Tourism in Mexico is a huge industry. Since the 1960s it has been heavily promoted by the Mexican government, as "an industry without smokestacks." Mexico has traditionally been among the most visited countries in the world according to the World Tourism Organization, and it is the second-most visited country in the Americas, after the United States. Mexico has a significant number of UNESCO World Heritage sites with the list including ancient ruins, colonial cities, and natural reserves, as well as a number of works of modern public and private architecture. Mexico has attracted foreign visitors beginning in the early nineteenth century, cultural festivals, colonial cities, nature reserves and the beach resorts. The nation's temperate climate and unique culture – a fusion of the European and the Mesomerican are attractive to tourists. The peak tourism seasons in the country are during December and the mid-Summer, with brief surges during the week before Easter and Spring break, when many of the beach resort sites become popular destinations for college students from the United States.
History of tourism
Tourism in Mexico developed following the establishment of the Mexican republic, with writings by Alexander von Humboldt, Frannie Calderón de la Barca, the wife of the Spanish Ambassador to Mexico; John Lloyd Stephens, and Edward B. Tylor being important for attracting more travelers. Tourists from the United States began arriving in Mexico in numbers starting in the 1880s, following construction of direct railway lines in Mexico to the U.S. border. General Porfirio Díaz became president of Mexico by coup in 1876, the beginning of a long period of peace in Mexico following decades of civil war. With the inauguration of direct Pullman service from the U.S. to Mexico in 1884, tourists no longer endured difficult and dangerous travel. The Mexican Central Railway actively promoted tourism in the United States, hiring a professional photographer, William Henry Jackson, to visually record the route and a professional writer, James W. Steel, to write promotional copy. Guides for English-speaking tourists were also published, most notably Terry's Guide to Mexico, which went through several editions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mexico appealed to American tourists seeking an "exotic" holiday.It was promoted in 1890 as the "Egypt of the New World." With the 1910 centennial of Mexican independence, the government undertook an excavation and reconstruction of the Pyramid of the Sun at the huge archeological site of Teotihuacan, near Mexico City. A railway line was constructed from the capital to the site, bringing scholars from the 1910 meeting of the International Congress of Americanists. In addition, the National Museum of Anthropology was refurbished in advance of the celebrations, in anticipation of tourists. Mexico was a beneficiary of the increasing tourism of Europeans and Americans to distant lands. In Mexico, many tourists brought home real or fake relics, and often left graffiti.
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) interrupted tourism in Mexico, but by the 1930s, the Mexican government began promoting tourism again with posters of light-skinned young women and lush gardens. In the 1920s and 30s, there was an "enormous vogue of things Mexico" in the United States, resulting in cultural exchanges, temporary and permanent art exhibitions, and patronage of Mexican artists, such as muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
The Mexican government developed beach resorts in Acapulco and Cancún for tourists. The importance of tourism in Mexico is seen its head having a cabinet-level position. Attracting tourists from the developed world spurred the construction of upscale hotels, particularly by U.S. hotel chains. San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato developed as an artists' colony. Unlike beach resorts developed by the Mexican government, San Miguel was promoted to tourists by locals.
Starting in the late twentieth century, Mexico has been alert to international venues to both protect tourist destinations such as archeological sites, colonial cities, and natural wonders via UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With the inauguration of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage program, Mexico has certified the cultural importance of Days of the Dead (2003), Mexican cuisine (2010), mariachi music (2011), and charrería (2016), among others. Private philanthropy has played an important role in the preservation and restoration of a number of Mexican sites, most prominently by entrepreneur Carlos Slim, whose Foundation for the Historic Center of the City of Mexico (Fundación del Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México) has made a significant difference in the historic core of the capital, including security concerns.
Violence and political turmoil in Mexico has been a problem which affects travel and tourism. The years of the Porfirio Díaz regime (1876-1911) saw a decrease in violence and the rise of tourism. The Mexican Revolution 1910-20 was a major civil war, but following that the Mexican government achieved a level internal security that saw the rise of tourism and cultural exchanges in the 1920s and 1930s. In recent years, with the drug war in Mexico, U.S. State Department travel advisories have alerted tourists to the dangers of certain areas of the country.
Tourist Guides and web-based sources
Mexico travel guide from Wikivoyage
There are a number of useful print guide books to tourist sites in Mexico, including the Michelin Green Guide, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodor's, Frommer's, and Baedeker's. The Mexican tourist bureau has a website with many resources. Travel websites vary in quality and usefulness. The English-language Wikipedia sister project on travel, Wikivoyage, was launched in 2013 and has information about Mexican tourism generally as well as specialized travel information for a number of tourist destinations in Mexico.
