April 17, 2009

The Political Economy of Holy Week

By Frontera NorteSur

Holy Week in Mexico is more than an annual celebration embracing cultural ritual, religious fervor and family reunion. The holiday season is an important one for tourism-oriented communities, perhaps never more so than in recession-wracked 2009. Tourism planners estimate about 16 million people (including more than two million foreigners) hit the country’s highways and airways during the week.

In Baja California, tourism officials hoped to lure 200,000 tourists and 19 million extra dollars to resorts including Rosarito, Ensenada and San Felipe. Considering that 180,000 tourists visited the northern Mexican state during Holy Week last year, the goal is an ambitious one in a time of economic crisis.

In Los Cabos at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula, tourist industry representatives reported a decent 65 percent hotel occupancy rate for the kick-off of Holy Week, a percentage 10 points higher than in 2008. Still, visitors are watching their wallets this year. “Tourists used to spend $80 a day, now they’re spending $60,” said Miroslava Bautista, the director of the municipal tourism department.

Nationwide, other Mexican tourism officials expect the number of Holy Week tourists to fall from 16.4 million in 2008 to 16 million in 2009. Revenues are also expected to slide below the $2.7 billion earned in 2008.

In past years, Mexican migrants, or “Paisanos,” residing in the United States have been an important part of the Holy Week tourist stream.

Initial reports suggest the number of returning migrants is way down this year. For instance, the number of daily airport passengers in Tijuana fell from between 12-13,000 travelers during the first three days of Holy Week in 2008 to approximately 11,500 in the same period this year, according to airport officials.

In Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the number of migrants passing through the city to points south plunged 53.3 percent in comparison with last year.

Immigration authorities issued only 2,640 permits during the first few days of Holy Week, said Demetrio Sotomayor Cuellar, Ciudad Juarez representative for the Chihuahua state tourism department. Sotomayor said the reduced number of migrant travelers means more than two million dollars less for his economically-challenged city.

In addition to the narco-violence that’s ravaged Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua in recent months, its likely tighter border controls are discouraging undocumented residents of the US who used to pass back and forth across the border. Sotomayor, however, pointed the finger at the international economic crisis.

“And that’s why people are not traveling,” he insisted.

Police graft and abuse could be other issues discouraging some travelers.

Earlier this week, the administrator of the Mexican port of entry at Santa Teresa on the Chihuahua-New Mexico border confirmed that officials will investigate two complaints against personnel assigned to the post, including one from an unidentified New Mexico woman who claimed she was shaken down for $200 by a Mexican federal police officer.

The elusive “Paisano” is bad news for highway towns like Villa Ahumada, a rural crossroads located south of Ciudad Juarez. Sometimes called the “Burrito Capital” of Mexico because of the prevalence of restaurants and food vending stands, Villa Ahumada’s economy depends on visitor traffic, which has been negatively impacted this year due to episodes of narco-violence in the small town.

Outside the border region, popular beach destinations hope this week will compensate for a disappointing spring break, a key tourist season between the Christmas-New Year’s holidays and Holy Week.

Jose Salgado Nava, president of the Acapulco Hotel and Tourism Enterprise Association, said the number of rowdy, primarily US “spring-breakers” visiting Acapulco fell from 22,000 in 2008 to 19,000 in 2009. According to Salgado, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan also witnessed spring-breaker drop-offs in the 20 percent range.

Reports in the possession of the tourism commission of the lower house of the Mexican Congress project a 90 percent hotel occupancy rate at the country’s main resorts this week. Typically, the three days preceding Easter Sunday register the biggest visitation rate.

Congressman Octavio Martinez Vargas, commission president, said 60 percent of Mexican and foreign tourists will pay for their trips with credit cards-current high interest rates notwithstanding.

“We are seeing a phenomenon that happens in December, when the people want to fulfill their plans for Christmas and New Year’s,” Martinez said. “Just like on Three King’s Day, these are times when the populace wants to happily pass time with their families, regardless of the problems they will feel in the following weeks.”

In Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, local officials are looking beyond Holy Week to recapture the tourism that all but evaporated because of the bloody narco war on the border city’s streets.

Relatively lessened levels of violence since the end of February, as well as the recent pick-up of business at bars and restaurants are positive signs toward recovery, said Chihuahua state tourism official Sotomayor. To attract tourists, Mexican government agencies to invest more than three million dollars in a publicity campaign that could include billboards along Interstate 10 that passes through El Paso.

“We have a bad image internationally and we are going to try to counter this with hard facts such as the downturn of criminal acts that we have seen in our city and our state,” Sotomayor added.

In Mexico, tourism is the third largest source of legal foreign exchange after oil exports and migrant remittances. According to the Mexican Chamber of Deputies’ tourism commission, the industry accounts for eight percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and employs 2.2 million people.

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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