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Mexico's Tourism Industry Takes a Nose Dive as the Narco-war Grows Ever More Heated

July 25th 2011

Mexican Topics - Spent cartridges Mexico

Back in the summer of 2010, Mexican Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara stood before a crowd in Beverly Hills and proclaimed a new strategy to recapture US visitors. In a speech, Guevara stressed the myriad cultural amenities her country offers tourists.

“Mexico has 29 sites that are patrimonies of humanity, 62 ethnic groups and more than 30,000 archaeological zones,” Guevara told an audience in the star-studded city of the rich and famous. “We are number two in the world for luxury tourism.”

But a year after Guevara’s presentation, and some months after President Calderon declared 2011 “The Year of Tourism” in Mexico, the campaign has fallen flat.

New government and industry reports report that not only is income down in the international tourism sector, which is historically dependent on a massive US visitor stream, but the flow of dollars is even weaker than in 2009, when the global economic crash, swine flu scare and escalations of so-called narco-violence all converged into a perfect storm that lashed and slashed the pillars of the industry.

“Among the reasons international tourism is not coming to our country is because it is a social and economic phenomenon vulnerable to perceptions of insecurity, whether for health and safety reasons,” stated a recent study prepared for the Mexican Chamber of Deputies.

According to the study, international tourism revenues during the critical January-March high season dropped from $3.66 billion in 2010 to $3.32 billion in 2011. The study reported that spending from border tourists plunged by $453.7 million during the January-May timeframe. Based on the numbers, the study’s authors concluded it would be very difficult for Mexico to match the nearly $13.3 billion it took in from international tourism in 2008, the year before multiple crises shattered the business.

A separate study by Banamex-Citigroup confirmed the downward dollar trend, reporting that between January and May of this year international tourism earned Mexico about $5.3 billion, an earning which was 5.9 percent less than the amount netted during the same time frame of 2010.

Also, the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI) has begun weighing in on the tourist economy. And INEGI’s first report was far from uplifting. In a study of its own, the federal agency reported that a slight recovery that was underway by late 2009 but had lost steam by the end of last year.

Apparently contributing to the free-fall in dollars was the cancellation of cruise ship visits to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco by the Carnival and Royal Caribbean lines since last year. Banamex analyst Lourdes Rocha summed up May 2011 as “the most disappointing” month of May since 2004. From a longer point of view, the number of visitors entering Mexico hit a 20-year low during the first five months of 2011, according to Banamex-Citigroup. If current trends continue, it is highly unlikely that Mexico will achieve President Calderon’s goal of making Mexico one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.

In contrast to the slew of disappointing reports, Secretary Guevara has maintained a rosy assessment of the overall tourist picture. She recently declared that international tourism grew by 2.1 percent in the first five months of 2011, in comparison with the similar period last year. And according to Guevara, the number of international tourists visiting Mexico was actually up 60 percent between January and May of this year, when examined with the numbers from crisis-ridden 2009.

While conceding that tourism from the US specifically is down, Guevara’s department blames the drop on continued US economic problems in addition to a broader trend of more US citizens shunning foreign travel, as opposed to the violence thesis cited in the Chamber of Deputies’ study.

The Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) contends that Mexico has partially compensated for the loss of US visitors by attracting more tourists from Canada, Russia, China, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Argentina. SECTUR reported this month that the nearly 9.6 million international tourists touched Mexican soil sometime during the first five months of

Still, as the numbers recently reported by both the Chamber of Deputies and Banamex-Citigroup reveal, the new tourism is not ringing up the cash register like the old one.

Not surprisingly, the tourism crisis is most visible along the US-Mexico border, where violence and crime has practically rendered cities like Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo no-go zones in the eyes of US residents and government agencies. A once-thriving grassroots cultural and economic exchange has virtually shut down in many places.

In El Paso, Texas, residents have even “divorced” themselves from their sister city of Ciudad Juarez. A survey conducted this year by the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute for Policy and Economic Development found that El Pasoans considered the border and international bridges to be the most negative images associated with their city.

According to the survey, El Pasoans now want to disassociate the Sun City from Ciudad Juarez, and even disfavor the binational tourism marketing strategy that was long pitched to draw outsiders to the border. For El Paso City Rep. Steve Ortega, the survey results were bad news.

“Our two communities depend on each other,” Ortega told the El Paso Times.

Evidence is mounting that the violence in Ciudad Juarez and other border cities is hampering overall tourism in Mexico. For example, the number of US tourists passing through Ciudad Juarez to points south dropped 19 percent during the first 12 days of July, compared with the same days in 2010. The El Paso Times likewise reported that the number of applications from US citizens desiring to bring their vehicles into Mexico through Ciudad Juarez simultaneously fell 26 percent.

The Mexican congressional study also considered the rising value of the peso in relation to the dollar, immigration policies and long border crossing times as among other reasons for the historic cross-border travel decline. For example, on Saturday, July 23, travelers crossing into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez reportedly waited more than three hours in blazing summer weather to cross international bridges.

The travel downturn has implications that go far beyond economics. Many of the US citizens or residents who typically travel by land through Ciudad Juarez and the other border cities originally hail from Mexico, where they maintain family ties, hold on to land and household properties and renew traditions during holiday and community celebrations.

But as visitation from the north grows weaker and weaker, cultural and family ties correspondingly fade over time.

To counter negative trends, Mexican tourism promoters keep plugging away in an effort to lure US visitors. Secretary Guevara and Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, general director of the Tourism Promotion Council of Mexico, embarked on a 7-city US tour last week aimed at increasing tourism from north of the border.

Guevara and Lopez planned to meet with travel agency and airline executives in Chicago, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, and Houston. As part of their itinerary, the Mexican officials were expected to place special emphasis on promoting “The Maya World” of southern Mexico as a choice destination.

Regardless of current problems, Mexican tourism authorities insist that Mexico remains the most favored foreign vacation getaway of US tourists. According to SECTUR, almost 17 of 100 US residents traveling abroad choose Mexico as their destination.

Since Mexico is historically dependent on tourism revenues for a significant chunk of its foreign exchange, the future of the economic sector is likely to be much more of an issue in the 2012 elections than it was in the 2006 electoral contests, considering the breadth and scope of the current crisis.

For instance, left opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who for all intents and purposes is already running for the presidency again, addressed the tourism question during one of his recent weekly You Tube and Twitter commentaries.

Expounding on the fashionable “Maya World” theme of cultural tourism, Lopez Obrador proposed that a bullet train be built to whisk tourists back and forth between the old Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas state.

“The idea is that the tourist who arrives in Cancun, Xel-Ha, Tulum and Chichen Itza will get to know the Mesoamerican area,” the former Mexico City mayor and 2006 presidential candidate said. “A tourist won’t go to the Caribbean for 3 or 4 days of sun and surf, but instead get to know the great cultural richness of the southeast.”

Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur news service of New Mexico State University. 

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