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Mazatlán tries to lure more cruise-ship passengers
Travel Agent / November 27, 2004

By Larry Luxner

MAZATLÁN, Mexico — The picturesque Mexican port of Mazatlán will attract a record 370,000 cruise-ship passengers in 2004, up from 320,000 last year and 350,000 the year before.

Alfonso Gil Díaz, general director of the Port Authority of Mazatlán, said Carnival and Royal Caribbean both call on the Pacific port city year-round. In the winter season, those two lines plus Holland America, Celebrity, Silver Sea, Crystal and Radisson also send their passengers to Mazatlán, adding up to an expected 170 ship calls this year.

Most of the vessels are coming directly from Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco, as part of a Mexican circuit that also includes the popular tourist resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos. According to Díaz, 90% of these ships' passengers are U.S. citizens, and they spend an average $50-60 during their 10-hour stay in Mazatlán.

"Everybody who comes back to the port is carrying shopping bags. The things they buy in Mexico are made in Mexico," he said. "That's not the case in the Caribbean, where they buy watches, jewelry and other items not made in the Caribbean."

Díaz adds that "we cannot have a duty-free store because Customs doesn't let us, since the ships that come here then go onto another Mexican port."

According to port authority figures, Cozumel remains Mexico's No. 1 cruise-ship port, with around 2 million passengers a year and up to 16 ships docking simultaneously. Other important Mexican cruise destinations are Ensenada in Baja California (400,000 passengers expected this year) and Puerto Vallarta (385,000).

This year, the Mazatlán Port Authority expects revenues of $10.8 million, though only 30% of that will come from cruise ships. The rest is derived from cargo. The port handles about 16,000 containers annually, and also receives cars directly from Japan and Korea for distribution throughout Mexico, as well as steel coils from Japan used in the local canning industry.

Security is very much in evidence at the Port of Mazatlán, from the armed guard who inspects the trunk of every car at the port's entranceto the optical fingerprint scanner that verifies the ID of all officials entering the port's main administration building.

"We have definitely increased our security since 9/11. All the ports in the world that want to receive traffic from the United States must be certified," said Díaz. "Our certification was done by the Mexican government according to international standards, and last week we had people from the U.S. Coast Guard who came to check all of our installations."

Yet the big issue here isn't security, but rather whether it's fair to charge cruise-ship passengers a head tax to disembark at Mexican ports.

Several months ago, Mexico's Tourism Secretariat had planned to impose a $10 head tax on all cruise-ship passengers, in order to defray the cost of docks and related facilities. Yet overwhelming opposition from the industry, led by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, put a stop to the plan.

The idea had been strongly supported by hotel owners in Cancún, who view cruise ships as competition, as well as by environmentalists and city officials who say the five million cruise-ship passengers visiting Mexico each year leave little tangible benefits in their wake.

The death of the Mexican head-tax proposal represents a loss for Playa del Carmen, a Caribbean beach town that last year became one of the region's first ports to reject a cruise-ship dock unless the industry paid a fee for local development. Playa del Carmen's mayor wanted to impose a head tax of $30 for each passenger who used the proposed dock to come ashore at the nearby resort of Xcaret.

But not all Mexican ports are the same. Díaz said it costs the Mazatlán Port Authority virtually nothing to receive cruise vessels — except for the colorful trolleys that take passengers from the ship itself to the terminal — but that each vessel pays roughly $25,000 in port fees.

In addition, many people in Mazatlán, from tour guides to taxi drivers, depend on the cruise-ship business, and if a head tax scares away vessel operators from his port, those people will be without jobs.

"All the travel agents, tour guides and organizations were against the idea, and they lobbied in Congress for it not to be approved," he said. "The shipping companies sell their tickets way in advance, so if a new tax is imposed, there's no way for them to transfer that cost to the passengers."

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