Sun, fun, crime: Mexico's tourism battles violent image
By Valerie Hamilton Feb 8, 2012, 10:41 GMT
Cancun, Mexico - Ask foreigners on Cancun's glistening white beaches what comes to mind when they think of Mexico, and the answers aren't exactly fun in the sun.
'Drugs, crime, it's unsafe to be there,' says one vacationer, slathering on sunscreen before diving into the waves. 'Crime, drugs, violence,' adds his girlfriend. 'But also this beautiful weather.'
As Mexico battles an organized crime wave that has taken more than 47,500 lives in five years, it's battling an image problem, too. And in a country where tourism is the third-largest earner, accounting for more than one in every seven jobs, image is everything.
Last June, a Mexican parliamentary commission warned 'perceptions of insecurity' had cost the country 2 billion tourist dollars in three months.
'Tourists stop coming, because they think it's not safe,' says Armando Garcia, a waiter at the upscale Mi Pueblo restaurant in nearby Playa del Carmen. 'Our image has definitely changed in the last few years.'
In recent years, some of Mexico's most storied vacation spots have fallen victim to drug-war violence. Once Mexico's signature beach resort, Acapulco has become a battlefield whose murder rate has tripled in the last year.
Visits to the Pacific resort town of Mazatlan, in drug-plagued Sinaloa state, dropped by half in 2011 after a Canadian tourist was shot in the leg and the US issued a travel warning. Most cruise lines have canceled stops there.
While Mexico has crept back from the 2009 triple whammy - the world economic crisis, swine flu and drug war violence - that slashed tourism revenue by 15 per cent, the year stands as a chilling reminder of the damage bad news can do.
Passing out cold drinks to a few sunbathers on Cancun's north beach, concessionnaire Luis Fernandez worries the country's tourism industry suffers from guilt by association.
'When they report the bad things out of Mexico, they don't say where. That's the problem. Foreigners hear Mexico, and they think the problems are in all of Mexico.'
And so, after five years of war on the cartels, Mexico has taken on a new battle. Since June, an aggressive new government public relations campaign has been working to counter the bloody headlines and show sceptical foreigners there's more to Mexico than drug war mayhem.
'We're reaching out to leader media outlets like Bloomberg, Newsweek and CNN to help us tell our side of the story and get the facts straight,' Mexico Tourism Board marketing director Gerardo Llanes told Advertising Age magazine.
Between news shows, US television is airing a series of hidden-camera ad spots, showing returning vacationers talking with drivers about their trip.
'I'd definitely go back,' declares one visitor in the advertisements, dubbed the Mexico Taxi Project.
President Felipe Calderon himself has taken a starring role in promoting a more positive image of Mexico, climbing Mayan pyramids and diving into Caribbean waters for a US public television travel documentary. While he admits the country has a problem with violence, he steadfastly denies tourists are in danger, famously declaring to the World Tourism Convention in May that in Mexico, 'the only shots [vacationers] got were tequila.'
Lizzie Cole, marketing director for the Riviera Maya regional tourism board, likens the publicity blitz to a 'geography lesson.'
'Mexico is a really big country,' she told dpa. 'The idea is for tourists to know that the distance between a conflict area and a peaceful area is so big that it's like saying, don't go to New York because Los Angeles has a problem.'
The lesson may be sinking in. According to the Mexico Tourism Board, foreign tourism nationwide increased steadily for the last five months of 2011; December set an all-time record.
The US Office of Travel and Tourism Industries shows that while overall US tourism to Mexico declined in 2011, arrivals by air were up 3 per cent on the year before. With hard-hit destinations like Tijuana and Acapulco still struggling, this suggests that there are at least some places in Mexico where tourists feel safe.
Strolling the beach in Cancun, American Toby Suess says he avoided the country's Pacific coast, but had no worries about the Caribbean. 'It's so touristy you wouldn't think there's that much of a drug war going on here, as opposed to the places near the border,' he said.
In a country plagued by its headlines, that perception may be a piece of good news. While Mexico is still far off its ambitious tourism targets announced by Calderon last year, its tourism industry has at least survived the drug war. As the death toll continues to rise, Mexico will take all the good news it can get.