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The bubbles around my snorkel mask slowly began to dissipate, revealing what had been gliding beside me all along — a 23-foot-long whale shark feeding in the Sea of Cortez. Thankfully, plankton (not journalists) were on the menu, and it was safe to swim within arm's reach of this gentle giant. This meant I was close enough to observe every minute detail — her gills expanding and retreating; her skin freckled with a constellation of pale yellow spots; a pilot fish catching a free ride beneath her belly. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was going to make the most of it. I took a deep breath, dove down and locked eyes with the whale shark. Everything seemed to go quiet, like we were frozen in time. Suddenly, she blinked, as if to signal that our moment had come to an end. She then dove deeper, finally vanishing from view.
Los Cabos and neighboring towns on the Sea of Cortez are spoiled with some of the most biodiverse marine life on the planet, including humpback whales and orcas. But the “aquarium of the world,” as Jacques Cousteau once called it, comes at a price. With its 80-degree seawater and location beneath the Tropic of Capricorn, Los Cabos is vulnerable to hurricanes. The travel industry was painfully reminded of this fact in 2014 when Hurricane Odile — one of the strongest storms on record to strike the Baja Peninsula — caused widespread wind and water damage from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose Del Cabo and an estimated $1 billion in losses. Less than three years later, however, the destination has bounced back — with brand-new resorts for a range of budgets; extensive renovations to established properties; an airport expansion; new attractions and tours; increased airlift; and more than 5,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline through 2020.
“Los Cabos is now a completely new destination,” said Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. “We were able to recover so quickly because the hotel association, business owner groups and community members came together to put the bigger interest of Los Cabos above their own. And because of that, we’ve come back much stronger than we were before.”
According to Esponda, the destination learned many lessons from Odile and is building with sustainable tourism in mind. To that end, suppliers, hoteliers and local business owners have diversified their offerings to attract travelers with a wide range of interests — not just golfers, anglers and the ultra-rich. Foodies can find a gastronomic scene beyond their expectations, with opportunities to roll up their sleeves at local organic farms, pick produce and learn to prepare Baja-inspired meals on the spot. The active set can try flyboarding in Cabo San Lucas or ride an e-bike along Rancho San Cristobal’s beaches, then grab a margarita and take in a molcajete sauce demonstration. The lively Art Walk in San Jose Del Cabo plies art and design lovers with tequila and light bites as they interact with artists and gallery owners each Thursday evening. And those with a penchant for the peculiar have a bevy of unique activities on offer, from outback camel safaris and driving Baja 1000 race cars through the desert to guided hikes of nearby El Cayuco Canyon, where waterfalls and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs await.
“Strategically, the whole community has matured, and there are now tons of activities to do here,” said John Domanic, director of sales for Chileno Bay Resort & Residences, which opened its doors in February. “Odile made us up our game. We also learned our lesson and are building our resorts with a different style of construction, similar to how you would build a high-rise in any major city in the U.S. right now. This way, we’ll be far more resilient if we ever get another storm like Odile again.”
A Strong RecoverySigns suggest that visitors are responding positively to the new Los Cabos. According to Esponda of the tourism board, the destination ended 2016 with a 70 percent hotel occupancy rate and a growing average daily rate of $206. Another sign of recovery is an uptick in airlift, including new nonstop flights from Los Angeles and San Diego on Southwest Airlines. Today, some 500 weekly connections serve Los Cabos International Airport (SJD), which is undergoing a $48 million enhancement in order to welcome more visitors in the coming years. Scheduled for completion in 2019, SJD’s expansion will include five new gates, a brand-new VIP lounge and a complete refurbishment of Terminal 1.
“Los Cabos is a very easy sell, especially for the West, where there’s excellent airlift,” said Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico and a Mexico Specialist recognized by Conde Nast Traveler.
“It’s also an exciting and new destination to sell. This year alone, we will see brand-new product from The Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, Le Blanc, Nobu and Solaz Los Cabos, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. We have an incredible concentration of luxury here. In fact, many countries don’t have as many luxury brands and properties as Los Cabos.”
