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All aboard President Calderon’s Royal Tour of Mexico

September 24, 2011

Meet Mexico’s latest tour guide: whether trekking through the jungle and scaling ancient pyramids or being buzzed around in a fleet of private helicopters, he is equal parts Indiana Jones and presidential statesman. That’s right, it is none other than Felipe Calderon.

Taking a leaf out of former Russian President Vladimir Putin’s book, the Michoacan native has ditched his office for the rugged countryside in a bid to improve his image – and that of his country.

President Calderon visited New York’s Guggenheim Museum Tuesday night to attend the premiere of his new travel show, “Mexico: The Royal Tour.” He made the program with U.S. travel expert Peter Greenberg in a bid to promote tourism in Mexico, especially to the lucrative market in the United States.

Writing about his unique experience, Calderon’s companion Greenberg revealed he was inspired to make the show having first visited “Mexico in the early 70s on an assignment from Newsweek” and frequently returned thereafter to travel around this diverse country.

“It has beautiful beaches and thousands of miles of coastline, but there is so much more to it than the resorts that most tourists visit,” he said. “Mexico begs for deep cultural and physical immersion. I consider myself lucky: I got a head start.”

A television veteran who has worked across the networks, including a lengthy spell on the “Today” show, Greenberg does not just cover travel and had previously interviewed Calderon on Mexico’s drug problems.

The pair developed a good relationship and the Mexican president even exhibited a rarely seen sense of humor, ordering a sculpture of Greenberg at an elaborate sand sculpture contest in Puerto Vallarta.

“Nothing quite prepared me for the scope and intensity of ‘Mexico: The Royal Tour,’” admitted Greenberg. “It was not your average trip, and my travel partner was not your average tour guide.”

Although Calderon took Greenberg to some unique destinations, he insisted upon going only to places that average travelers can also access.

“The result was this wasn’t just one of the best experiences of my life, but that everything I experienced is open to all of you as well,” said Greenberg.

“We embarked on a non-stop, high-energy trip that crisscrossed the country. We traveled by plane, horseback, helicopter, and boat. We drove Jeeps, we zip-lined and went hot air ballooning. We made our own tequila and went diving deep into the cenotes. We went even deeper inside the ancient pyramids, stood atop the Copper Canyon, and reached out and touched whales.”

The unlikely pair’s ambitious 20-hour-a-day schedule covered ten of Mexico’s 32 states. Among the many attractions they visited were the Mayan ruins of Palenque and Chichen Itza in the south, the Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacan and the Lagoon at Ojo de Libere in Baja California.

Greenberg has filmed previous episodes of the “Royal Tour” with the heads of state of Jordan, New Zealand and Peru. Aside from affording the presenter a unique perspective and unlimited access to each place, the show also offers leaders the opportunity to promote themselves and their country’s tourist industry.

In Mexico’s case, “The Royal Tour” enables Calderon to demonstrate the diversity of his country’s main tourist attractions and convince potential visitors that they remain as safe as ever – all before a large television audience in a neighboring country conveniently filled with wealthy travelers.

Greenberg’s friend, the journalist Arnie Weissmann, accompanied him throughout filming. “I had seriously underestimated (Calderon’s) commitment to tourism and this project,” remarked Weissmann. “Encouraged by his energetic secretary of tourism, Gloria Guevara, Calderon has devoted significant time to promoting tourism, cognizant of its importance as a source of both jobs and foreign currency.”

In January Calderon declared 2011 to be “The Year of Tourism,” before traveling to Las Vegas in May to attend the annual summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council. Prioritizing tourism to such an extent is unprecedented by a Mexican president.

Calderon and Greenberg made several stops in Jalisco while filming the show. Visiting the Jose Cuervo estate in Tequila, they rode horses along a wooded stream before stopping in the blue agave fields to harvest an agave piña “pineapple,” from which tequila is made.

They then observed the fermentation process and helped bottle a fine tequila. Calderon declined to join the tasting session, presumably to avoid adding fuel to allegations of alcoholism made against him earlier this year.

The president also took Greenberg to Puerto Vallarta, from where they embarked on the Veranos Canopy Tour, hiking through the mountainous jungle along the Orquideas River to the south of Vallarta.

“The Royal Tour” could be just what Mexico needs to convince Americans that this is a wonderful and deserving destination for their next vacations. Whether this will be enough to boost the President’s waning popularity in Mexico is a lot more doubtful.

“Mexico: The Royal Tour” premiered on several channels in the United States this week, in both English and Spanish versions. A Mexican release date has yet to be confirmed.

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