Tourism industry competitiveness
In the 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) report, which is a measurement of the factors that make it attractive to developing business in the travel and tourism industry of individual countries, Mexico was ranked 22nd place in the world's ranking, with tourist service infrastructure rank 43; price competitiveness 63; health and hygiene, 72; safety and security, 113; environmental sustainability, 116.
Most visitors arriving to Mexico by air for tourism come from the following countries:
City and regional destinations
Mexico has distinct geographical and cultural regions. Many Mexican cities in Central and Southern Mexico were the centers of indigenous populations in the prehispanic era and became administrative centers during the colonial era (1521-1821), with churches, government buildings, and residences of elites. Some cities in Mexico's North were founded in the colonial era or nineteenth century, but have grown in importance with the expansion of Mexican industry (Monterrey), and cross-border trade with the U.S. (Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana).
Mexico City is the capital of Mexico, and its most important city. The historic center of Mexico City is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with ancient archeological ruins, numerous colonial-era churches, most importantly the Cathedral, and the former palace of the Viceroy of New Spain, now the National Palace. The cathedral and National Palace are both located on the main plaza, known as the Zocalo. The city has museums of many types, housing cultural treasures of Mexico's history since ancient times to the modern era. One guide rates the National Museum of Anthropology as the top place to visit in Mexico City, located in Chapultepec Park, itself a top tourist attraction for foreign visitors and Mexico City residents. Other museums worth a visit are the Museo de Arte Moderno, the Museo Dolores Olmedo, the Franz Mayer Museum, the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Museo Rufino Tamayo, the archeological museum of the Templo Mayor, adjacent to the National Palace and cathedral; and the Museo Nacional de Historia in Chapultepec Castle, the former residence of viceroys of Mexico, Emperor Maximilian I, and presidents of Mexico until the early twentieth century.
Mexico City can be the jumping off point for day-trips and short excursions in Central Mexico, including the hugely important archeological site of Teotihuacan. Another important site is Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. Colonial-era cities worth a visiting are Puebla, Taxco, Toluca, and Cuernavaca. Tepotzotlan is notable for its Museum of the Viceroyalty, with colonial-era art.
The National Palace in Mexico City
Aztec ruins of the Templo Mayor adjacent to the cathedral
The House of Tiles, built 1737
The Angel, a monument to Mexican independence
Palacio de Bellas Artes, construction started under Porfirio Díaz and stalled during the Mexican Revolution
Panoramic view of the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), Mexico City.
Southern Mexico is the home of many surviving indigenous cultures and is a destination for many foreign and domestic tourists in Mexico. The dense indigenous populations in the prehispanic era saw the rise of civilizations, with enormous archeological sites indicating their complexity. The rugged terrain of southern Mexico and the lack of mineral wealth drawing large numbers of Spanish settlers in the colonial era and in the post-independence era has meant that southern Mexico remains highly indigenous in character.
Oaxaca in central southern Mexico has remained highly indigenous into the modern era and the destination for tourists wishing to experience the various indigenous cultures there. The capital of the state is Oaxaca City, is where most tourists stay, after arrival by plane at the major airport. Tourists can use the capital as a base for day-trip excursions outside the capital to visit towns specializing in particular crafts, often sold in traditional local markets (tianguis). Craft-making towns include Santa María Atzompa,(pottery); San Bartolo Coyotepec, (black pottery); Ocotlán, Oaxaca (pottery); San Martín Tilcajete, fantastical carvings called (alebrijes); and Teotitlan del Valle, rugs. Oaxacan cuisine is notable, with ingredients, such as salted and dried grasshoppers (chapulines), and flavors that are regional.
Mitla stone fretwork
Day of the Dead decorations
Chapulines (dried grasshoppers) for sale at a market
An open-air market or tianguis
Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas
The peninsula has a considerable number of major archeological sites, including Chichén Itza, Uxmal, and the La Ruta Puuc, a series of small archeological sites. The state capital of Mérida was founded in the colonial era and experienced a major boom in the nineteenth century with the expansion for the market for its sisal cordage or twine, so that the city has a number of mansions of the former sisal barons. Campeche is Mexico's only walled city.
The Mexican state of Chiapas has the archeological sites of Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán. The capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the gateway to the region, with a major airport. San Cristóbal de las Casas, named after the early xixteenth-century defender of indigenous rights, Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas is a colonial-era provincial city.
