After the COVID-19 pandemic put travel on pause, it’s hardly a secret that destinations are only now starting to come close to attaining the type of visitor numbers seen pre-pandemic in 2019, the year considered a benchmark for the travel industry.
For instance, France, the most visited country in the world, recorded between 78 and 82 million international visitors in 2022, a figure close – but not a match to – the 90 million people that arrived on its shores in 2019.
Overall, inbound tourism arrivals last year were still down 34 percent compared to 2019.
There’s one destination, however, that has bucked the trend. Even during the height of the pandemic in 2021, Los Cabos reported the same number of travelers as 2019 – 2.8 million.
"We were able to recover faster than anywhere else," says Rodrigo Esponda, the Managing Director of Los Cabos Tourism Board.
Los Cabos has a bright future and collectively we need to prepare for that.
Esponda is able to pinpoint exactly why the popular town at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula was able to rally so quickly. "We made travelers feel safe about coming back to the destination," he tells The CEO Magazine.
As a conduit between the outside world and the community on the ground, Esponda worked tirelessly to liaise with the entire supply chain in Los Cabos to ensure everyone was on the same page in terms of safety protocols. "That’s not just hotels, but also the airport, transport, restaurants and tourism providers," he says.
After all, people weren’t flying to Los Cabos in the middle of a global health crisis just to be locked in a room. "They were looking to go out to restaurants, to go and see whales," he continues.
The greatest impact came from some of the most simple strategies, however. "When we were going to open, we implemented a destination campaign around putting a smile on," Esponda explains.
"Even though people in our community would be wearing facemasks, we needed to be smiling, we needed to be happy, we needed to give our very best to make sure that tourists felt very welcome. And we did."
Cool in a crisis
The pandemic was far from the first crisis that Esponda has faced. His career in travel started in New York in 2000 as Deputy Director New York with the Mexico Tourism Board. During the 17 years he spent with the organization, he faced global emergencies, such as the September 11 attacks and the swine flu outbreak.
Then there were the country and destination-specific issues to address. Hurricane Odile swept through Los Cabos in 2014 and ripped off facades of luxury hotels and felled trees, and safety perceptions have swirled around Mexico as a whole in recent years.
In responding to these crises, Esponda learned what was the right way to react. He also learnt the importance of proactivity over reactivity.
He knows he can’t control the weather or the spread of viruses, but he can establish a protocol where, no matter the situation, there is already a system in place that allows a rapid response to control a crisis.
It’s the vision that he instilled in Los Cabos from his first day in 2016. And that is what allowed the destination to bounce back from the pandemic with such speed.
A luxury leader
The other vision Esponda has promoted from the get-go is positioning Los Cabos as a worldwide leader in the luxury tourism industry.
By that, he means not just a coastline dotted with exclusive resorts, but quality experiences.
"Luxury is to wake up and see a whale jumping out from the ocean right in front of you, or sleeping under a sky full of stars with shapes and lights you have never seen before, or savoring a dish of freshly caught fish, offered in the most kind, unique type of hospitality you’ve ever enjoyed before," he says.
"That is luxury, and Los Cabos can definitely be the worldwide leader in it."
The foundations are already in place, thanks to the region’s natural beauty. But he is more than aware that tourists don’t simply travel to beautiful places. "You have to have all the different elements in place in terms of service, quality, safety, ease of travel," he explains.
As Managing Director of the main tourism body, it’s up to Esponda to ensure that the vision is shared with both external partners, such as airlines, and internally, so that when tourists do come, they find the experience matches what they have been sold.
Luxury is to wake up and see a whale jumping out from the ocean right in front of you, or sleeping under a sky full of stars with shapes and lights you have never seen before.
Beyond communication, he has emphasized training in the community to ensure everyone is equipped, engaged and invested. The community is arguably the most important stakeholder for Esponda, who describes his role as an "enabler of change".
"I enable the benefits of tourism to connect with the community," he says.
The role of the tourism board isn’t simply to bring tourists to the destination, but to generate benefits for the community and share resources, tools, strategies, statistics and opportunities to allow them to maximize the opportunities they have.
All Esponda’s hard work is paying dividends. Right now, Los Cabos’ upward swing continues: in 2022, the destination set a new record for visitor numbers with 3.5 million foreign and domestic tourists, and in 2023, the destination is projecting to go beyond with 4 million.
Beyond that, the average daily rate of the destination is almost double what it was in 2019. "That’s not just how much spending goes into a hotel room, either," he explains.
"That means that the destination has maintained or increased its competitiveness, and attracted the right type of traveler who is looking to get out of the hotel, go out into nature and engage with the community so that everyone in the supply chain feels the benefits."
As he looks forward, there’s little on the horizon to suggest that momentum will slow down anytime soon. "Los Cabos has a bright future, and collectively we need to prepare for that."