As the saying goes, some things never change.
For Alejandro Gonzalez Molina, it’s the appeal of Acapulco – the beauty, the beaches, the seemingly never-ending sunshine.
Listening to him recall the details, you would think it was just yesterday that he made the move from Mexico City to take on his first professional gig at Las Hamacas Hotel, but in fact, it was 1962.
“If you do the math, you’re going to know my age,” he tells me, “but no problem.”
Molina is one of only a handful of individuals who have participated in Tianguis Turistico from the very beginning, never missing a single event in the past 40 years.
It all began under the leadership of past Mexican President Miguel Aleman, who later accepted responsibility as president of the National Council of Tourism.
Aleman and a few peers had somehow made their way to Pow Wow, the U.S. tourism conference, Molina recalls, and were inspired to implement such an activity at home.
“They began to plan how to make a party – a working party – similar to Pow Wow,” he says. “It wasn’t copying, but using a similar format.”
And so was born ‘Tianguis’ – a name that means ‘market’ in Mexico.
The first event was in Acapulco at the Hilton Hotel (now Hotel Emporio) in 1975. It was the largest property available to host such a fair, which welcomed about 300 people in the first year, with international buyers mainly from the U.S. and Canada. Today, attendance has reached 8,000, a number comprised of individuals from across the globe. Molina estimates that in Year One, there were about 20 buyers from the U.S. and 10 from Canada (the same number that are attending in 2015 coming from Quebec alone).
“Most of the participants today, they pay to attend,” Molina explains. “At that time, they were fully invited, 100 per cent; hotels, transportation and all the parties.”
Another major difference between then and now was the destinations on display. Forty years ago, aside from some mild attention being paid to Puerto Vallarta thanks to publicity from the film Night of the Iguana, Acapulco was the only tourism destination in Mexico. It was a place where movie stars and every day people came to vacation – “it was the place to be” – and Molina expects it was the very first tourism hotspot to welcome charter flights from Canada in the late 1960s. (“Cuba, Dominican Republic – all these countries that are popular today weren’t there the way they are now.”)
“It was an easy-to-sell destination because behind that name was all sorts of connectivity and airlines, first class hotels – it was a very fancy destination,” he tells me of Acapulco.
But since Molina’s first Tianguis in 1975, a lot has changed. In the mid-1980s came the development of Cancun – an attractive option for travellers that did not previously exist.
“Cancun was built in order to compete against the Caribbean islands,” he says. “The idea was to have another tourism destination, not on the Pacific coast of Mexico but on the Caribbean coast – another destination to diversify the tourism options. And then came other planned developments – Los Cabos, Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa and so on.”
“Mexico now is a very modern country. It’s rated among the top 10 destinations worldwide – you don’t get that position for free. It takes a lot of effort, coordination, investment, education and so on.”
With large booths, colourful displays and cultural exhibits, the tradeshow floor at Tianguis 2015 is much more sophisticated compared to the beginning, when exhibitors sat at desks and were separated by dividers. In addition, instead of destinations, it was mainly major hoteliers represented. But despite its humble beginnings, the event quickly grew, soon moving out of the Hilton and over to a conference centre built in less than a year, originally constructed to host the ASTA convention in 1976.
“Nobody could imagine what this would become – what we had at that time was the need to promote, to sell, to expose. This is the beauty of Tianguis: in one place, you present and expose what you have to offer.”
Molina has been a key individual in Acapulco's tourism efforts and for Mexico as a whole, having roles over the past number of years as vice-president of the chamber of commerce, president of the convention and visitors bureau, secretary of tourism for the State of Guerrero, and the list goes on.
He has witnessed how Acapulco struggled as other destinations grew in the Mexican marketplace, and naturally, tourists wanted to see whatever was new. But he’s a firm believer that the city is now once again re-emerging in the eyes of tourists, indicated by Tianguis' return to its hometown after stints in Vallarta-Nayarit, Puebla and Cancun, prior to which it took place here for 36 consecutive years.
In the year of the first Tianguis four decades ago, Molina estimates that there were about 50,000 Canadian visitors visiting Mexico annually. Now, that number exceeds 1.7 million.
“The strength of Mexico is tourism – our natural beauty, our 3,000 years of history, the gastronomy – this is what we have to offer in the market. People are eager and interested to learn,” he says. “It’s called tourism but it’s an exchange of knowledge and cultures.”
Photo: Miguel Guajardo, general director, National Council of Tourism in Mexico (NCT); Miguel Aleman Velasco, president, NCT & creator of Tianguis; Alejandro Gonzalez Molina, secretary of tourism, State of Guerrero; and Guillermo Rossell de la Lama, secretary of tourism, federal government
Molina is now the director of Mexico partnerships for TravelBrands, based in Acapulco.