Central West Mexico
Guadalajara, Jalisco, the second-largest Mexican city by population, is home of some of Mexico's best known traditions, such as tequila, mariachi music and charros, or Mexican cowboys. Its similitude with western European countries mixed with modern architecture and infrastructure makes Guadalajara very attractive to tourists. Along with Mexico City and beach destinations (Cancun, Acapulco, etc.), Guadalajara is one of the most visited cities in Mexico. Cultural tourism is the main attraction, the city being home to a large number of museums, art galleries and theatres. The city is also the host of several internationally renowned events, such as the Guadalajara International Book Fair which is the most important exposition of its kind in the Spanish-speaking world, and the second largest book fair in the world. The city is known as a pioneer in the underground arts scene as well as in the electronic music world, another main touristic attraction. Its diversity of European architectural styles is a focus of attraction for tourists, in particular the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Degollado Theatre and the Hospicio Cabañas which is a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest hospital complexes in Spanish America. Other tourism activities include shopping at its world class shopping malls, or plazas, taking a tour to the surrounding areas such as the Huentitan Canyon, Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, Chapala or visiting nearby towns, which are well-connected by modern highways, such as Tequila, Puerto Vallarta or Mazamitla, depending upon whether visitors seek urban, coastal or rural getaways.
Morelia, Michoacán is the Capital of the State of Michoacán. Its Historic Downtown Area (Centro Histórico) encompasses approximately 150 city blocks in the city centre, roughly corresponding to the actual area of the city at the end of the 18th century. The Centro Historico contains over 1,000 historical sites, including (but not limited to) the cathedral and the aqueduct.
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, was founded in the late 16th century. The downtown district is the oldest section in the city, surrounded by newer neighbourhoods. The Museo de Historia Mexicana (Museum of Mexican History), MARCO (Monterrey Museum of Contemporary Art), Metropolitan Museum of Monterrey and the Museum of the Palacio de Gobierno, or State House, are some of the better known museums in the city, as well as nationally. The Santa Lucia Riverwalk is a riverwalk similar to the one in San Antonio, Texas, having a length of 2.5 km (1.6 mi) and connecting the Fundidora Park with the Macroplaza, one of the largest plazas in the world.
- Acapulco, Guerrero
- Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur
- Cancún, Quintana Roo
- Ensenada, Baja California
- Altamira, Tamaulipas
- Guaymas, Sonora
- Tampico, Tamaulipas
- Puerto Peñasco, Sonora (Also Called Rocky Point)
- Huatulco, Oaxaca
- Ixtapa, Guerrero
- Manzanillo, Colima
- Mazatlán, Sinaloa
- Mazunte, Oaxaca
- Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo
- Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
- Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
- San José del Cabo, Baja California Sur
- Progreso, Yucatan
- Zipolite, Oaxaca
The coastlines of Mexico harbor many stretches of beaches that are frequented by sun bathers and other visitors. On the Yucatán peninsula, one of the most popular beach destinations is the resort town of Cancún, especially among university students during spring break. Just offshore is the beach island of Isla Mujeres, and to the east is the Isla Holbox. To the south of Cancun is the coastal strip called Riviera Maya which includes the beach town of Playa del Carmen and the ecological parks of Xcaret and Xel-Há. A day trip to the south of Cancún is the historic port of Tulum. In addition to its beaches, the town of Tulum is notable for its cliff-side Mayan ruins.
On the Pacific coast is the notable tourist destination of Acapulco. Once the destination for the rich and famous, the beaches have become crowded and the shores are now home to many multi-story hotels and vendors. Acapulco is home to renowned cliff divers: trained divers who leap from the side of a vertical cliff into the surf below.
Along the coast to the south of Acapulco are the surfing beaches of Puerto Escondido, the snorkeling, harbor beach of Puerto Ángel, and the naturist beaches of Zipolite. To the north of Acapulco is the resort town of Ixtapa and the neighboring fishing town of Zihuatanejo. Further to the north are the wild and rugged surfing beaches of the Michoacán coast.
Along the central and north Pacific coast, the biggest draws are beaches of Mazatlán city and the resort town of Puerto Vallarta. Less frequented is the sheltered cove of Bahía de Navidad, the beach towns of Bahía Kino, and the black sands of Cuyutlán. San Carlos, home of the Playa los Algodones (Cotton Beach), is a winter draw, especially for retirees.
