnant investment when they crave travel, experiences and wonder?
Oaxaca is an incredible place. Between the culture, the food, the climate and the history, it is almost unparalleled in Mexico. My worry is that unless the people driving the tourism bus in this great state understand that some changes need to happen, people will start going elsewhere. In an era when travel and tourism are booming, destinations can no longer afford to rest on past laurels. They must step up, continue to modernize and innovate if they hope to reach a larger share of the growing tourism pie.
In closing, let me share one more perspective from my luxury travel friends after 9 days in Oaxaca. “Dave” they said, “Putting aside the issues of the teachers… we’re not convinced Oaxaca can support a week of luxury travel.”
Now take a moment and let that sink in. That week of luxury travel would help support hundreds of jobs as people stay in hotels, eat at the various restaurants, buy gifts, art and crafts, and tour the many archeological sites in this UNESCO World Heritage location.
Unless the various factions of the tourism industry in Oaxaca wake up to the fact that they have some business issues, I fear many people will just choose to spend their hard earned tourism dollars and euros elsewhere. That’s what happens when you take a wonderful place like Oaxaca for granted and mistakenly believe all you have to do is open the doors and people will flood in.
What say you?