Mexico travel industry bowed but not beaten
Christine Delsol, Special to SFGate.com
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Could there have been a less auspicious beginning for Mexico's Tianguis Turistico, Latin America's biggest travel trade show? Well, perhaps. There could have been a tornado.
With headlines of drug violence battering Mexico's travel industry daily, this year's Tianguis, which ends April 29th, was seen as a crucial opportunity to combat the overheated press coverage and move Mexico's vast and varied tourist offerings to the forefront. Then, as thousands of travel industry representatives and hundreds of journalists were winging their way to Acapulco for the annual gathering, the news broke that Mexico City was locking down to try to contain a swine flu epidemic that many here said should have been announced at least a week earlier.
President Felipe Calderón, scheduled to give the inaugural speech Sunday, bowed out in favor of remaining in Mexico City to manage the health crisis. There was some talk of canceling Tianguis, but the show went on. Then on Monday, a 5.6 earthquake struck, centered in Chilpancingo, 50 miles north of Acapulco, but also felt in Mexico City, where tall buildings shuddered and sent workers rushing out into the streets. At Tianguis, people ran out of exhibition halls and conference rooms, and subsequent press sessions were shuffled around, with some of the larger events moving to open-air spaces.
If there is a silver lining for Mexico, it's that swine flu has pushed drug violence off the front pages. Journalists, expecting that to be topic No. 1, found themselves preoccupied instead with surgical masks and rerouting around Mexico City. Even the earthquake, which made Mexico look like a target of the seven plagues, receded into the background by lunchtime. The risk of getting kidnapped or shot by drug runners seems puny compared with a virus that you can't see, with behavior you can't predict.
In Acapulco, about 250 miles from Mexico City, life goes on pretty much as usual. The bulk of the surgical masks appear on workers who deal with great volumes of people -- bus drivers, hotel workers, a few vendors. No swine flu cases have been reported in Acapulco, or anywhere in Guerrero state, but with so many tourists coming in and out it's hard to imagine that will last.
In Mexico state, where I was staying the night the news broke, it was a far different picture. I had to take a bus to Toluca, only 40 miles from the beleaguered capital, to get back to Acapulco. Government-dispensed blue masks were much in evidence on the streets, especially on children. In the terminal where I changed buses, more than half the faces I saw were covered. A young man quickly approached me, pulling a mask from a package he was carrying. The sight of all those half-blue faces was making me nervous and a little dizzy, and I gratefully accepted.
The Tianguis presentations so far have strived for a balance between acknowledging the health crisis and focusing on the positive. Undoubtedly inspired by tourists' hesitance in the face of the sensational headlines about drug-related killings -- which affect only five out of Mexico's 2,400 counties -- the tourist industry has been busy conjuring new ways to attract visitors this past year.
Secretary of Tourism Rodolfo Elizondo, who stepped in for Calderón at the inaugural press conference, emphasized that Mexico has not and likely will not establish a quarantine.
"There is no restriction to visit our country from any latitude of the world," he said. "It must be emphasized: Mexico stands, and Mexico will live hereafter."
The Mexico Tourism Board echoed the sentiment while encouraging travelers to follow recommendations from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Mexican health authorities. Tourism representatives here are resolutely looking ahead to the time when life returns to normal and offering a sneak peek at what returning tourists can expect:
Some highlights from Tianguis' first two days:
New airline routes: Low-cost Mexican airline Volaris announced new daily flights from Oakland and Los Angeles to Toluca and Guadalajara, connecting with 21 other airports throughout Mexico. The airline has formed a partnership with Southwest Airlines, which provides a link to the Mexican carrier on its Web site. The airlines plan to enter a code-sharing agreement by early next year.
Aeromexico, which flies out of numerous U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, is adding new routes and will serve more than 40 destinations throughout Mexico by the end of the year.
Mazatlán: The venerable Pacific resort city unveiled a logo emphasizing its historic center's unique juxtaposition with its seaside resort area. Continuing renovation of the Centro Historico recently brought underground wiring and European-style lighting. Two new golf courses, at Marina Mazatlán and the expanded Pueblo Bonito resort, will bring the total to four. The all-inclusive Riu Emerald Bay is scheduled to open next month on Playa Las Brujas beach north of the city, and a new access road to the airport is under construction.
Los Cabos: The Cancún of the west is also busily building more golf courses, soon to total nine. San Jose del Cabo is an emerging art center, with more than 20 galleries along Calle Obregon in the historic district, which hosts a weekly Art Walk. Cabo San Lucas, meanwhile, is widening its main avenue and moving utility wires underground. The expanding airport has remodeled one terminal, and an additional one is slated to open next year. The recently designated "Cabo Riviera," on the undeveloped East Cape between Los Cabos and the capital of La Paz, will eventually become a large resort area, with a marina and golf course scheduled for completion next year. Spanish developers are funding a paved road running from the airport all the way to the East Cape. The federal, state and municipal governments have negotiated an agreement that has finally resolved problems with local transportation and taxi companies and is serving as a model for other Mexican states.
New tourism route: Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo has teamed up with Patzcuaro, Celaya and San Miguel de Allende to promote "Del Sol a Corazón, a route running from the Guerrero coast to the Guanajuato highlands. Celaya, the least known of the four, is a sweet colonial town best known as the birthplace of architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras and for its cajetas (caramels), which come in a variety of flavors. A new museum is expected to open there this year.