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American Society of Travel Agents Destination Expo 2014 in Mérida, Yucatán.

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MERIDA, YUCATAN. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) Destination Expo 2014 took place last week in Mérida; this flagship event was in Dubai in 2013, and will be in Marrakech, Morocco in 2015; this year however, it was all about the Yucatán.

Nearly 400 people participated in the event, including more than 200 active travel agents, and during the four days, in addition to educational seminars and the opportunity to meet one on one with suppliers, the travel agents experienced the best that Mérida and Yucatán have to offer, including Tequila tastings, local cuisine, a visit to the Mundo Maya museum, and tours to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Izamal, Dzibilchaltun, Celestun, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal. Educational seminars available to the agents included ‘Hacienda Splendor’, ‘Destination Weddings in the Yucatán’, ‘Mérida Chic’ and ‘Nature and Adventure’.

On Friday morning, Yucatán Governor Rolando Zapata Bello, Yucatan Secretary of Tourism Saul Ancona, and Mexican Ministry of Tourism Assistant Secretary Carlos Gonzalez joined ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby, ASTA board Chairman John Lovell and the other ASTA members and participants for breakfast and the opening general session of the event, held at the Hyatt Regency ballroom.

In his opening remarks, ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby noted that although the name ASTA implies that participants are all from North America, this is not in fact the case, and he welcomed agents from as far afield as Ghana to the event. I spoke personally with the agent from Ghana, as well as some agents from Serbia, all of whom commented that Mexico and Yucatán are practically unknown destinations for travelers from their countries; however they are excited about returning home and highlighting what they have experienced during their visits to Mérida.

“It is a tremendous honor for us to partner with ASTA and host this immersive learning and networking experience for travel professionals” said Yucatan Secretary of Tourism Saul Ancona. “We look forward to reaping the rewards of having a trained, energized, and motivated cadre of North American travel professionals who will showcase the wonders and value that Yucatán offers.”

Hyatt Regency General Manager Richard Westell noted in his address that his career with Hyatt has taken him to a large number of countries in the last 20 years, however the 6 years he has spent so far in Mérida have been the best of all, and he expressed confidence that the participants will leave with a similar love for the city and state.

ASTA board Chairman John Lovell commented that he has been overwhelmed by the charm and culture of Mérida, while Mexican Ministry of Tourism Assistant Secretary Carlos Gonzalez expressed the commitment of the federal government to the tourism industry in Mexico, which is growing every year, and is one of the government’s most important focusses.

Yucatán Governor Rolando Zapata Bello thanked the participants for coming to Mérida, and noted that by experiencing the city and state in person, they will have a huge advantage over those who have only visited ‘virtually’ on the internet, since they will have had the chance to experience first-hand the sights, sounds, flavors and aromas that the state offers.

Robin Tauck, co-owner of Tauck World Discovery, a company with over 90 years of experience in the travel industry gave a fascinating presentation on the importance of the travel industry around the world; for example, did you know that Travel and Tourism is now the largest industry in existence, employing 1 out of every 11 people on the planet, and accounting for $7 trillion in annual revenue? The industry is also expanding hugely; in 1950, 25 million travelers made cross border journeys around the world; in 2012 it was 1 billion, and in 2030 it is projected to be 1.8 billion. In light of this, she stressed the importance of sustainable tourism, i.e. providing a net benefit in all ways to the areas in which the tourism occurs.

Following the general session, the travel agents participated in educational seminars, and enjoyed a trade show at the Fiesta Americana, featuring 35 suppliers from the region, such as hotel groups, attractions, airlines and tourism boards, as well as a sumptuous lunch buffet, featuring local delights as well as international items.

While talking to various agents, including ASTA board Chairman John Lovell, the point that nearly all of them mentioned was the fact that, prior to this event, Mérida and the Yucatán were pretty much “off the radar” to them, however, having been here and experienced all that the region offers, they will be enthusiastically promoting both the city and the state as cultural destinations to those clients who might otherwise have been looking to ‘old’ Europe for their travel experience; while previously they considered Mexico mainly for its beach destinations (i.e. Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, etc.) they now realize that there is so much more to the country, and they are delighted to be able to broaden the range of Mexican choices they offer their clients.

This lack of awareness can come as somewhat of a surprise to those of us who already know and love Yucatán; however it represents a vast potential market for the region; one which this event will certainly help to stimulate, and which the state is ready to exploit.

Following this event, Yucatán has gained more than 200 enthusiastic ‘ambassadors’ and can look forward to seeing the benefit in the near future.

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