December 12, 2008

Mexican Tourism Fears Another Big Pinch

Frontera NorteSur

As the winter tourist high season fast approaches, the ailing Mexican tourism industry is nervously hedging its bets in a year of international economic crisis. Mexican Congressman Octavio Martinez Vargas, president of the tourism commission of the Chamber of Deputies, recently warned that the global economic crash could result in a 10-20 percent reduction in the number of international visitors who hit Mexican shores this season.

If Martinez’s numbers prove accurate, they mean more bad news for a country that depends on tourism for eight percent of its Gross National Product and provides jobs to 2.3 million people, not including the huge informal sector that’s developed in tourist communities.

In addition to a hostile financial landscape, Martinez said Mexico has a public relations problem in countries like Great Britain and Germany (not to mention the US), where news of violence connected to organized crime has touched off official alerts to potential travelers.

In separate comments, Mexican Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo Torres conceded that criminal violence has had some negative effect on the tourist industry. Still, Elizondo appealed to the media to not sensationalize the problem.

“I don’t watch television, I am not interested in seeing how many dead there are like it was some kind of soccer score,” Elizondo quipped. “This is not about concealing the truth, just about not repeating it every day. What is gained by showing photos of headless people in the newspapers.?”

Elizondo and other tourism industry promoters are banking on Mexico’s own national tourists to come to the rescue this high season. In recent years, national tourism kept many local economies alive and kicking as low-cost airlines, easy consumer credit and generous end-of-the-year bonuses for better-off workers made vacation getaways possible for many people.

In 2008, however, several discount airlines went belly up, victims of the fuel price crisis, and more than 200,000 Mexicans lost their jobs. Once freely-available credit cards became scarcer and scarcer, and the rate of bad credit card debt soared 50 percent from December 2007 to October 2008, reaching about three billion dollars.

Yet another factor putting a damper on tourism involves US immigration and border security policies. Once upon a time not too long ago, many undocumented Mexicans residing in the United States took long winter breaks. Returning to their home communities, migrants spent dollars for weeks on end. Nowadays, many are reluctant to risk a holiday trip and then attempt to reenter the US and its better fortified southern border.

Finally, Mexico confronts renewed competition for the international tourists still with cash to burn. Cancun, for example, is reportedly losing some tourists to Caribbean countries, which are getting better organized at fishing for trophy international travelers. At a meeting in Cuba in recent days, the Caricom group of Caribbean nations discussed ways of keeping the big foreign tourist fish swimming within its own waters during trying economic times.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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