The first quarter of 2017 has already welcomed Grand Velas Los Cabos; Chileno Bay Resort & Residences, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection; and The Towers at Pacifica, a resort-within-a-resort concept at the all-inclusive Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Golf & Spa Resort. Los Cabos plans on closing out the year with a grand total of 2,738 new hotel rooms — this is in addition to its existing inventory of 16,000 hotel rooms. Other properties on the horizon include Montage Los Cabos; the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos; Four Seasons Resort and Residences Los Cabos at Costa Palmas; and Grand Solmar Rancho San Lucas, to name a few.
In Los Cabos, everything old is new again, too. Established properties — such as The Westin Los Cabos Resort Villas & Spa; Hotel El Ganzo; Dreams Los Cabos Suites Golf Resort & Spa; Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort; and others — approached the hurricane’s damage as an opportunity to remodel public spaces, reimagine guestrooms and improve the guest experience.
“Because Odile stripped our hotel down to the bare bones, we were able to correct a lot of small details during our rebuild that were not done correctly the first time, including the layout of our main restaurant and our rooftop pool area,” said Ella Messerli, general manager of Hotel El Ganzo. “We also created a brand-new room category of one-bedroom suites for guests who want a price point in the middle, rather than spending either $300 or $3,000 a night here.”
ChallengesWith fully renovated properties and a slew of new brands opening their doors, could the competition be getting too fierce for hoteliers? Mizraim Corpus Espinoza, general manager of Pueblo Bonito Pacifica, doesn’t think so.
“In the next few years, Los Cabos will see almost a 25 percent increase of our total hotel inventory, and that’s a lot,” he said. “But for us, we’re booked through the summer, and we hit our sales goal for the first semester early. Pueblo Bonito has four hotels in Los Cabos with 2,500 rooms, and all of the hotels are full right now.”
Esponda is cautiously optimistic about the hotel sector’s aggressive growth. Clearly, a surge in room nights calls for an overall increase in visitation numbers to keep both established and new properties afloat.
“Our hotels are working very hard to bring visitors to the destination and educate travel agents,” he said. “There’s definitely a risk that we might not reach our goal of a 70 percent occupancy rate, but because of the many ways we’ve been working to diversify the destination, our growth suggests that we will be able to maintain a high occupancy.”
Last month, however, was rife in tragedy for Los Cabos and its surrounding communities. On March 9 and 10, the Associated Press reported that a total of six bodies, along with several doses of methamphetamine and marijuana, were found dumped near SJD. And on March 23, three dismembered bodies were found near Marina Cabo San Lucas. According to Yahoo! News, authorities tie the crimes to turf wars between rival drug cartels that battle for control of smuggling routes into the U.S.
“These isolated incidents absolutely worry us,” Esponda said. “Our hotel association and business sector, however, are proactively working with authorities to make sure this will not happen again. We have been closely communicating with our partners — including airlines, travel agents, meeting planners, tour operators and consortia — and while they have expressed concerns, they have not reported any cancellations.”
Rabinor of Journey Mexico says his agency has not had any cancellations and is still recommending travel to Los Cabos.
“The incidents have not affected the tourism experience at all,” Esponda said. “Visitor figures were up 12 percent in January, compared to January of last year, and we see that tourism will continue to trend that way.”
Next StepsThe Los Cabos Tourism Board is working hard to strengthen its ties with travel professionals throughout the industry — keeping them informed about local news as it develops, as well as current and future tourism offerings.
“We are doing everything that we can to reach out to the travel advisor community,” Esponda said. “In addition to our Cabo Expert specialist program, we plan fam trips directly with travel agents, both those who are interested in Los Cabos or folks who have a remarkable number of sales or potential sales to the destination.”
The tourism board organizes three large-scale fam trips per year, including the Los Cabos VIP Summit each November, and hosts road shows in key markets, such as Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Representatives are also on hand to visit travel agencies by request.
Rabinor urges travel professionals to educate themselves beyond the new resort options and to see as much as they possibly can while on a fam trip in Los Cabos. He suggests that travel advisors become experts in local restaurants, active tours and wildlife encounters in southern Baja.
“Los Cabos is a beautiful juxtaposition of geographical landscapes: a rugged and stark desert terrain, the dazzling Sea of Cortez and the blue Pacific Ocean,” Rabinor said. “When you consider all the luxury hotels available so close to such unique marine wildlife, there’s a lot here to sell. And so much of it is exciting, new and different.”