At the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula is the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, a town noted for its beaches and marlin fishing. Further north along the Gulf of California is the Bahía de La Concepción, another beach town known for its sports fishing. Closer to the United States border is the weekend draw of San Felipe, Baja California.
The central and southern parts of Mexico was where a number of pre-Hispanic civilizations developed, the most prominent being the Aztec, Mayan, and the Olmec as well as Zapotec and Mixtec. There are numerous tourist destinations where these ruins can be viewed. The Mexican government has taken jurisdiction of many sites, often setting guidelines for excavation, preservation, and limitations on numbers of visitors, but nearby indigenous communities, who see these sites as part of their direct cultural heritage, object to those regulations.
The Yucatán peninsula was home to the Mayan people, and many of the indigenous people still speak the language. The area also contains many sites where ruins of the Maya civilization can be visited. The richest of these are located in the eastern half of the peninsula and are collectively known as La Ruta Puuc (or La Ruta Maya). The largest of the Ruta Puuc sites is Uxmal, which was abandoned in the 12th century.
A one-hour drive to the northeast of Ruta Puuc are the surviving remains of the city of Mayapán. This settlement was controlled by Chichén Itzá to the east, now a large archaeological site with many interesting ruins. Other ruins on the peninsula include the aforementioned Tulum on the east coast, Cobá to the northwest of Tulum, Polé (now Xcaret) just south of Playa del Carmen and Calakmul in the nature reserve along the Guatemala border. However this list by no means exhausts the number of archaeological sites to be found in this area.
To the west, the state of Chiapas includes the temples and ruins of Palenque, the glyphs of the city of Yaxchilán, the painted walls of nearby Bonampak, and the remains of the fortress of Toniná. In the city of Villahermosa to the north is the Parque-Museo La Venta, with a collection of Olmec sculptures.
Along the gulf coast area in the state of Veracruz are more archaeological sites, with the Olmec ceremonial center of Tres Zapotes, the ruins of the large Totonac city of Zempoala, and the ruins of El Tajín with the Pyramid of the Niches. The city of Xalapa contains the Museo de Antropología, a notable museum featuring a collection of massive Olmec head sculptures.
Moving to the north, the central region around Mexico City contains several archaeological sites. To the southwest are the massive ruins of Teotihuacán, including the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. To the southeast near the city of Cholula is the Great Pyramid, visible from the city center. Just to the north of Cholula are the well-preserved ruins of the city of Cacaxtla. Last but not least is the Toltec capital of Tula, to the north of Mexico City. In the capital itself is the largest museum in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
Ethnic cultural tourism
Tourists often also seek destinations with living indigenous cultures, such as in Oaxaca and Yucatan. Traditional markets in many small towns have a mixture of ordinary foodstuffs and supplies for the local populations, as well as market-sellers of craft goods that are locally produced. In the state of Oaxaca, various towns specialize in particular crafts, such as weaving of rugs (Teotitlan del Valle) and black pottery (Coyotepec). Some production of Mexican handcrafts and folk art is traditional, and is particularly practiced in Oaxaca, but some artisans respond to tourist demand crafting products for that market exclusively. The Guelaguetza, an annual festival of music and dance by indigenous communities in Oaxaca gives reinforcement of local traditions and deliberately seeks tourists as attendees, staged now in an amphitheater. Another event that is promoted touristically is Mexico's Days of the Dead at the beginning of November and has been listed as a protected cultural practice, entered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Towns with specialized crafts:
- San Pablito, Puebla (amate paper)
- Santa María Atzompa, Oaxaca (pottery)
- San Bartolo Coyotepec Oaxaca (pottery)
- Ocotlán, Oaxaca (pottery, blades)
- San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca (alebrijes)
- Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan (copper crafts)
- Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca (rugs)
- Temoaya, State of Mexico (rugs)
- Tlalpujahua, Michoacan (Christmas ornaments)
- Tlaquepaque, Jalisco (pottery)
- Tonalá, Jalisco (pottery, glass, etc.)
- Tenancingo, State of Mexico (rebozos, basketry, furniture)
Gallery of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in Mexico
Gallery of Crafts in Mexico
Festivals and Celebrations
Mexico has many religious and civic festivals as well as cultural festivals of various kinds.
Since the colonial era, the Roman Catholic Church established a number of festivals, both general and local, celebrating events on the liturgical calendar. Holy Week in Mexico is observed widely, with many re-enactments of events in the last days of the life of Christ. The Christmas season runs for December 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe to January 6, the Feast of the Ephiphany, also known as Three Kings. There are many local religious celebrations by towns, often on the saint's day for which they were named.
