PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO — This Christmas, some 1.2 million Mexican-Americans will travel south of the border to spend the holidays with their families. The vast majority will go by car, weighed down with 22-inch TVs, pots, pans, remote controlled cars, bicycles, and Barbie dolls. They will go back to taste their grandmothers' tamales, to break piñatas at their neighbors' parties, and to participate in the Posada processions down dusty streets.
Gina Dalma is also going back, with her husband and two American-born kids, but for a different kind of Mexican holiday: one at the beach. They'll rent a minivan, stay at B&Bs, and keep a Web log so that her kids' friends back home in Charlotte, N.C., can follow their adventure.
"I want my kids to know Mexico as I know it - [to] understand the language, culture, and customs as I do," says Ms. Dalma, an owner of an online Mexican art gallery who moved to the US nine years ago. "And I also want to go on vacation."
Dalma's sentiment reflects a growing ability by Mexican-Americans - the fastest- growing ethnic group in the US - to use their purchasing power, which is fast approaching $1 trillion.
Mexico's tourism board is taking notice, launching a major ad campaign to lure this emerging Hispanic middle class to come back home - as tourists.
"Come back to Mexico in the best way," cries out the board's new advertising campaign, " - on vacation."
Mexico's tourism board reports that tourist revenues were approximately $10 billion in 2004, with 70 percent of tourists coming from the US. They come for the sand, surf, shopping, and the Mayan ruins. And a small but increasing number of them are coming because it's also a home.
An estimated 8.9 million Mexicans and 14.4 million Americans of Mexican origin live in the United States today, together making up 8 percent of the total US population, and close to 70 percent of all US Hispanics, according to the Mexican Population Council (CONAPO).
US Census figures show that the total Hispanic population in the US (about 38.8 million) has risen 50 percent in the past five years and is expected to double in 50 years.
Figures like these have attracted the tourism board's attention.
It created a $1 million TV ad campaign - made by acclaimed "21 Grams" director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The ad is running in US cities with high concentrations of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, such as Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Print ads are running in national Spanish-language magazines such as People en Español. And English versions have been placed in National Geographic, In Style, and other mainstream magazines.
While there is no doubt that the per capita incomes and net worth of the Hispanic community still fall far behind those of non-Hispanic whites, several studies show catchup taking place as the community grows and becomes more diverse.
Fernando Figueredo, Latin America managing director for the public relations firm Porter Novelli says there are at least 20 million Hispanics in the US today whom he would classify in the "ABC" market - meaning, the wealthy, uppermiddle and middle-income brackets.
"The income level of Hispanics continues to rise and we are tapping into that market," says Figueredo.
To do that, he explains, it's not enough to stick a Hispanic face in an ad - you need a whole new strategy. Whereas travel ads to the mainstream focus on nightlife, great food, and Mayan ruins, he explains, a message to Hispanics might be "...family roots, family reunions, religion, and tradition."
The marketing campaign, says Cheryl Shanks, who teaches a course on the politics of global tourism at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., suggests that the Mexican government perceives there are enough Mexican-Americans who are wealthy enough to afford this, and also "expects that they can sell village life in Mexico as simple and nostalgic, rather than as embarrassing poverty."
Whether it's the nostalgia or the nightlife, Mexican-Americans, and other US Hispanics as well, seem to be responding.
"When I got here 13 years ago, the only US visitors were fair-skinned and blond. You would very rarely see a Hispanic with a tour book in hand," says Raul Torres, a Puerto Rican who opened up a boutique hotel in trendy Playa del Carmen, a resort 40 miles south of Cancún. "Now, you have Mexican-American couples, Cuban-American families - everyone comes here."
Mexicans were not always so welcoming to their Mexican-American cousins, points out Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "Historically, Mexico disowned its migrants as renegades who had turned on their country and culture for material possessions. They called them 'pochos' or watered-down Mexicans," he says. "But in the last few years this has begun to change. Mexico has begun to appreciate what emigrants do for the homeland and begun to treat them and their children better."
This shift, notes Rodriguez, is driven partly by economic self-interest - the annual remittances, which came to about $14 billion last year, as well as increasing tourism dollars. Even Mexican President Vicente Fox now makes an annual pilgrimage to the US border to welcome Mexican-Americans back.
Mexico, meanwhile, is not the only Latin American country noticing the potential buying power of this niche market.
"When you start analyzing the Mexican-American leisure travelers you find most of them have already been on vacation in Mexico several times," says Figueredo. "The Mexicans in the US are a large, growing market and what we are saying to them, simply, is: 'How about Guatemala next Christmas?'"
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.