Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The good news/bad news debate and Mexico's tourism industry

As the federal government, specifically the ministry of Tourism, SECTUR and state governments signed an accord to promote the tourism sector, or in more realistic terms, salvage the industry in the wake of the recession, the swine flu epidemic, Oaxaca's teacher strikes and most significantly, the narco news, the governor of Nayarit, Ney Gonzalez, pleaded with the press to make more of an effort to cover positive news of Mexico rather than emphasizing the "nota roja," or crime news. This plea, which has been made by many in the industry as well as politicians and government officials hoping for the industry's recovery, sometimes sounds strangely akin to the entreaties made by the right for "good news" from Iraq and Afghanistan, but there's also a great deal of reason to their arguments (the tourism folks, not the US right-wingers). As the American press, or more specifically, the cable news networks, has seized upon the story of narco-violence, increasing numbers of potential tourists have dropped their plans for a stay at one of Mexico's many beach resorts, although in many cases it would be like dropping one's plans to visit Miami because a gang shooting had occurred in New York City. But the dilemma is also the perennial problem of dealing with American tourists, notoriously skittish for reasons of their geographic ignorance, fearful of all that is remotely distinct from their own culture, and simply not the seasoned travelers that their European counterparts have long been. (As an aside, would be interesting to know if European tourism numbers are down by the same percentages as American ones--will have to dig around for an answer to that one--and Canadian figures would likewise make for an interesting comparison)
Mass tourism has been the third most important earner of export dollars since the 1980s, right behind manufacturing and oil, and many coastal states, with few alternatives for development, have come increasingly to depend upon the industry, both in terms of real revenues and imagined futures.  Quintana Roo, the home of Cancun and now the Riviera Maya, was not so long ago ranked dead last, along with Chiapas, in terms of poverty, and now consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest states in the nation. Cancun, still the crown jewel, however tarnished, of Mexico's tourist sector, and the neighboring coast have long been the site of narco-related homicides but such stories rarely register with the tourists themselves, even as they make front page news in local papers. One would think that Acapulco is largely done for due to the ugly stories of beheadings and disappearances but its numbers, recently put at about 75% occupancy as we near spring break season, could be worse. Cabo rarely appears in narco-related news, perhaps because the narco-trafficking moves northeastward along the mainland coast, compromising Mazatlan more than destinations in Baja California. Nayarit's coast, starting just north of Puerto Vallarta, has grown tremendously in the last few decades and saved a state that otherwise depended heavily upon a flagging agricultural sector for the majority of its earnings. The Riviera Nayarit, along with Puerto Vallarta, remain relatively untouched by the stories of narco-related horrors, although the grenade thrown at employees of Jalisco's attorney general's office lunching in Puerto Vallarta, even if the site was at a remove from the tourism zone and led only to the death of one of the perpetrators (the grenade did not go off, and the agents gave pursuit) is cause for concern. There's certainly evidence that several cartels are active around PV/NV but so far, they've kept their heads down and stayed away from the tourist zone (well, in terms of conducting their dirty business--there's surely plenty of money laundering going on in both PV and NV). Ultimately, most of the major beach resorts are still safe and enjoy very low crime rates compared to many similar destinations around the world (as well as in comparison to many US and European cities, as those within the industry and those supporting the industry have frequently pointed out in recent months). But all it will take is a particularly gruesome incident, publicized by the news outlets up north, to sow more fear among Mexico's primary clientele.

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