Food and drink festivals include the Alfeñique fair in Toluca; the Feria Nacional de San Marcos in Aguascalientes; the International Pasty Festival in Real del Monte, Hidalgo state; the Night of the Radishes (December 23) Oaxaca, and the Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Festival.
A major gathering of Spanish-language booksellers is the annual Guadalajara International Book Fair. The International Cervantes Festival is held annually in Guanajuato. In Oaxaca, the Oaxaca International Literary Competition and the Oaxaca Independent Film Festival are events.
Historic colonial cities
- Campeche, Campeche. The only walled city in Mexico, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Cuernavaca, Morelos. Historic architecture, including the Palace of Hernán Cortés.
- Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato. Site where the Mexican Independence War from Spain began.
- Durango, Durango. The most important northern colonial capital city in Mexico. Dubbed the Pearl of the Guadiana Valley, has many colonial mansions, one of these is the Count of Suchil Palace.
- Guanajuato, Guanajuato. Major city of colonial Mexico's silver mining, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Mérida, Yucatán. Dubbed the white city, with Mayan tradition has many coloniansions of impressive beauty.
- Mexico City. The City of Palaces as Alexander von Humboldt called it. It has been the capital of the country for almost 700 years. Since the foundation of the Aztec Empire to the present. A UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Morelia, Michoacán. Excellent colonial architecture; a World Heritage Site
- Oaxaca, Oaxaca. Colonial architecture and Indigenous traditions are mixed here; it is a World Heritage Site
- Puebla, Puebla. The city of known for talavera tiles; its historic center is a World Heritage Site
- Querétaro. The state capital has a beautiful baroque downtown, declared a World Heritage Site. Other popular destinations include the third tallest monolith in the world (Peña de Bernal), a city famous for its thermal springs in the middle of a wine and cheese making area (Tequisquiapan), and astonishing natural and cultural beauties in the biosphere reserve of Sierra Gorda.
- San Luis Potosí, San Luis Potosí. Rich in ancient times from its mines, this colonial city was the capital of Mexico twice.
- San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. One of Mexico's oldest towns. Many historic churches and the open-air Plaza Allende. An exceptional beauty Gothic Cathedral is located here.
- Taxco, Guerrero. Silver jewelry. A very famous baroque church is located here, its interior is the most admired since the baroque ornamentations are all covered in gold.
- Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala. The city is the capital of the small state of the same name. It has a noble Arabic mudejar open air chapel, next to the cathedral.
- Veracruz, Veracruz. The first City Hall in the Americas was settled here.
- Zacatecas, Zacatecas. The city was built during colonial Mexico's silver mining boom; its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chapel of Hospicio Cabañas, in Guadalajara
In Latin America, Costa Rica is considered a model for ecotourism, and Mexico is seeking to develop this sector. Aims for what is considered success in the sector is the proportion of tourist dollars that remain in the locality rather than those outside and prevention of large numbers of ecotourists that could undermine tourists' experience of the natural wonders. Mexico has a significant number of sites designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, some of which are tourist destinations.
- El Cielo Biosphere
- Barranca del Cobre
- Cascada de Texolo
- El Nevado
- El Rosario – in the last two months of the year, a mass migration of monarch butterflies reaches the El Rosario sanctuary near Zitácuaro, Michoacán.
- Isla Mujeres
- Pinacate Peaks
- La Bufadora
- Reserva de la Biosfera El Cielo
- Sian Ka'an
- Gulf of California
- Parque Nacional Sierra de Organos (Sombrerete, Zacatecas)
- Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir
- Real de Catorce
- Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, Yucatan
- Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
UNESCO has designated a number of World Heritage Sites; Mexico has a significant number. Numbered sites: 1. Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México; 2. Ciudad Universitaria; 3. Xochicalco; 4. Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl; 5. Luis Barragan House and Studio; 6. Teotihuacan; 7. Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve; 8. Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque
- Monterrey, Nuevo León
- Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
- León, Guanajuato
- Guadalajara, Jalisco – and nearby Lake Chapala
- Papantla, Veracruz – vanilla
- Piedras Negras, Coahuila
- San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
- San Luis Potosí, San Luis Potosí
- Saltillo, Coahuila
- Tequila, Jalisco
- Tijuana, Baja California
- Torreón, Coahuila
- Puerto Vallarta festival
- San Sebastián del Oeste, Jalisco 
- Zipolite, and Mazunte, Oaxaca
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