I couldn’t help but use the above title when I saw the caption for the leading photo in this recent article in the Economist magazine. Sounds like not everyone is buying into mainstream media’s sensationalist coverage of Mexico’s fight to help America deal with its drug problem.
SUN, sea and severed heads: Mexico is not a holiday destination for the faint-hearted. Foreign news coverage of the government’s crackdown on organised crime, which has seen some 30,000 people die in the past four years (most of them drug traffickers), has given the impression that the country is “burning from the Rio Grande to the border with Guatemala,” Mexico’s ambassador to the United States complained this month. For an economy that relies on tourism for nearly a tenth of its income, the gruesome headlines are painful.
Yet Mexico’s tourism sector is doing rather well. After an appalling 2009, in which the outbreak of swine flu emptied hotels overnight, the number of visitors this year will be close to 2008’s record total of 22.6m. Even excluding 50m annual day-trippers, Mexico remains the world’s tenth most-visited country. The numbers in August were the highest-ever for that month, despite a bomb attack on a United States consulate a few months earlier. “A lot of people looked at me with a funny look on their face when I told them I was going,” admits Patrick Mathiasen, an American tourist on his way to Chiapas with his wife for a volunteering holiday. In fact, slightly more foreigners take holidays in Mexico now than before the drug wars began.
Some have been lured by price cuts. The average tourist this year has spent 5% less than in 2008, thanks to slashed hotel rates. This discounting means the industry is still making less money than before swine flu, despite the revival in the number of visitors. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel,” says Pablo Azcárraga, head of the National Tourism Business Council, a lobby group.
It helps the industry that the narcos wage their turf battles far from many tourist spots: Yucatán, home of some of the most-visited Mayan ruins, has a murder rate roughly equal to that of France. The gringo honeypot of Cancún has remained insulated from violence, apart from an attack in August on a bar in a residential area far from the hotel strip. This month seven people, including five Canadians, died in an explosion at a hotel further south, but the blast was apparently caused by swamp gases rather than bombs.
There are some worries. Puerto Peñasco, a purpose-built resort on the Sea of Cortés, an hour’s drive from Arizona, hopes to be the next Cancún but, as long as the border area remains dangerous, many Arizonans will prefer the five-hour trip to San Diego. The number of day-trippers has fallen by more than a fifth in the past decade, in a trend which predates the intensification of the drug war.
Acapulco, which nowadays mainly serves Mexican tourists, has also suffered violence. In September, 20 men from Michoacán went missing on an annual beach holiday; 18 were later found murdered, having been mistaken for drug traffickers. Guerrero, the state in which Acapulco lies, is one of Mexico’s most violent, with a murder rate more than 20 times that of Yucatán. The state’s tourist board acknowledges its image problem, but points out that Acapulco was hit less badly than other resorts by last year’s flu panic.
New motorways will soon make it easier for Mexicans to get to other Pacific resorts such as Mazatlán and Huatulco. The industry is also working out how to persuade all its customers to spend more. Miguel Torruco, who rose from hotel bellboy to president of the National Tourism Confederation, a business group, says nightlife could be improved, especially for los baby boomers who seldom venture beyond their all-inclusive hotels. He points to Egypt, where the pyramids generate cash through tours in the morning and again through son et lumière by night, something that Mexico’s archaeological authorities ban at some sites. Rules for casinos could be relaxed too, he adds.
Those worried about the impact of the drugs war can at least take heart from Chiapas. The southern state is home to the Zapatista rebels, whose armed campaign against the government drove many tourists away during the 1990s. Entrepreneurs have made the most of it: some of the most popular souvenirs in Chiapas today are T-shirts and chess sets featuring Subcomandante Marcos and co.