This article was recently written up in the Economist magazine. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with Mexico’s primary travel show, “Tianguis” in Acapulco, will know there a lot of truth to what Roberto is saying here…
Talk about inconsistency. When Felipe Calderón kicked off his administration four years ago, he sought to eliminate the Tourism Secretariat. Late last year, he declared 2011 to be the Year of Tourism, and on Monday he pompously launched something called the National Tourism Agenda.
Over the years, Mexico became a veritable travel trade powerhouse, attracting up to 22 million foreign visitors, in addition to 45 million domestic travelers, and earning a tidy US$20 billion a year, behind only oil revenues and ahead of income from remittances sent home by migrant workers, and manufacturing exports.
Ever since the glory years of the 1960s and 1970s, when thousands of Winnebagos safely crisscrossed the nation’s highways, each succeeding government has believed that all you have to do to promote Mexico as a major destination is spend millions of dollars in allegedly targeted TV, newspaper and magazine ads in the United States, the source of more than 80 per cent of our visitors.
The basic problem is that Mexico has never worried about the regulatory aspect of the travel trade. Abuses by taxi syndicates are legendary, and the specific case of Los Cabos is outrageous. Rather than promoting a genuine service vocation, federal authorities have negligently allowed local governments to do as they please, and the result is that local service providers have a nearsighted culture of squeezing as much out of a tourist today, and the hell with tomorrow…
According to official figures, the influx of foreign visitors last year was 12.8 million, a mere 200,000 more than in 2006, the first year of Calderón’s government.
Yes, it must be recognized that this government faces the unprecedented challenge of a drug war that has left 33,000 fatalities in the past five years. But it also suffers from an acute case of Max Factor’s Syndrome, which is the propensity to embellish figures. Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara, the latest in a long list of inept but globe-girdling officials at the helm, insists that violence and insecurity have not affected travel flows, and yet official data shows that in four years, the number of border visitors (an indicator described as visits of less than 24 hours) plummeted from 78.6 million in 2006 to 60.8 million last year.
That’s 17.8 million fewer folks dashing across the border to Tijuana to savor the best Cesar’s salad in the world, or across to Ciudad Juárez for truly great Cantonese food. (Some day I’ll tell you why Mexican border towns like Tijuana, Mexicali, Juárez, Reynosa and Matamoros have superb Chinese food.)
No one in his right mind would deny that Mexico’s natural attractions are remarkable. Many of its beaches are unsurpassed. Quite a few of the small colonial towns are magical. The best regional cuisine, if you know where to find it, is outstanding and not merely spicy, and the same can be said for the enormous variety of seafood. The experience of swimming or scuba diving Yucatán’s cenotes, the natural pools formed by underground rivers, is out of this world. If you like archeology, there are literally thousands of sites, at least a dozen of which are world class.
The chronic lack of resources is a big setback. Many of us have wondered what jewels like Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Taxco or Guanajuato would be like in a developed country. San Miguel de Allende is precious not because of local or federal authorities, but through the efforts of the foreign colony there.
But other than the absence of a service culture, the real reason why Mexico has never been able to fulfill its huge tourism potential is that no president in the past 60 years has had the gumption to order a genuine inter-agency coordination effort to elevate the industry to prime-time status.
Once upon a time, hunting was a major travel trade activity. When it had the chance, in pre-drug war days, the Defense Secretariat would block efforts to obtain sporting gun permits. Today, with the nation awash in illegal guns, that’s an impossibility. The Economy and the Finance secretariats have turned the temporary import permits for cars into a nightmare, and other agencies seem to have tourism near the bottom of their list of priorities. In short, we are far from the travel industry regulating efficiency of Spain, Italy and France.
Thus, Calderón’s National Tourism Agenda is not likely to get anywhere, not only because he’s a lame duck president, but because the travel industry as such, namely airlines, hotel chains, restaurant chambers and all the rest of the service providers are far from having a unified agenda. To make matters worse, the business sectors feel they’ve been treated unfairly by the government, so there’s no fertile ground for real cooperation.